Each year thousands of visitors, students and scholars come to Birmingham to find out what happened here during the Civil Rights Movement.
They want to know if Birmingham was as mean as its reputation and if it has repented.
Most of all they want to make sure that Birmingham was an aberration of American values and not reflective of them.
For these people, Birmingham represents how cities ought not to be and how they ought not to behave when everyone is watching. Without question Birmingham was a tough town and, during the Civil Rights era, it was hard to know what it might do and how far it might go to protect its erratic government.
It was all these things and more.
But it was not an aberration.
Rather, it was a city founded in America’s post-Civil War Gilded Age and embodied the mainstream values of that era. These ideals included unregulated capitalism, Booker T. Washington’s individualist work ethic and Jim Crow segregation. It was an awkward arrangement, to be sure, but every industrial city, at that time, blended these ideals to one degree or the other. None, perhaps, did it as well as Birmingham.
In this historical context, and according to American values of the time, the city was not only the Magic City. It was also the Perfect City. It was built to specification and did exactly was it was designed to do. What Birmingham was set up to do in 1871 was to create economic capacity. It did that so well that by the 1890s it was called the Magic City. What it was not set up to do was create social and political growth, and it made little attempt to. Not until African Americans forced the system open in the late 1950s and early 1960s. As they pushed, whites pushed back.
By the late 1950s, Birmingham’s black working class was highly political and organized. It was also the best pressure point for African-American civil rights in the country. Then, in 1962, its leadership invited Dr. Martin Luther King to join Birmingham’s efforts. He did, which expanded the movement to the more conservative black middle class as well as to white liberals and some in the white working class.
By the spring of 1963, the nation watched while Birmingham struggled to keep itself from blowing up. Five months before the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, black and white moderates overcame their deepest apprehensions and voted Bull Connor and their disgraced system out of office. The Magic City had just staged its own democratic coup.
As the Civil War and Reconstruction ended, the Gilded Age waited in the wings. The old South lay in obsolescence and ruin, but the rest of the country embraced industrialism and capitalism. Corporate tycoons like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller made the system and the rules, and Social Darwinism passed for high culture. In this world, little mattered save how much and how fast one could rack up wealth.
Their economic and social model was muscular and simple. It required corporations to become “vertically integrated” so that they owned every phase of production from mining and manufacturing to transportation and sales. It needed supply and demand and public policies that kept markets unregulated and labor unorganized. It had no use for philosophers or historical tradition, and its heroes were Robber Barons, cowboys and, in the South, Jim Crow.
Until the turn of the 20th century, American capitalism operated with little or no federal regulation. The theory was that an unregulated system encouraged owners to maximize profits, which they would invest back into the business in the form of new products and more jobs. Consequently, opportunities would open up, and workers could compete for advancement.
Southern whites after the Civil War, however, had no intention of competing with African Americans. Both groups were desperately poor with few options. Blacks had the additional burden of overt racism – symbolized by Jim Crow –
which taught that African Americans were innately inferior and committed to destroying racial purity.
No one understood the precariousness of black-white relations better than Booker T. Washington. Born a slave in Virginia, he had become educated. Much has been written about his unwillingness to openly confront Southern racist society, but more recent scholarship controverts that idea. Instead, it points to his many private efforts to challenge the system.
Few doubt, in any case, Washington’s belief that education was the best way for blacks to advance. In 1881, he founded Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to teach African Americans. His focus was on industrial skills so that black men – and women – could escape sharecropping and get wage-paying jobs.
Washington was the South’s best advocate for black advancement and his attitudes mirrored the industrial capitalists’ belief in individual advancement. He believed in African Americans’ abilities and had faith that, with education and hard work, they would succeed. All they needed was a place to start.
Birmingham fit perfectly with Washington’s philosophy. It was also perfect for what its founders had in mind. Between 1870 and 1871, 10 men laid the city out in the scraggliest part of Alabama. Jefferson County had never produced a percent saleable crop, but they knew that.
They also understood that the area was a geological miracle unlike any they – or anyone else – had ever seen. According to published reports, they were sitting on top of the only place in the world that had all of the ingredients necessary to make pig iron. And they were available within a five-mile radius.
Key players were banker Josiah Morris; Colonel James R. Powell, company president and primary promoter; and railroad engineer John T. Milner, who pinpointed where railroads would cross and Birmingham grow. They were all gifted entrepreneurs but, during the Civil War period, Milner also learned to use skilled slave labor to make industrial products. At that time, most white Southerners did not believe African Americans were fit for industrial labor. But, like Booker T. Washington, he did. And they were right.
Morris, Powell, Milner and their partners did not look backwards to the South’s lost cause, and the only things they wanted to redeem were bank notes. Like virtually all white Americans, however, they were devoted to privileges of race and class. The abolition of slavery, most knew, had little to do with that. In fact, from the 1880s and 1890s through the 1930s, courts at every level throughout the country institutionalized white supremacy. Jim Crow legal segregation would not be far behind.
Until the New Deal and the post-World War II/Cold War period, courts also protected corporate privilege over labor interests. In the 1880s, only a few years after Birmingham’s founding, the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that private corporations had 14th Amendment protection. This decision elevated them to the status of individuals and gave them the right to free speech, freedom of religion, the right to bear arms and all other such rights.
These twin federal mandates informed every aspect of the city’s development. They allowed the city to create a pyramidal form with white industrials at the top – literally at the top of Red Mountain near Vulcan Statue – and workers below them in Jones Valley. These men lived in mining camps or company towns that were owned and controlled by corporations.
Between 1880 and 1890, the state’s production of pig iron increased tenfold. In 1880, it produced almost 69,000 tons, and by 1900, it was the fourth largest producer in the country. It was also the nation’s cheapest, and most of it came from the Birmingham District.
As a result, the city’s growth surpassed that of any other city in the South, including Atlanta, and was one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the country. By 1886, Birmingham had overtaken all other Alabama cities in population, money and trade.
In 1880, Birmingham’s population was just over 3,000 but, by 1890, had increased to 26,000, an increase of 750 percent. By 1910, the number had risen to nearly 133,000, due primarily to an ambitious annexation of surrounding suburbs. Forty years later, the population hit 326,000, making Birmingham the 27th largest city in the county. In the South, only Atlanta and Houston were bigger. Birmingham’s population peaked in 1960 when it hit 340,000.
The city’s impressive growth depended on mining and industrial production. Both required plenty of controlled labor and competitive wages, and that meant keeping the unions out.
Mining was the backbone of Birmingham’s industrial growth, and miners came from three groups: 35 percent were native-born white men; 20 percent were European immigrants; and the rest were black, including a large percentage of convicts leased from the state. The practice had been going on in Alabama since the state had passed the Vagrancy Act in 1868, which allowed it to arrest out-of-work men and send them to the mines to work off their sentences.
In 1888, Birmingham’s Pratt Mines had gotten an exclusive contract to lease state prisoners. They were cheap and utterly controlled. Mine owners had no investment in the workers themselves and, as long as there was a ready supply of prisoners, they had little incentive to protect them. The practice did not end until state law banned it in 1928.
Convict labor helped keep wages low by forcing paid workers to compete with prison workers. Companies also used it to break strikes and intimidate workers into compliance.
Birmingham industrialists also used company towns to control and manage labor. The country’s oldest company towns were mill villages built in Massachusetts and Rhode Island in the early 1800s. Designed after the English system, they incorporated tight control over workers and a paternalistic ideal in which owners provided work and a good environment and labor promised loyalty. It was, in many ways, a feudal plan applied to an industrial society.
Some historians of the New South have said that Birmingham company towns and were more like “iron plantations” than towns because of their dependence on iron-ore mining and production and their highly controlled structure. By the early 1900s, most large companies in the Birmingham District built worker towns that typically included houses for rent, schools, medical facilities, landscaped boulevards and recreational facilities.
All facilities were strictly segregated by race or European heritage and incorporated paternalistic attitudes into their design. Better housing, for instance, was located on streets adjacent to inferior housing to encourage workers to advance to the next level. American Cast Iron Pipe Company, in north Birmingham, and the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company (U. S. Steel) provided the most advanced “welfare capitalism” in the district.
Workers’ standards of living in these towns were some of the best in the state, and workers understood what they had. For most, the company’s control over every aspect of their lives was a fair trade for their loyalty. For others, however, the structure was irksome and occasionally dangerous.
From the beginning, company towns made their own rules. They often handled crimes inside the towns with their own armed guards. In addition, there are numerous accounts of workers who were threatened – and occasionally shot – for being seen with labor organizers. When strikes broke out, as they did in 1908, company officials had only to contact the office of the governor, who would quickly send the National Guard to quell them.
Whether benign or not, Birmingham industrial corporations operated as much like Medieval fiefdoms as they did typical American small towns. While it is clear that their sometimes draconian practices squelched union activity, it is not clear whether they may have also prompted some.
In any case, welfare capitalism and company town programs generally did not survive the Great Depression which, according to President Franklin Roosevelt, hit Birmingham the hardest of any city in the country. Because Birmingham’s economy was so dependent on the iron and steel industry, collapse of one facet easily triggered decline of others. Birmingham’s employment rate was the highest in the nation, according to some statistics, and workers were more vulnerable than ever. As in the rest of the country, blacks were generally fired first to open jobs to out-of-work whites.
Many Birmingham laborers welcomed Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. In particular, minimum wage provisions and federal protection for unions promised that the city’s historic labor-management relations were going to change dramatically. Now, there was a layer of government wedged between workers and employers.
New Deal programs, however, usually adhered to state and local regulations where racial matters were concerned. Birmingham’s black citizens, therefore, did not benefit as did their white counterparts.
In addition, during the 1930s economic depression, American Communism grew. It never reached the proportions seen in Europe but, nonetheless, its ranks grew. In 1929, the party’s Southern headquarters moved from Chattanooga to Birmingham to make inroads into its huge working class. Within several years, the city had the largest Communist Party in the South, and it was comprised predominantly of African Americans. During this period, moreover, the city of Birmingham first elected Bull Connor to office.
Curiously, according to Robin Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe, the party could not persuade Alabama African Americans to stop organizing political activities in their churches. Southern black radicals, it discovered, had minds of their own.
During World War II, Birmingham’s economy recovered and became the “most important arsenal in the South.” Jobs were back, wages grew faster than ever and, by the end of the war, Alabama – once the least unionized state – had become the most.
By the post-war period, Birmingham’s working classes were not only doing well economically, they were also heavily organized and politically active. Birmingham responded well to white desires for better neighborhoods, schools and cultural amenities, but it could not accommodate those of blacks.
While blacks were determined to advance, whites were determined to prevent it, and Birmingham soon became better known for rednecks than raw materials. By then racism was like crack cocaine to Southern politics, and Birmingham was one of its most reliable customers. Historically, whenever problems worsened or political fissures formed politicians and their economic patrons peddled ever stronger doses to distract citizens and make them feel okay.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Birmingham looked to be in the throes of grandiose self-destruction, and the media was there to cover it. In turn, local leaders denied their problems and blamed outsiders for the city’s ruined image. Reviled for its overt racism, Birmingham responded with its middle finger. That was the city’s way.
But behind the crude image was a city pulling off a political miracle. How it accomplished this feat tells of the city’s unique history: hopeful and tough; communal and individualistic; combative and compromising; and above all, pragmatic to the core. Removing Bull Connor and its racist government was enormously brave but, after all, the city had been built by risk takers, realists and people who refused to fail.
Pamela Sterne King is a historian at UAB. Her essay is the second installment in a monthly Weld for Birmingham series called “No More Bull: Birmingham’s Revolution at the Ballot Box.” The series is alternately authored by King and Solomon P. Kimerling, a Birmingham historian and philanthropist. The first installment, written by Kimerling, appeared in Weld on May 10. Send your feedback to email@example.com.