George Floyd's 2020 death sparked change across the country, trickling its way down to a white man from Iowa.
It inspired him to explore his black children's heritage and how specific events shaped their lives long before they were born.
With a new book that reads like a thriller, Iowa native Paul Kix tells the story of 10 weeks in 1963 that were pivotal to the civil rights movement.
The book, “You Have to be Prepared to Die Before You Can Begin to Live,” was Amazon's Nonfiction Book of the Month in May.
On Wednesday, Kix will give a reading at Dog-Eared Books.
How did a white guy from Iowa decide to write a book about a crucial period in the civil rights movement?
The events of 2020 played a significant role. Kix's wife, Sonya is an African-American who grew up in inner-city Houston, one block from where George Floyd lived. Floyd died during an altercation with a Minneapolis police officer.
"Sonya had friends and even cousins who went to the same high school as George, Yates High," Kix said. "One of Sonya’s cousins, Derek, remembers George as the tight end (for) the Yates football team that nearly won the state championship.”
Sonya's ties sparked a family discussion, removing a strategically placed shield that had once kept footage of violence against the black community away from their three children.
The summer of 2020 changed that philosophy.
"Because of the connection that Sonya had to George, the murder felt almost personal,” Kix said “And my mother-in-law Connie had moved into our house then as well. And she grew up in the same inner-city Houston neighborhood as Sonya. Connie felt that the murder was almost personal too.”
Sonya didn't know George directly, but through people like her first cousin, she knew of people who were familiar with him.
“In any case, we allowed our kids to watch the footage," Kix said. "We have twin boys who were 9 at the time, and we have a daughter who was 11 at the time."
Like many Americans, the Kix children were disturbed by the video. It caused them to ask difficult questions: "Are all cops racist? Are there bad cops everywhere?"
“The questions that they were asking were more than just about the external world, but almost the internal one," Kix said. "There was a sense that — I say in the prologue of the book — that it was almost like the steps leading down to self-hatred.”
Paul and Sonya’s twin boys, especially, had questions such as: "Am I inferior because my skin is somewhat akin to George’s?"
The conversations were emotionally charged, sparking more questions the parents couldn't quite answer.
“It was a really tough time. There were times when the boys would leave the room in tears. There were times when the boys would say, ‘Why do they keep trying to kill us?’” Kix said. “I don't want to try to say that our situation was any worse than what a lot of other people who have Black children dealt with in 2020.”
As his kids became more despondent in the latter half of 2020, Paul dove into research about the civil rights movement. One particular stretch of history that had amazed him was the 10-week period in 1963 when Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) worked to end segregation in Birmingham, Alabama.
10 weeks in Birmingham changed more than 100 years of civil rights
The Black community has long suffered, Kix said and he hoped to explore their plight. To do that, he took specifically focused on an Alabama spring some 60 years ago. Changes had been brewing for an entire century.
“Basically, here's the history. From 1863 to 1963, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the spring of 1963, Black people were second-class citizens,” Kix said.
“In many ways, it was hardly better than their lives when they were enslaved,” he added. "Looking back at the history in the 1890s through the early 1900s, of lynchings, of the extreme degradations of Jim Crow law, to be a Black person in the South remained miserable.”
There were a number of attempts to enact change, spanning several administrations. But for 100 years, things had effectively remained the same, he said.
“Then in the spring of 1963, the SCLC goes down to Birmingham, which had the reputation as the most violent, the most racist place in all of America, even in the Jim Crow South," Kix said. "This was a place where police raped Black women in their patrol cars. This was a place where the Klan castrated Black men.”
Just prior to King’s campaign in Alabama, CBS News sent journalist Edward R. Murrow to report on what Birmingham was like.
The conclusion was bleak.
“As he’s leaving town, Edward R. Murrow says to his producer, ‘I have not seen any place like this since Nazi Germany,’” Kix said.
Martin Luther King's organization was weak as it headed to Alabama
The SCLC was in terrible shape as it headed toward Alabama, Kix said. The group was financially broke, struggling to gain a foothold since its inception seven years prior.
The media provided little help.
“The Southern press and the Northern press by 1963 are pretty much openly sneering at King,” Kix said. “So are other civil rights leaders, various people within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. … They called King a phony and thought he was pompous.”
Despite SCLC’s weaknesses, the group headed to Birmingham.
“They have no money; they have no reputation. They're going to the most violent place in America and they have the biggest possible goal," Kix said. "They are either going to break segregation in Birmingham or they are going to be broken by it."
King and his supporters were scared to death, Kix said. If death didn't come, a loss could mean both the SCLC and King's campaign were done.
There was a larger concern, as well, Kix said. If the SCLC failed in Birmingham, it was possible that the civil rights movement as a whole would fail.
Thankfully, defeat did not arrive. Good news blossomed instead.
“At the end of those 10 weeks, the Kennedy brothers, who had been overwhelmingly opposed to civil rights legislation, agreed to sponsor a civil rights bill in June of ‘63,” Kix said.
That civil rights bill became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“That leads, I believe, to King's death in 1968, and then ultimately, a new life for his country,” Kix said. “And it's not just Shirley Chisholm’s ability to run for president in 1972, or Barack Obama's ability to gain the presidency in 2008.
“But it's my ability as a white guy from Hubbard, Iowa, to marry a Black woman in a former Jim Crow state like Texas, and for nobody to care. And for us to raise our three kids today, on a quiet street in Connecticut where nobody harasses us for who we are.”
That was the story Paul Kix wanted to tell his kids: That they could be resolved. They could find some sort of ingenuity to continue. Could find compassion within themselves and compassion within others to make a real change.
The Kix family played a significant role in "You Have to be Prepared to die Before You Live." Kix poured himself into the book, letting emotions and facts guide him to a final piece worth distributing.
“I dedicated this book to our kids because that book project very quickly became a family project,” Kix said. “Even though it chronicles 10 weeks in 1963 and comes out on the 60th anniversary of that 10-week campaign, this book is easily the most personal piece of writing I've ever done before.
“It's as visceral, as deeply emotional for me as anything that I've ever done," he continued. "And I wanted to come to Iowa, because I'm in this book, Iowa is in this book, briefly. My understanding of life informed by my upbringing in Iowa is in this book.”
The 10 weeks in Birmingham in 1963 is more than a riveting aspect of the civil rights movement, Kix said.
“I think it's the most riveting period of the whole of the American experience. Because everything changes in response to Birmingham,” he said. “I don't think there is another period in American history, where a set of protagonists are so overwhelmed by the circumstances, are such underdogs, have to face down so many crises externally, internally, spiritually and yet they succeed. It’s to me the most gripping story that America can ever tell about itself. Forget Black America or white America, that America can ever tell about itself.”
Reading at Dog-Eared Books reveals Kix's local ties
Kix grew up in Hubbard, attended Iowa State and interned for the Ames Tribune during the summer of 2002.
The connections Paul Kix has to Dog-Eared Books employee Jessica Sporaa are indicative of the impact his visit to Iowa offers. Sporaa will moderate the book event Wednesday night.
Although the two have never met in person, they have myriad connections, she said. They grew up not far from each other. Sporaa went to high school in Iowa Falls while Kix was at Hubbard-Radcliffe. Kix’s Iowa State roommate is one of Sporaa’s good friends.
“It’s so nice when Iowa authors don’t forget their roots, where they came from. People like Paul want to support the small, indie bookstores from where they grew up,” Sporaa said. “It means the world to us.”
Kix’s Dog-Eared Books reading is the first in a series of ticketed “Cocktails & Convos” events. A different specialty cocktail will be available for purchase each time. Tickets are $30 and are available on Dog-Eared’s Facebook page. The reading begins at 7 p.m. at 203 Main St.
Ronna Faaborg covers business, education and the arts for the Ames Tribune. Reach her at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Ames Tribune: George Floyd's murder inspired Paul Kix to write about Birmingham 1963