This is the latest installment in Weld’s historical series, No More Bull! You can find the rest of the series here.
In A. D. 64 Rome burned. Rumors spread quickly that as it did, Nero, the city’s insane emperor, played his lyre and enjoyed the perks of power. Historians have debated the fire ever since and many dispute the “lyre” charge. The larger lesson, however, remains that Rome turned to ashes because of incompetence and that, had its leaders been leading instead of loafing, catastrophe might well have been avoided. Just under 1900 years later, in 1961, the city of Birmingham faced its own predictable folly. At first glance it may seem a stretch to compare ancient Rome to modern Birmingham. Upon closer look the lessons of both places tell a familiar tale of arrogance, lethargy, and political cowardice.
As in Rome, Birmingham’s economic and political system had been set up to exploit resources for the benefit of the few. Until the 1950’s the Magic City answered to no one – not the voters (40% of whom were disenfranchised black citizens), not competing economic or political interests (because there were none), not the federal government (because it never asked). Throughout the decade, however, these groups increasingly demanded change and more and more, the city’s residents agreed. By the early 1960’s, Birmingham was growing sick and tired of being sick and tired.
The city’s fight for political sanity would not be easy or pretty and there were agonizing set-backs along the way. Some leaders and citizens did not want to get well and plotted to have their way. Others relished a healthier future and used the commission’s failures to push economic, social, and political change. These groups included advocates of the Medical Center who envisioned a white, not blue, collar city; the commercial elite who favored a commercial, not industrial, economy; and young professionals who recruited Tom King for mayor in 1961 because they wanted a more liberal city.
To have what reformers wanted meant tackling Jim Crow segregation. Before the 1961 election they hoped for racial moderation. After their defeat they knew this approach could never work and that the system itself must go.
From the mid-1950’s to 1961 news about Birmingham grew increasingly bad. Many citizens knew it and understood that the city’s economic, political, and racial house of cards was leaning dangerously and would soon fall down. The city commission had to have known it too. The signs were clear to anyone watching: an outgrown industrial economy that was never coming back; a U. S. Supreme Court decision that mandated racial desegregation; and politicians who could not imagine what to do next. Instead of preparing, however, the commission shut its eyes and hoped hard. Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, must have watched from Red Mountain and wondered if he had not seen all of this before.
In a previous No More Bull article titled “The Perfect City,” I wrote that Birmingham was founded in 1871, during the Gilded Age, when Robber Barons, cowboys, and Social Darwinists defined the American imagination. People who embraced this vision favored a country where government was negligible, the invisible hand of capitalism was all the structure needed, and individuals made their own beds and lay in them according to their own strengths. This view ignored that heavy subsidies to big industry, the absence of minimum wage laws or safety standards, and Jim Crow skewed the system for the powerful few.
In 1947 Birmingham News writer Irving Beiman chided the city’s determination to rest on old laurels and warned its leaders to wake up. In “Birmingham was a Steel Giant with a Glass Jaw,” he wrote
In the prosperous Twenties, the entire country viewed Birmingham as a healthy young giant, growing, flourishing. But the depression of the thirties proved that young giant a flabby creature with a glass jaw, who could be knocked down and would stay down until outsiders pumped new life into its economic heart, the great iron and steel mills.
For a few years, however, some news about the city appeared favorable. In 1950 Metropolitan Birmingham’s population was about 559,000. The city itself ranked 33rd largest in the country and its airport was 18th in total activity and operation. It had 500 churches, 86 public schools, and 5,000 retail stores with annual sales of $60 million. In 1957 manufacturing employment passed agriculture in the state. Family income in Alabama, according to Anthony Paul Underwood’s “A Progressive History of The Young Men’s Business Club of Birmingham, Alabama 1946-1970,” was 6% above the national average. Workers, moreover, enjoyed a 17% increase in per capita income from 1952-1956, making it the highest in the South and third highest in the country.
But growth was uneven and nowhere was it more pronounced than within Birmingham’s black and white communities. In 1950, Birmingham’s average white income was $2,773 while that of blacks was $1,062. Even though the city’s black citizens had a higher income than African-Americans in Atlanta (or any other city), by 1960, the income gap between whites and blacks had doubled. Educational opportunities were likewise unfair and medical services were, for black citizens, practically unavailable.
By 1955 Birmingham’s economic news turned decidedly downward. Birmingham’s steel production had fallen by almost 10 percent from just ten years earlier and its wholesale economy ranked last compared with Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville, Montgomery, and Baton Rouge. The city’s trade economy also ranked lower than in Atlanta, Memphis, Nashville, Mobile, and Montgomery. Between 1950 and 1960, moreover, Atlanta’s population had grown at 10 times the rate of Birmingham’s. According to a Chamber of Commerce report, Birmingham was still “a long way from having a thoroughly diversified economy and trade to cushion a shock in any single industry.” Worse, the Saturday Evening Post reported that at the end of World War II the value of Atlanta’s manufactured products outpaced “those of her huffing, puffing industrial sister, Birmingham.” The Magic City’s old rivalry with Georgia’s capital city had, at last, gone with the wind.
Unfortunately the city’s three-man commission had shown little ability for modernizing the city. It had no idea what to do if, as had become apparent, the economy needed reinvention. While other city governments developed master plans – Birmingham was one of only three cities larger than 250,000 without one — and targeted services where they could best facilitate growth, Birmingham’s government did neither. It was no wonder, then, that Birmingham’s financial elite would have to find its own way alongside an increasingly obstructionist, outmoded government.
According to Christopher Macgregor Scribner’s Renewing Birmingham: Federal Funding and The Promise of Change 1929-1979, Birmingham’s famously unified economic interests splintered in the early 1950’s between the “Big Mule” industrialists, commercial interests, and medical school advocates. This three-way split showed up plainly after 1949 when Birmingham failed to annex its suburbs. Two city commissioners, Cooper Green and James Morgan, favored a merger while Eugene “Bull” Connor, long tied to industrialists, opposed it.
When it failed, Green growled that “it was time to call [the Big Mules’] hand and looks at the FACTS.” Tennessee Coal and Iron and U. S. Steel–which, along with Woodward Iron and Steel, Republic Steel, and Sloss-Sheffield, had blocked a statewide initiative to make such annexations easier–countered that it had provided more to Birmingham by far than any other single industry and paid one-fifth of its citizens’ wages. Tempers flared further as theories that diabolic forces, including the U. S. Census Bureau, were conspiring to favor Atlanta over Birmingham. Matters worsened in 1954 when TCI moved its headquarters from downtown to Fairfield.
In 1949 the Committee of 100 organized to recruit new manufacturers. Led by TCI chairman Art Wiebel, by 1958, it had brought in over 130 new plants to Jefferson County, including Hayes Aircraft Industries, and helped talk 90 additional companies into expanding. But compared with Atlanta, those numbers were paltry and embarrassing: between 1946 and 1954 recruiters there lured 454 manufacturing plants and over 40,000 new jobs. In reality, according to Christopher Scribner, Birmingham “teetered on the brink of bankruptcy.”
Commercial interests criticized the Committee’s quixotic quest for industrial growth. They wanted to rejuvenate Birmingham’s downtown financial and retail district anchored by department stores including Pizitz, Loveman’s, Woolworth’s, Parisian and Blach’s. Their hopes rested on enhancing transportation links, like the Red Mountain Expressway, and stanching unprecedented and astonishing suburban growth. In 1957 they formalized efforts and organized the Birmingham Downtown Improvement Association (later Operation New Birmingham); within a few years they added a committee to develop better city-wide race relations.
On the south side of town, advocates of the Medical College needed more than new stores and highways. It had opened in 1945, but if it was to succeed, it needed to expand and the only way to do that was with federal money. A federal Housing Act, passed in 1949, offered the college what it was looking for. Unlike the earlier Hill-Burton Act, this law allowed municipalities to use federal dollars for slum clearance but without the burden of having to replace old houses with new dwellings. Under this act, the Medical College could use federal money to clear a dozen blocks of low-income, mostly African-American housing without having to rebuild them as long as displaced residents got other “decent, safe, and sanitary” permanent housing.
In 1953 the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District (HABD) completed its proposal for $4.5 million federal dollars to clear a large portion of Southside for the college’s expansion. If it succeeded hundreds of African-Americans’ houses faced demolition; but where would they go? Ironically this question was the same one whites asked and neither liked their answers. Blacks would have to move to newly designated “Negro” neighborhoods. Whites would be “forced” to leave, but go where? They did not have the money to move to new suburbs like Gardendale, to the north, much less ritzy Vestavia Hills, to the south, both of which incorporated during this period.
The situation was precarious. It called for political genius and expanded opportunity for everyone affected. It got neither.
Then, in 1954, the U. S. Supreme Court hurled lit legal dynamite at racial segregation and landed it at Jim Crow’s nerve center. In Brown vs. Board of Education it decreed that, after 58 years of legalized school discrimination it had, after all, gotten it wrong. Reversing its infamous 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson “separate but equal” decision the Court finally saw that racism and equal citizenship did not mix. The decision came from on high, but the front line of this battle would be in working and middle class neighborhoods where home and school values were anything but theoretical. In Birmingham the day of reckoning had come — as everyone knew it would – but the city was not ready. Instead, its political leaders crossed their fingers and hoped, possibly, to die.
Since Reconstruction, determined Southern segregationists used legal jujitsu to write Jim Crow laws without arousing the federal government. But that was before Brown. This new world of court-ordered desegregation called for a different approach. In 1954, on the heels of the court’s decision, the White Citizens Council (WCC) formed in Mississippi to stop the assault, as they understood it, on state’s rights. It eschewed hooded violence and embraced the right of businessmen to trade with whomever they pleased. In this scenario, a white banker, lawyer, landlord, or mortgage holder could simply cancel business dealings with anyone, white or black, that he did not like. Support desegregation, in effect, and see how fast your mortgage was cancelled.
A year later Alabama had its own White Citizens Councils, and they quickly went to work. Most of Birmingham’s WCC members lived in the city’s best neighborhoods, including especially “Over the Mountain” suburbs like Homewood, Bluff Park, and Vestavia Hills. Their tactics were ruthless but quiet and middle class. Their members had reputations to preserve and federal eyes to avoid.
The Ku Klux Klan, however, suffered no such sensitivities and Brown had reinvigorated them. Almost immediately after the court’s decision, according to Louise Passey Maxwell’s Remaking Jim Crow: Segregation and Urban Change in Birmingham, Alabama 1938-1963, local officials began to thwart school integration. In 1955, state leaders passed the Alabama Pupil Placement Act giving school boards “broad powers” about which schools students would attend. Two years later the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, Birmingham’s most aggressive black activist, was beaten badly when he tried to enroll his son in all-white Phillips High School to protest the act. A year later a federal court sided with the state upholding the constitutionality of the Placement Act. Then, in 1959, the night before the school year opened, Birmingham “vigilantes” burned crosses near at least ten white schools.
At the same time the Klan renewed bombing neighborhoods in transition. In 1957 they blew up houses in Fountain Heights on the city’s western edge adjacent to its most economically mobile African-American neighborhoods. These bombings, none of which were solved, became so frequent that the area became known as the new “Dynamite Hill” in reference to North Smithfield a decade earlier. In Fountain Heights, as in other western and northern neighborhoods, whites also formed “home owner associations” to buy houses before they hit the market so blacks could not purchase them. Moreover, only one new suburb, North Titusville, opened up for the black middle class and it was approaching full capacity.
In this environment reform seemed out of the question. But then Birmingham Mayor Jimmy Morgan announced he would not stand for reelection. This opportunity might be their last, progressives figured, and they decided to find someone to run for the job.
Members of the Young Men’s Business Club (YMBC), a decade-old group of young professional men including David Vann and Charles Morgan, believed they knew who could win. Initially the club advocated for issues like mental health but gradually took on more controversial issues, including racial justice. It publicly chastised local and state officials for their post-Brown intransigence. In response, some in Birmingham labeled them “Birmingham’s Communists.” After 1953, when the State passed legislation allowing municipalities to opt for a mayor-council form of government, YMBC became interested in abolishing Birmingham’s city commission. But when Brown provoked a new round of white racist resistance and Morgan announced his retirement, YMBC set its sights on replacing the commissioner.
In 1960, YMBC members approached Birmingham native, World War II veteran, graduate of the University of Alabama Law School, and administrative assistant to congressman George Huddleston Tom King and asked him to run. (His father, Judge Alta King, had earned a reputation some years earlier for imposing an especially harsh sentence on KKK members who had castrated Judge Aaron, a local black man). King agreed and, by late 1960, he had given up his Washington D. C. job, returned to Birmingham, set up a law practice with Morgan and his partner, and began to run for mayor.
In A Time To Speak, Morgan wrote about his belief in King:
The Tom King campaign held out one more glowing hope that Birmingham might realize better days. Other cities had awakened from community lethargy when young men sounded the alarm. This might be Birmingham’s time for change. This [the election of 1961] became a crusade for good government, led by a new generation. [On the reformers’ side] there was no argument: Tom King would provide vigorous leadership in attaching needed industry and business for our community’s stagnating economy.
King placed a close second in the primary and carried predominantly Negro boxes. As a result his opponent, Art Hanes, railed against blacks and urged white voters to defeat “the NAACP bloc vote.” During the following four-week period, Morgan wrote, King was subjected to the “black hand” treatment. In May 1961, as King left city hall, a voice called to him: “Mr. King . . . . you’re Tom King, aren’t you?” “Yes,” he replied, and thrust his hand for the man to shake. At that moment a photographer’s lens snapped — and his campaign was over.
Within days the Birmingham News ran a long editorial hoping to save King’s candidacy. Titled “Birmingham Needs Tom King” it read:
Birmingham needs a man of force, intelligence, and plain old-fashioned guts as president of its city commission for the next for years. Tom King is a fellow who looks you right in the eye when he talks. He convinces you that he means what he says. One of the things he says is that Birmingham needs good government and he means it when he says it – GOOD GOVERNMENT. Tom King is the fellow who dug up the lease deals at the municipal airport [one of King’s main interests was airport expansion] and who exposed other practices there that obviously were not in the best interests of the people of Birmingham.
Getting to the main point, the News continued,
The NEWS HAS been amazed, as it believes most thinking citizens have been, at the attempts that have been made to keep Tom King out of the mayor’s office. Certainly there is cause to wonder why the trick picture of Tom King and a negro was circulated by those supporting Tom King’s opponent.
But it was no use. King lost, Hanes won, and the commission remained politically intact. King ran again in 1963, this time against Bull Connor, but his day had passed. He did not become mayor but his candidacy harnessed the city’s reformer elements — black and white, poor and affluent — for the first time in its history.