We in Birmingham have always had a fear of self-analysis…. And yet, I cannot think of another place I would like to call home. We walk a fine line between being a wonderful place to live and a place that has been ailing all its life and never had proper doctoring. Can Birmingham transform itself, transcend its self-inflicted problems? History says perhaps not, but while I don’t think we’re going to have a revolution in Birmingham, I do believe that if we can cultivate a gentle approach to change, built on common interests and purposeful understanding, we might just get there.
— Marvin Whiting
What does it mean to be from Birmingham?
When you get right down to it, isn’t this the question that has overarched our city’s yearlong commemoration of the pivotal events of 1963? It is a fitting one, a Gordian puzzler with which people who live in Birmingham historically have struggled, most especially since those days of the 1950s and early ‘60s, when our city’s presumptive leaders dug in their heels against the idea that the days of officially sanctioned and aggressively maintained racial segregation were numbered.
Over the course of nearly a decade, the actions of a relative few — most notably, the Birmingham City Commission and the Ku Klux Klan — branded Birmingham in the eyes of the world. For much of that time, those actions were abetted by the inaction of many, including the city’s business community and lots of well-meaning white citizens. For most people, this latter state — proof positive that oppression affects everyone who lives in an oppressive society, and not only those who are oppressed most directly — made getting a hold on the meaning of one’s residence in Birmingham a treacherous proposition.
Lacking a positive civic identity to assert, folks from Birmingham have tended to accept — passively, though with varying degrees of resentment — the judgment of others. Even when we have disagreed, and even when we have known better, the Birmingham reflex has been to allow our image of ourselves to be defined to an unhealthy degree by external forces. Far too often, the image Birmingham has projected has come off as apologetic at best and, at worst, either too dismissive of or overly obsessed with the past. On the whole, we just haven’t known what to think of ourselves.
Now, with the apex of this commemorative year having been reached on September 15, the 50th anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, perhaps it is time for that to change, once and for all. Having frankly confronted the ghosts and demons that have haunted us, having embraced the means of our redemption, perhaps we can turn our attention fully toward the future. Having taken the time to acknowledge collectively the distance we have traveled, perhaps we have positioned ourselves to decide collectively where it is that Birmingham will go next.
Another way of expressing this is by offering the suggestion that Birmingham is, at long last, taking control of its own destiny. Between taking control and having control, however, lies a chasm that can be bridged only by deep-rooted change that results from the “gentle approach…built on common interests and purposeful understanding” that my late friend Marvin Whiting advocated. Through such an approach — broad-based and even-handed, diagnostic and strategic, inclusive and holistic — we have within and among us not just the vision to decide what kind of city we want to be, but also the power to make it so.
What stands in our way? Let me rephrase that: Other than Birmingham’s persistent tendency to resist progress, what stands in our way? What are the hard issues, those that will be resolved only by the constant, coordinated and sustained efforts of government, business, institutions, organizations and individual citizens?
Here are a few, starting with transportation. I use that as a catchall to include both mass transit and road projects. Among the latter, of course, is the future of Interstate 20/59, which also happens to be far and away the most critical issue immediately before us as a community; the right outcome there — i.e., rerouting of the interstate and reconnection of the full street grid downtown, which would open up tremendous amounts of downtown real estate for redevelopment while also contributing to the revitalization of adjacent and nearby neighborhoods — will be a catalyst for foundational changes in the city’s economy.
Actually, transportation and most any other issue I can think of that has been an intractable stumbling block for Birmingham — education, public health, neighborhood and community development, land use planning, intergovernmental cooperation — all relate to the single, fundamental issue of poverty. I believe that we have the resources here, human and financial, to attack that problem in substantive, transformative ways. And I believe that if we fail to do so, if we continue to allow so much human potential to be put at risk, Birmingham cannot and will not be a great city.
When I think of the city I want Birmingham to be — of what I would like my city to be known for 50 years from now — it is one in which progress is defined by the number of people who have their basic needs met. It is a place where the proliferation of opportunities for good health, personal growth and upward economic mobility know no artificial boundaries of race, class and geography. It is a place that is distinguished in the public mind by the pride with which its citizens proclaim their citizenship.
What does it mean to be from Birmingham? The answer is up to us.