CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Wil Haygood was a lanky Gazette copy editor in the 1980s. He later went to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Boston Globe and finally The Washington Post -- all the while producing popular books about Adam Clayton Powell, Sammy Davis Jr., Sugar Ray Robinson and other black public figures.
A few years ago, Haygood found Eugene Allen, an aging black butler who had spent a half-century in the White House, tending every president from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan.
The butler was at the president's elbow "as Eisenhower grapples with desegregating Central High School in Little Rock, and as Kennedy sends Army troops to quell rioting white students when the order came down to integrate the University of Mississippi," one account says. Haygood himself recounts:
"He was in the Oval Office and heard the echoes and the ripples of the Emmett Till murder, the Medgar Evers murder, the missing civil rights workers -- Goodman, Schwerner, Chaney. ... He was in the White House and heard the echoes and the ripples of the four young schoolgirls bombed to death at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. He was in the White House and witnessed up-close the reverberations of the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. He was in the White House and heard the ripples of the Watts riots, of the Chicago riots, of the Newark riots."
From inside America's top command post, the butler watched the nation evolve -- especially its stormy progress toward human rights for minorities.
In 2008, Haygood told the butler's story in a front-page Washington Post feature, from which the movie rights were grabbed. Now it's a major motion picture, with Forest Whitaker as the butler and Oprah Winfrey as his wife. In the fictionalized film, the butler's son became a "freedom rider" criss-crossing the South for racial equality, and finally joined the militant Black Panthers.
Meanwhile, Haygood's book, The Butler: A Witness to History, has been released.
All this spotlights America's bitter history of racial cruelty and the heroic crusade for equality -- a crusade still unfinished. The movie's black director, Lee Daniels, has harsher feelings than Haygood, and inserted a scene in which U.S. slavery is equated with Nazi concentration camps.
"For 200 years, my people were killed," Daniels said. "For over 200 years, they were slaughtered, they were murdered, and we were slaves. And we forget about it. We choose to talk about atrocities that happened overseas, what other people have done. ... Kids know more about the diary of Anne Frank than they do about the civil rights movement. I hope 'The Butler' changes that."
So do we.