In 1971, the City of Birmingham approached the centennial of its founding having experienced a decade of profound change. In conjunction with economic, social and political upheaval that took place nationally during the 1960s, the unique interplay of events and circumstances in Birmingham — including pivotal Civil Rights activities and the related change in the city’s form of government — resulted in a convergence of forces that provided a constant backdrop for Birmingham’s continuing efforts to find its civic identity.
Those efforts received a definitive boost in January 1971, when Birmingham won an “All-America City” award from the National Civic League. That designation was important to the city’s business and political leadership, which collectively was convinced that the first real national recognition of Birmingham since the world-shaking events of 1963 would tap new reserves of civic pride and give outsiders pause to reconsider their image of the city.
Birmingham had entered the new decade with high hopes and strong prospects. An ever-increasing flow of federal funds fueled the growing prominence of the University of Alabama at Birmingham — which had only been chartered as a four-year, degree-granting institution in 1967, and by 1976 would become the city’s single largest employer — and Southern Research Institute. Service-sector jobs were well on the way to supplanting manufacturing as the linchpin of the local labor force, driven by the growth of companies in the banking, insurance, engineering and communications fields.
Birmingham’s selection in 1968 as the five-state headquarters for South Central Bell — at the time the largest newly chartered corporation in U.S. history — had established a new plateau for promoting the city as a location for new and expanding businesses. The telephone company’s $20 million, 30-story office tower at 19th Street and 6th Avenue North would open in 1972, adding a distinctive presence to the downtown skyline. That structure was part of well over $300 million — about $1.7 billion in today’s currency — in construction projects underway in Birmingham in 1971. Included in that total was the new Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center, by itself a $104 million development.
Meanwhile, a yearlong effort led by the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce resulted in the passage by the Alabama Legislature of a bill creating the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority. The city’s mass transit system had suffered from benign neglect since 1953, when buses replaced its highly efficient electric streetcars. Transit problems had reached crisis proportions by 1970, and the establishment of a regional system — governed by a five-member board, with two appointed by the City of Birmingham and one each by the Jefferson County Commission, the county legislative delegation, and the consortium of suburban municipalities that participated in the system — was viewed as a major triumph and a harbinger of the fruits to be derived from intergovernmental cooperation.
Birmingham was on a roll, its burgeoning transformation into a “big-league” city palpable. Citizens, government and business were singing from the same civic hymnal. There were nagging issues, to be sure — a 1971 survey of the 12 largest metropolitan areas in the South placed Birmingham last in population growth, hourly earnings, effective buying income and retail sales growth, and the level of police violence against blacks was appalling — but all but the most rock-ribbed naysayers had to acknowledge that the city that had lagged for so long was moving forward. The slumbering giant was awakening.
Overarching all of the positive momentum was One Great City. Begun in mid-1970, One Great City was a broad-based drive to unite diverse racial, class and cultural interests around a sweeping economic and social vision. It was the most ambitious — and, to date, the last — effort of its kind in Birmingham, aiming to merge 26 municipalities and 47 other “urbanized areas” of Jefferson County to create a new City of Birmingham that would stretch “from Lake Purdy to Port Birmingham, and from Graysville and Gardendale to the Cahaba River.”
It was the great issue of the era, and while a well-organized opposition developed — led by the Jefferson County Mayors Association — support for One Great City was strong. Polling showed 65 percent of residents south of Red Mountain in favor of consolidation, while support in the suburbs north of the city ranged from 50 to 60 percent. The Chamber of Commerce and other business and civic groups endorsed the plan. All that was required to allow a voter referendum on the issue was the approval of the Alabama Legislature.
Well, guess what happened? One Great City died in legislative committee in the spring of 1971. It never even came to a vote, and its demise contributed to a gradual ebbing of the momentum for real transformation in Birmingham. The transition to a service-based economy continued, but there was no unifying vision for economic growth or social change. The new transit authority quickly degenerated into the racial politics that still plague it 40 years later. South Central Bell is gone, along with all but one of the major banks that ultimately were headquartered here and a host of other homegrown companies that drove the local economy.
It wasn’t that good things stopped happening or that good people stopped caring. But Birmingham did not become a big-league city, not in the 1970s and not in the decades since. The giant continued its fitful slumber.
Until recently, that is. Last week, this space was devoted in large part to a review of the great things currently afoot, the swell of momentum that is again positioning our community for a shot at greatness. And more good news has come since then, in the form of the news that Birmingham has again been named an All-America City — news rightly greeted with jubilation from the growing throngs who sense that the time for change is now.
And so it is. But so it also was four decades ago.
Will the result be the same? Or is this the generation that will define Birmingham forever?
I guess we’re about to find out.