Praying for Sheetrock, written by Melissa Fay Greene, was originally published in 1991, and this latest edition includes a reader’s guide.
Rural black residents living in the isolated, coastal beauty of
McIntosh County, Georgia, sustained a quality of life that lacked basic municipal services and access to gainful employment even a decade after the Civil Rights Movement was well established.
Reading about the experiences of these residents, especially the stubborn, uneducated, and often courageous Thurnell Alston is an eye-opening experience. Thurnell's efforts to gain equal rights began as a young boy, after Sheriff Tom Popell ignored pleas for help during the rainy season of 1952-53, when many blacks were out of work and families were starving. The Sheriff was unsympathetic because he felt that the "Only way you can control the Negroes is to keep them hungry."
Thurnell "began then to keep track of the attacks on his dignity -- and on the dignity of his community -- against the time that he would be capable of action."
At the age of 26, Thurnell was appointed as the first black union steward after complaining to his employer's management about having “discrepancies in the black and white situation…He felt himself a man among men -- a novel sensation to him, given his race, his poverty, and his youth."
After Thurnell became a county commissioner in pursuit of equality in local government, several young white legal-aid lawyers arrived to support his cause. Praying for Sheetrock documents the events of the legal aid agency that inspired the political awakening of this rural community, leading to the abolishment of the courthouse gang legislative system dominated by Sheriff Popell and the breakup of his corrupt political clique. The story doesn’t end there as Thurnell’s life takes a terrible twist and hits rock bottom.
Greene explains that her motivation for writing Praying for Sheetrock was inspired by the “instinctive reaching of people beyond oppression towards freedom, the instinctive knowledge a man or woman carries that all human beings are created equal – to me, that is the great story, the fundamental human story. Because I live in Georgia, the typical form that great story takes is the story of racism against African Americans and of civil rights.”
A former legal services worker in that agency, Greene authenticates the explosive transition of black rural Americans shackled with social, political and economic constraints to fight for their civil rights in court. Her book is not only the biography of a man bent on finding equality; it is a historical account of the County's political corruption and an oral history of residents. Her writing style has a fictional flare, making it possible to imagine you are listening to these recollections sitting around the kitchen table.
The chapter bearing the book's title about the history and life of Miss Fanny, an elderly woman, is heart-warming and heartbreaking. Her years of standing in ankle-deep ice, peeling shrimp skins for a meager wage, left her feeling chilled to the bone, maneuvering with ankles and knuckle joints permanently fused tight. When two trucks carrying sheetrock are involved in an accident and Sheriff Popell’s is willing to donate the contents to the community, Fanny's prayers are answered and her house is finished.
Praying for Sheetrock was named one of the top 100 works of American journalism in the 20th century by a panel of judges under the aegis of
New York University School of Journalism, won the
Robert F Kennedy Memorial Book Award, and was nominated as a finalist for the
National Book Award and the
National Book Critics Circle Award.
Melissa Fay Greene has also written Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster, The Temple Bombing, and There is No Me Without You. Her website is