"In Atlanta now do you ever run into that sort of thing where older black people will get off the sidewalk if a white person is walking on that same sidewalk?"
"I have never seen that in Atlanta. I don't know what would happen if I went to some of the older, rural towns. I would just not take a guess one way or the other. But in Atlanta I find not a segregated city in the sense of Jim Crow so much as I find a separated city in which race relations are actually, well, let's just say they're a heck of a lot better in the South than they used to be.
"There's a reason why hundreds of thousands of African-Americans are moving to the Atlanta area. One reason is economic opportunity. Another reason is that many African-Americans, particularly from the Northern cities, believe that racial tensions are lower. But that does not mean that the neighborhoods aren't pretty separate and that parts of the city aren't pretty separate. Race, of course, will always be an important factor in Southern society."
"That Bound for Freedom is character-driven, told through the words and eyes of many different people, makes it particularly readable," I said.
"That's what I wanted to do, to make it a very human read and to try to get those scholarly points across, right? To sort of teach it and storytell it. And in truth, there was a point where I said, 'You just have to think about preaching this book.' Given my background, I come by it honestly. The sound has to cascade, it has to flow, it has to have a rhythm. I think that comes from listening to a lot of good preaching. And just thinking."
"And," I said, "a lot of research."
"I had access to some terrific autobiographies, like that of Charlotta Bass. I was lucky with that. It's one of those books that is a real stroke of luck but also creates a lot more work than you expect because it jumps around. Sometimes it leaves out exactly what you want to know. It puts in what you don't care about. But it was a wonderful starting point not just for information but for a feel for the attitude of the community in the early part of the 20th Century. She was such an amazing person and so central to the community over the whole period of time that I study. She serves as an archetype -- the race leader, the race woman.
"It didn't take long for me to figure out that if I was going to write this, if I was going to forefront the characters and their stories, that she could be the central thread. She had a hand in just about everything. And somewhere along the way -- I think it was very late in the game -- I realized, 'Begin the story with her riding in on a train, and end the story with her riding in on a train.' And at that point, then I realized what my bookends were and how to structure it.
"It's funny because I just taught a course on research methods to history majors here at Georgia Tech. What I told them on the first day is that I have no clear method to teach. You have to be creative, and you have to think hard about what you have to work with and think about how to use it creatively. And then you need to work very hard to find things that other people haven't found."
"And," I said, "you have to talk to everybody."
"You really do. And you have to mull it over. I used a lot more statistical materials in my first book, but I decided in this case -- no. Take them out. Just talk it. Talk the numbers. Which is what I wound up doing. I had really long sections, for example, on migration data and employment data. I realized that people would have skipped them. I worried that even if I spent too much time just talking about them that I would lose the characters."
I noted that Professor Flamming also interviewed people who were on the edges of important events.
"The edges matter too," he said, "because you know if someone is on the fringe, then the fringe tells you about the center."
"Do you have some final words?"
"Come to think of it, I will say this, that this is a very inspiring group of people. I say in the book that one of the key themes is civil rights as a way of life. But I wonder if there's not a more pointed lesson, which is, 'Never give up. Never give up on freedom.' Think about how many battles the community leaders lost. Yet in ways that just seem to me to be remarkable, particularly in America today, they wouldn't give up. They never quit. That's an inspiring lesson.
"Not just for African-Americans, not just for people in L.A., but for everybody. I had to say after the recent presidential election, when I was so devastated personally, and thought -- it's all over; everything is lost, everything is suddenly gone -- but it struck me, literally walking to class one day, that the lesson of the book I just wrote was 'Never give up.' 'Never give up on freedom.' And I said, 'Well, are you just going to ignore that lesson, or are you going to take it to heart and say to yourself, "You'll never give up either"?'
"I'm not a big public figure. I'm very much of a homebody. I love to teach. I love to write. I love to spend time with my family. I can't imagine what it would be like to live a very activist life. That's not who I am. But I owe it, I think, to those who came before, including the people I write about, to have hope and to have determination and to do what I can and never give up, never give up on freedom."