‘My Soul Is Rested’ Stirs Unrest In Marketing
By Bill Cutler
Vol. 1, No. 2, 1978, pp. 16-18
“White people don’t have much experience in running into that sort of prejudice. It fills you with a powerless anger. So I think it was maybe good for me, having recorded this history in as sensitive a way as I could, to then have the educational experience of feeling in a small way what millions of citizens in the South have had to deal with in a large way every day.” Howell Raines spoke deliberately, calmly, without anger, about the marketing and distribution of his highly acclaimed book, My Soul Is Rested, an oral history of the civil rights movement published last October.
He sat in his small office on the 17th floor of downtown Atlanta’s Peachtree Center. On a wall behind his right shoulder were tacked four demographic maps of the Deep South and Border South region over which he has jurisdiction as Southeastern national correspondent for the New York Times. Behind his left shoulder were posted mementoes of a Klan rally he covered in Tupelo, Mississippi, two months previously: an application form for membership (“I certify that I am a White citizen over 18 years of age of Gentile descent”) and a catalog advertising bumper stickers, T-shirts, and other paraphernalia bearing the message “In Racial Purity Lies the Nation’s Security.” On its cover, a red-white-and-blue Uncle Sam jabbed his forefinger in the familiar Army-poster pose next to an inscription: “THE KLAN NEEDS YOU.”
A short, compact man of 35 with large, slightly protruding brown eyes, small mouth, a jawline beginning to lose its definition, and a dense thicket of tightly ringleted brown hair graying at the edges, Raines looks like the god Bacchus if Bacchus spent several years eating barbecue at Southern political rallies. He grew up in a working-class district of Birmingham, the son of parents from rural North Alabama “who did not teach racial prejudice as an article of faith.”
Raines wrote of the world his parents grew up knowing in a first novel, Whiskey Man, published last year by Viking. “The people of that area are at once of the South and not of it,” Raines said. “The traditional Southern racist code doesn’t exist up there. There are no Black people, there were no slaves. Systematic, casual racism is not a part of that world, and it’s a tremendous advantage for a White Southerner, especially one who doesn’t come from well educated or affluent people, to have grown up in a home where racism is not taught in a systematic way, which was the case with me. ‘Nigger’ was not a word that was allowed, conversationally, in my home – or at least not encouraged. When you put that up against the vast canvas of Birmingham, that’s a very small thing, but psychologically I think it’s a big thing.”
After graduating from Birmingham Southern, Raines went to work as a cub reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald. “Being in Birmingham in 1963 and then becoming a newspaperman were the things that helped to educate me about race and gave me what has become a lifelong fascination with the civil rights movement. In the South at that time, unless you were bold enough -and in Birmingham in 1963, this was a considerable boldness – to become involved directly, there were only one or two ways that you could actually see what was happening. That was to be a policeman or a reporter. So, being a reporter was very lucky for me, in that, without having to make that very great personal commitment, I got a ringside seat.”
Eleven years later, Raines took the financial and professional gamble of quitting his job as political editor at the Atlanta Constitution to assemble the material for My Soul Is Rested. “One of the reasons I did My Soul Is Rested is, knowing that world as I did, I became fascinated with the idea of moral courage. I wanted to talk to people who had challenged this monolithic system of – not only segregation , but of segregation enforced by terror.”
The book was published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons and received excellent reviews from influential publications like the New York Times and was chosen as an alternate selection of the Literary Guild, but Raines began hearing complaints from friends in Atlanta and other parts of the Southeast that My Soul Is Rested was difficult to obtain. “I became alarmed when the man who is now president of the American Booksellers Association, Charles Haslam, came to me and told me that Putnam’s regional salesman for the Southeast was making negative presentations about my book, negative presentations with racial overtones. Haslam quoted this man as saying, ‘This is a good book, but we’re not going to do anything with it because we don’t think it has any sales potential. No one wants to read a book about Black people by a White man.'”
The issue of race became even more pointed when Raines dealt with Rich’s department store in Atlanta about stocking the book. “Faith Brunson (chief book buyer at Rich’s downtown store) told me that she would buy only a few copies of My Soul Is Rested because people were not interested in the subject matter, and her direct statement to me was – as accurate as I can quote it, and this is pretty close to direct – that ‘The only people who will buy that book are Julian Bond and a few of those people.’ So, alarmed by this, I contacted Putnam and asked them to contact Miss Brunson and try to overcome her reluctance, and I was told that this was done, prior to the time that I was to have an autograph party at Rich’s. When I showed up there, there were something like 50 copies of Whiskey Man and three or four of My Soul Is Rested. I then protested again to Putnam’s, and I have in my correspondence a letter from them saying that they had again approached Miss Brunson about stocking the book and were rebuffed.
“I would from time to time call Rich’s and ask about the book, Raines continued, in which case I was invariably told that there was a heavy demand for the book, that it was not in stock, that it was a ‘special-order’ book – that is the terminology used – and that it would take six weeks to get it in. Frustrated by this, I finally was able to discuss this situation with another employee of Rich’s, who I’m not going to name because I think it might cause the person some career problems, who told me that my book was not being stocked because I had, quote, a problem, unquote, in the book department.
“The clear implication of the conversation was that the problem was antipathy toward the content of the book. I have never pursued it directly with Rich’s. My frank feeling was that it was useless to do so. I’ve lived in the South long enough to know that when you encounter
those sorts of attitudes, it’s often impossible to change them. So, when I heard that local people were having difficulties getting My Soul Is Rested, I then set up sort of an informal system whereby I would order the book from Haslam’s bookstore in St. Petersburg (where Raines at the time was political editor for the St. Petersburg Times), where it was heavily stocked, and have it shipped into Atlanta, and I could do it much more quickly than Rich’s. It takes them six weeks, and it took me about a day to two days to handle each order.”
A check of major booksellers in Atlanta on July 6 confirmed Raines’s experience. An employee in Rich’s downtown department said My Soul Is Rested would have to be special-ordered and would take six weeks to arrive. The Ansley Mall Book Store regularly carried the hook, had sold over 20 copies since January, and could restock it in a week. Oxford Book Store had just sold its last copy, but could have the book in store again in a week to 10 days. B. Dalton Booksellers downtown carried it, had sold it “extremely well,” and could reorder it in four days. Brentano’s downtown had five in stock, had sold 10 to 20 since last fall, and could replenish their supply in “less than a week.’ Doubleday had never stocked it, but had special-ordered several copies for customers, and UPS had shipped those in less than a week.
Asked about sales of My Soul Is Rested at Rich’s, Faith Brunson said, “We don’t give out that kind of information.” Was the book in stock at Rich’s? “The only way we can tell that is to do an instock count in 12 different stores.” Was it in stock at the downtown store? “I don’t know,” said the downtown store’s chief buyer.
“I might as well be explicit about the import of this experience,” Howell Raines said, speaking very deliberately. “I think that Rich’s did not stock My Soul Is Rested because of the racial prejudice of its chief buyer, the antipathy toward it and its subject matter by its chief buyer. In her remarks to me, Faith made it clear that part of this antipathy arose from her personal negative feelings about Black people who had been involved in the civil rights movement. I can speculate that the fact that one of the major sit-ins of the civil rights movement took place in Rich’s about 20 paces from the book department at a time when Rich’s was defending segregation may have been a factor in contributing to that negative feeling.”
Bill Cutler, a frequent writer on Atlanta and Southeast politics, is the associate editor of Brown’s Guide to Georgia.
My Soul Is Rested can be ordered from the publisher, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, or from the following bookstores: Halsam Books, St. Petersburg, Fla.; Smith and Hardwick, Birmingham, Ala.; Old New York Book Store, Atlanta, Ga.; Ansley Mall Book Store, Atlanta; and Davison’s Department Store, Atlanta.