Denver Bar Association
June 2008
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GUNNY -- Memoirs of Mobile's Southside

by Lynn M. Noesner

Riding Alabama's Tide of White Supremacy

If you wou’d not be forgotten
As soon as you are dead and rotten,
Either write things worth reading,
or do things worth the writing.
~ Ben Franklin 

“What honor is greater for a son than to share the story of a father who mattered?” asked Denver lawyer James Joullian Gonzales at the beginning of his father’s eulogy.

Not long after his father Gunny died, Gonzales published his father’s biography titled, “Gunny – Memoirs of Mobile’s South Side, Riding Alabama’s Tide of White Supremacy.” Though Gonzales began working on the book 30 years earlier, Gunny had made his son promise not to publish the biography until Gunny “was six feet under.”

For decades, Gonzales brainstormed themes, interviewed aging relatives and scrutinized dusty newspaper articles and photographs. Making multiple trips home to Mobile, he investigated family secrets and uncomfortable truths. He wrote whenever he could, including weekends and vacations.

In these stolen moments, Gonzales left the legal world to pursue the history of his home and his father’s legacy. Gonzales began to know his father’s stories as well as his father. Together, they could revisit 1948 and exchange details over a beer and black roux gumbo (which Gonzales highly recommends).  

Although one would assume that Gonzales felt tremendous relief and satisfaction on the publication of his book, he actually described some measure of anxiety on its release. The book’s publication meant that his writing would be put to the test. His Southern storytelling would have to pass muster with the widows and families of those he wrote about in great detail. 
Gonzales faced the challenge of how to distance himself, and how to take a clinical approach to the “characters” — relatives with whom he shared a lifetime of personal history. He did not want to embellish individuals or events. Instead, he sought to represent the way it was, to tell the story of his father – an unlikely leader, hero and controversial figure. He also wanted to accurately share the rich texture of Mobile’s people and culture during the early-to-mid 1900s.
For Gonzales, satisfaction came when a widow of one of the characters told him that she kept reading the book over and over again — half the time crying, half the time laughing. Gonzales had captured a place and time with eerie precision, enabling this woman to return to her younger days.

When asked why he wrote “Gunny,” Gonzales replied, “Because it’s a great story.”  The heart of the story tells of Gunny’s struggle against a local oligarchy committed to white supremacy and restricting voting rights. At the climax of the struggle, Gunny battled Alabama’s Attorney General in federal court.

Unlike the majority of politicians today, Gunny was stubbornly honest. In fact, he might have had too much integrity for his own good. Long before Madonna urged young people to “Rock the Vote” on MTV, and before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Gunny rocked the vote for disenfranchised veterans, laborers and poor people of all races in post-WW II Mobile, much to the dismay and chagrin of the gentile white supremacists in power.

However, “Gunny” is not limited to tales of one man’s rebel politics. Gonzales traces the story back to before Gunny was born, beginning with sketches of Gunny’s parents and grandparents. The wealth of details offers readers a historic context of Gunny’s upbringing, including the people who shaped him and the obstacles and joys of growing up as a have-not on the “South Side.”
The biography offers an expansive narrative of an exceptional and very likeable man, in addition to a thorough introduction to Southern culture and politics during the first half of the 1900s.

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