Sunday, February 11, 2024

the last book I ever read (King: A Life by Jonathan Eig, excerpt eleven)

from King: A Life by Jonathan Eig:

“I’m just a good old country boy,” Connor had said back in 1931, when he was beginning to gain public attention as a minor league baseball radio broadcaster, covering the Birmingham Barons of the Southern Association. Connor was born in 1897 in Selma, the son of a railroad dispatcher and a housewife. When his mother died, Connor moved in with an aunt and uncle on their farm in North Birmingham, where planting and plowing took priority over school. He might have followed his aunt and uncle into farming if he had not discovered a knack for describing minor league ball games based on the minimal account of events received over the telegraph machine when the home team was on the road. He sat in a studio, telegraph clacking, taking a transmitted report of a fly-out to right field, for example, and turning it into a story, inventing the looks on players’ faces between pitches, the joyful dash of a child in pursuit of a foul ball, the sweat and spit and sultry summer breeze. Another up-and-coming politician, Ronald Reagan, got his start the same way, combining nostalgia and fantasy to build rapport with an audience.

As a young man, Connor was slender. Even when he got older and grew thick-bodied and bulldog-faced, he was not physically imposing. His nickname derived from his gruff voice, which made him easily recognizable on the radio, as well as from his ability to “shoot the bull” in conversation. A reporter at the time of his emergence as a local celebrity described Connor as “absolutely genuine, totally unaffected, and lovable even at first meeting.” Before long, Connor leveraged his radio popularity to launch a political career. Like many office seekers at the time, he assured white voters that he would defend their right to live in a segregated society, but he was hardly more extreme or more vocal than other white Alabama politicians. As commissioner for public safety, he made race a priority, which meant using the police force to control and discipline the Black community. At that point, his nickname took on a new meaning: Connor assured voters he would be stubborn as a bull in preserving the city’s system of racial stratification.

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