“What if” history is popular now. What if Lincoln had not been assassinated? What if Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor? What if Lindbergh had not made it and Earhart had?
What if Birmingham had not been rich in minerals and industrialists had not dug them up and sold them? What if the U. S. Supreme Court had not abandoned the 14th Amendment in 1896 and legalized racial segregation?
What if Jim Crow laws had not choked the political sanity out of Birmingham and stalled its development for more than 50 years? If that had not happened, the Magic City might not have elected police commissioner Bull Connor to keep blacks in their place, and a coalition of white and black moderates decades later might not have risked everything to boot Bull out and save the city.
When Birmingham’s white reform government took over in 1963, sex between blacks and whites was illegal; every “pool room, hall, theatre, picture house, auditorium, yard, court, ballpark, or other indoor or outdoor place” was segregated; checkers, dominoes and dice could not be played by blacks and whites together; black babies could not be born on the same ward with whites; white nurses were prohibited from attending black men; store, bank and office elevators were reserved for whites; department store dressing rooms were for whites only; streetcar seating, water fountains and bathrooms were separated; eating establishments, hotels and bars could not serve both races; dead bodies were buried in different cemeteries; court room Bibles could not be sworn upon by blacks and whites; black and white athletes could not compete; tax-supported schools and libraries, parks (blacks did not have their own until Memorial Park was built in 1942), zoos and pools were segregated or denied to blacks; and railroad stations had separate waiting rooms and ticket counters. “Whites Only” and “Colored” signs were posted everywhere and everyone – black and white – understood the danger of ignoring them.
Passed between 1910 and 1942, Jim Crow laws permeated Birmingham and entangled everyone in assumptions about race and intimacy. They insulted blacks daily, nurtured notions of white privilege and perpetuated a climate that seemed normal and unalterable. But they were benign compared to other laws that barred African Americans from voting and zoned bad neighborhoods for blacks and good ones for whites.
Many claim discriminatory laws turned Birmingham into the “most segregated city in America,” but Jim Crow did not begin in the Magic City or even the South. It started in the North before the Civil War and spread south afterwards. It reflected American values about white superiority that were more than attitude or prejudice. This was a bedrock principle as old as Plymouth Rock.
In the 1600s, African imports were relatively few, and the colonists classified them simply as “servants.” But as more arrived, planters came to depend on them for their livelihood and social status. Without an English-style hereditary class system, individual wealth quickly defined power in America. This meant privilege could come – and worse, go – at any time.
In about 1650, Massachusetts changed the status of its African servants to “slave.” As slaves, they became property, and as property they could be disposed of as the owner saw fit. And they could be easily spotted by skin color. At the same time, creeping European racial identities, bolstered by recent imperialism in Africa, underscored American attitudes. Europeans were on the cusp of world economic domination and that was due, they believed, to their “whiteness” and Christian values. If God favored them who were they to question Him?
Until 1863, slavery regulated most American blacks, but free Negroes continually posed special problems. “Free,” American whites agreed, did not mean equal. It just meant they were not property. The presence of free blacks always challenged white beliefs about African inferiority but, as long as their number remained small, whites saw them only as the exception that proved the rule.
Meanwhile, abolitionists provoked slave-owners’ anger about the future of slavery. In turn, Southerners argued that, slavery or no slavery, blacks were not equal to whites. In 1856, the Supreme Court agreed. Dred Scott, a slave, had traveled with his owner to a free state to claim his freedom and his citizenship. When the case landed in Washington, the nation’s highest court ruled that it made no difference whether Scott was free on not. He could never become a full “citizen.” There it was. Racial caste lines had been drawn.
Still the debate over slavery raged, with abolitionists arguing about the inhumanity of human chattel as well as the economic need to transition to “free wage” labor. Slave owners countered that the paternalism of slavery was more humane than the industrial exploitation of laborers who could be thrown out of work and onto the streets in the blink of the plant manager’s eye. Negro inferiority, they said, made blacks especially vulnerable to capitalism by which employers purchased labor but not the laborer and therefore had no obligation to care for them.
Nineteenth-century American and European scientists likewise believed in racial classification. Study after scientific study confirmed that Caucasians were superior to every other race and that, furthermore, Negroes occupied the lowest evolutionary rung. Like the impact of DNA evidence in current times, scientific data was hard to contradict.
Josiah Nott, a prominent doctor from Mobile, held typical antebellum views about science and race. In an 1844 public address, he explained racial differences by comparing Caucasian and Negro anatomies. After measuring each group’s jaw line, teeth placement, brow, and arm and leg length, he found that Negroes “resembled” orangutans and apes more than they did Caucasians. Therefore the two groups represented separate species of beings and were as distinct as night and day.
Christian leaders saw it similarly. One, a wealthy Baptist minister and slaveholder from Virginia, explained that all churches were “composed of masters and servants; and that they are instructed by Christ how to discharge their relative duties; and finally that in reference to the question which was then started, whether Christianity did abolish the institution [of slavery], or the right of one Christian to hold another Christian in bondage, we have shown, that ‘the words of our Lord Jesus Christ’ are that so far from this being the case, it adds to the obligation of the servant to render service with good-will to his master …”
Northerners – abolitionist or not – rarely challenged these views. Harriet Beecher Stowe was one exception. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1856, she used Aunt Ophelia to chastise Northern racism. Ophelia, a Northern matron, went south to visit relatives and was repulsed when Negroes touched her. Racial intimacy, not slavery, offended her the most.
Racial separation, however, was not practicable in Southern slave states where racial closeness was unavoidable. But in states without slavery, rules to keep blacks away from whites made more sense. According to C. Vann Woodward’s classic The Strange Career of Jim Crow, “legal and extralegal” codes in North cities “permeated all aspects of Negro life” by 1860. Northerners of every political persuasion, he found, agreed that “Negroes were incapable of being assimilated politically, socially, or physically into white society.” Free blacks lived in restricted ghettos in antebellum Philadelphia, Boston, New York and Cincinnati, while in Charleston, Richmond, New Orleans and St. Louis, they lived amongst whites.
At the end of the Civil War, the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, but it said nothing about civil rights. Never shy on the subject, Southern whites realized their advantage and quickly replaced old slave codes with new Black Codes. Simultaneously, the Ku Klux Klan formed in Tennessee and began terrorizing blacks and their white political friends.
To counter Southern defiance, Congress passed the 14th and 15th amendments. The 14th Amendment said that, except for Native Americans, any person born in the United States enjoyed equal protection of the law. Because the slave trade had been abolished generations earlier, this ruling meant that all American blacks had been born in the country, which made their status equal to whites.
The 15th Amendment assured black males the right to vote (female suffrage was still some 45 years away). This law held the potential to upend Southern politics, especially throughout the Black Belt where blacks greatly outnumbered whites. Smug Yankees had not put their own racial privilege at risk, Southerners believed, since no Northern state or county had anywhere near enough black voters to matter. This law was a threat aimed directly at them.
The federal government said its way was the only way. Southern states fumed that they would see about that. They were right: within five years after Reconstruction, the federal government began to sabotage its earlier opinion about who was “American” and who was not.
Tricky new issues challenged old views. One was that Indian wars were opening up fresh lands for white settlement faster than cowboys could sing home on the range, and American “exceptionalism,” as it was becoming known, justified land confiscation and reservation policies. A second problem was that foreign immigration in the last decades of the 19th century took Americans where they had never been before. Hollow-eyed hopefuls from Italy, Russia, Poland and the like flooded into the country. They brought not only rags instead of clothes but Catholicism and Judaism, strange languages, and even stranger customs and habits. Their arrival provoked citizens to put their feet down to the hordes and strengthen their commitment to White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) domination.
Congress wrestled with which groups to let in and which to keep out. In 1882, it torpedoed the 14th Amendment when it passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The law allowed the Chinese to come for work but restricted them from ever becoming citizens. Some people, Congress reasoned, were just too “foreign.” Then in 1924 it passed the country’s first comprehensive immigration law, which set quotas for different groups depending on their nation of origin. England and Western Europeans were favored and, as it happened, countries with darker skins and fewer Protestants got lower quotas.
The system proved hard to manage, and sometimes an immigrant’s desirability took time to sort out. One case involved John Svan, a man of Finnish birth, whose application for citizenship wound up in the U. S. Supreme Court. At issue was whether Svan was “white” enough because, since Finns had “Mongolian” roots, he could fall under the 1882 Exclusion Act. In its exhaustive, precise written opinion, the court worried about the “chief characteristics” of Mongolians, which made them “short of stature with little hair on their body or face; yellow-brown skins, black eyes, black hair, short, flat noes, and oblique eyes.”
On the other hand, it pointed to ethnological studies which concluded that Finns’ Mongolian heritage happened in a “remote time” but that, since then, “central and western European” influences had wiped it out. Thus, modern Finns, it found, were “now among the purest and best types of the Caucasian race.” Svan, it declared, was “without doubt a white person within the true intent of [the] law.”
In 1896, 14 years after Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, and throwing the 14th Amendment into limbo, the Supreme Court ruled on Plessy v. Ferguson and completely sacked it. In its landmark decision it ruled that segregation in public accommodations was constitutional. In its written opinion, it argued that while the 14th Amendment was established to “enforce the absolute equality of the two races it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social equality or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.”
Things got worse for Plessy. Plessy, a fair-skinned Negro from New Orleans, had filed suit against the railroad’s Jim Crow policies arguing that, because he was of mixed race, the company’s right to relegate him to the “Colored” car had been illegal. The strategy backfired. Instead, the court expanded Jim Crow to include anyone less than seven-eighths white. This became known as the “one drop of blood” rule and anyone with it was subject to constitutionally protected racial discrimination. “White” had been finally defined.
This decision mainly affected the South and nowhere more than Birmingham, which was laid out in 1871 to exploit the area’s generous mineral wealth. Capital was always hard to come by, and technological know-how was expensive. Labor was cheap, jobs were plentiful and nearly equal numbers of whites and black came looking for them. With no federal law restricting corporations’ right to discriminate in wages, hiring and promotions, companies could handle those things well enough. But they also wanted to keep the races separated – physically, socially and culturally – and Jim Crow was the way to do that.
The closer the ratio between whites and blacks, the more imperative segregation seemed. In 1890, 43 percent of the city’s population was African American; and between 1910 and 1920, the city had the highest proportion of blacks of any city in the country with a population over 100,000. Moreover, in 1910-11, Birmingham scrapped its mayor-alderman form of government for a three-man commission. Each man was elected city-wide, and the city was controlled by industrialists and corporations.
By 1910, Birmingham began passing Jim Crow laws granting whites exclusive or preferential access to public and social accommodations and restricting blacks’ access to them. That same year, the new commission annexed the city’s suburbs from East Lake to West End and quadrupled Birmingham’s population, and it began working on an ordinance to reserve the best neighborhoods for whites.
While many applauded the idea some insiders opposed it. One was Birmingham News reporter Ethel Armes, who attacked the idea in a 1912 expose. Black families, she found, were already forced to live in “poorly constructed and unsanitary houses” built together “in a heap” like “makeshift shelters.” W. M. McGrath, engineer and secretary of the Birmingham Associated Charities, wrote that Negro “quarters” are “nests of infection” and cause “wonderment that any in them escape.” Few homes in Birmingham’s “black blocks,” he charged, were fit to live in.
Jefferson County health officer, J. D. Dowling, also weighed in. He invited the city commission to visit Birmingham’s black slums. “I am very anxious,” he told them, “for every member of the City Commission to see conditions as they actually are in the Negro alleys. Because real estate interests are making money out of filth is no reason why they should jeopardize the health of the people of Birmingham.”
While the city debated housing and neighborhood segregation, the U. S. Supreme Court considered whether it was unconstitutional to prevent blacks from purchasing homes in “white neighborhoods.” As it pondered, Southern cities argued that when Negroes moved into white neighborhoods property values plummeted. Once again, the court blinked and, by 1913, Atlanta, Louisville, Baltimore and Richmond had all passed discriminatory neighborhood laws. At the same time, Birmingham worked on its even more rigid one.
In 1923, as Birmingham’s commission considered a racial zoning law, a Birmingham News editorial snapped that such a move would set the city back. “To adopt a race segregation zoning ordinance” would cause blacks to be “cut off from a market,” or provide them only with rental properties. “The Negroes,” he wrote, “would find an inexorable law against their better class moving into better surroundings.” Housing segregation, he surmised, interfered with normal market processes.
As before, these voices did not prevail and, in 1925-26, Birmingham zoned industrial and flood-prone neighborhoods for blacks and everywhere else for whites. Simultaneously, the city spent far less money in black neighborhoods, and per capita expenditures became drastically low. In 1939, for example, Birmingham was compared to seven other cities and ranked dead last at $20.15 per capita. Ten years later, Emory Jackson, editor of the city’s black newspaper, the Birmingham World, wrote that “Negroes in Birmingham are zoned near the railroad tracks, near the over-flowing creeks, near the shops.”
What if the city commission had listened to Jackson and other cautionary voices? What if it had not prevented blacks and whites from getting to know each other socially, in a normal fashion, for over 50 years; and had not prevented black citizens literally from having any place to go? Then blacks, from the mid-1940’s to late 1950’s, might not have pushed across the “color line” looking for houses to buy, and whole neighborhoods might not have become known as Dynamite Hill. And maybe Bull Connor would not have rallied enraged whites to oppose black homeowners at gun point and might not have assembled military tanks in downtown Birmingham to protect Jim Crow.
If different choices had been made, black activists would not have had to push hard from the outside, and white insiders would not have had to stage a coup from the inside in 1963 to force Bull Connor and the city commission out of office.
Pamela Sterne King is a historian at UAB. Her essay is the fourth 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. Send your feedback to email@example.com.