Civil disobedient: Gaston's history lesson

Missed him at the recent Virginia Festival of the Book on the "Voices of Southern Dissent" panel? Paul Gaston is still in town.

So how does a boy from Alabama grow up to lead the charge for civil rights at the University of Virginia– and become its only professor to be beaten up and arrested here in genteel Charlottesville in the '60s?

"I grew up in a community where equal rights and justice were grounding moral principles," explains Gaston. That would be Fairhope, a utopian community founded by his reformer father in 1895. In Alabama.

"My family were not crusaders," he says, "but they were staunch opponents of racial discrimination."

Even growing up in a liberal household in a utopian community in the 1930s, Gaston admits that he was affected by racism in the local culture. He recalls the still-vivid memory of hitchhiking to a creek with his cousin. When a car full of black people stopped to offer a ride, "We turned our backs to the car," he says.

"My hero, the janitor at the school, Chester Hilson– Mr. Hilson– asked, 'What's the matter, Paul? You don't want to ride with black folks?' I wanted to fall into the earth," says Gaston more than 60 years later. "It's one of those memories where I wish I'd done things differently."

Gaston has done a lot of other things differently since then. After coming to UVA as a history professor in 1957, he found himself making history.

He met Martin Luther King in 1963 during a visit largely ignored by the university. While blacks were sitting-in at lunch counters all over the south, Gaston took part in a sit-in at the staunchly segregated Buddy's Restaurant on Emmet Street, where he was beaten up and arrested.

"Life in the 1960s was the most rewarding era I've known," he says. "I found a community of students who wanted to shake things up. We marched together, we had sit-ins, we had boycotts. I was their leader– I was 30."

The biggest change he's seen during his 48 years at UVA is an administration that's "committed and active in supporting equal rights for blacks and women," he says.

But he still sees at UVA "a failure to lead" on the deeper problems facing society, such as economic inequality.

Now professor emeritus, Gaston revels in "the increasing sense of liberation in being able to say what I want–" not that he strikes one as having been particularly restrained in his speech before.

Another perk: time to write. Gaston– author of the myth-busting 1970 work, The New South Creed– is working on a memoir about Fairhope and his father and grandfather, aided by copious source material– hundreds of letters from his family. He hopes to be ready for the printer by the end of 2007.

Gaston is amused by what he calls the creation of myths– "about me, as a great civil rights figure. I don't challenge them. I guess I should."

Age: 77

Why here? I came to UVA 48 years ago to teach southern history as my safe entry into the civil rights movement, to make the past speak to the present and future.

What's worst about living here? The tacky, tawdry surrounds, the consequence of free-market capitalism

Favorite hangout? Tastings and the Market Street Wine Shop

Most overrated virtue? Consistency

People would be surprised to know: I play Hearts on the Internet every morning.

What would you change about yourself? Too late, I suppose, but would like to fritter away much less time and write more.

Proudest accomplishment? Being accepted as a participant in movements for constructive social change

People find most annoying about you: Responding to too many questions with "that reminds me of a story"

Whom do you admire? Nelson Mandela

Favorite book? Absalom, Absalom!

Subject that causes you to rant? The rise of right-wing religious and political culture

Biggest 21st-century thrill? My six-year old granddaughter

Biggest 21st-century creep out? "W" Who else?

What do you drive? 1992 Volvo sedan

In your car tape player right now: Anne Romaine

Next journey? I'm staying home until present book manuscript is finished.

Most trouble you've ever gotten in? Being arrested, I suppose; but, since it was for being beaten up in a sit-in, it was actually a badge of honor.

Regret: Being too frightened to accept an invitation to be director of the freedom schools during the 1964 Mississippi summer

Favorite comfort food: Poached eggs on toast or grits

Always in your refrigerator: The remains of the previous night's wine

Must-see TV: West Wing. Why can't Jed Bartlett be president?

Favorite cartoon: Don't have one

Describe a perfect day. Sunshine; writing well; understanding better what to say about what's wrong in Charlottesville and in the world; good workout at the gym; arthritis held at bay; visits with good friends (in person, at lunch, or on email); walking home from Venable with my granddaughter; rack of lamb and a good Burgundy for dinner

Walter Mitty fantasy: Downhill skiing at 80

Who'd play you in the movie? Who would want to do such a thing?!

Most embarrassing moment? Being hauled out of the water nude onto a sailboat by two young women because I was no longer strong enough to pull myself up, then plopped down into the cockpit like a mackerel.

Best advice you ever got? Don't get caught up in the success values of the world.

Favorite bumper sticker? Beware the peril of pride.

Paul Gaston