I hope you’ll bear with me for this week’s column. I say that because it concerns history — specifically, the history of Birmingham — which is not a topic that excites many people in this world of instant gratification, nor in this city and state where the failure to learn from history is a passion that continues to bid fair to rival football, hunting, and racism as the most popular pastimes.
With that caveat firmly in mind, here goes…
During the first quarter or so of the 20th century, Birmingham was nothing less than an experiment in the unbridled capitalism of the age. In 1900, the city’s population was a mere 38,000. A decade later, thanks in no small part to the Alabama Legislature’s approval of the consolidation of Birmingham with several of what had been separate municipalities — Avondale, East Lake, Ensley, North Birmingham, Pratt City, West End, Woodlawn, and Wylam — as well as a number of unincorporated communities, the population approached 133,000. Over the next 20 years, that number almost doubled to nearly 260,000 (or, to indulge in a little pointed foreshadowing, within shouting distance of 50,000 more than our current population).
As most anyone with passing knowledge of Birmingham knows, the primary driver of all of that growth, and of the city’s relative economic prosperity, was steelmaking, primarily by U.S. Steel, but also by various other smaller players. But, notwithstanding the predominance (political as well as economic) of U.S. Steel and steelmaking in general — indeed, in many ways, because of it — a host of other manufacturing and mercantile concerns also flourished during that era.
In her book The Birmingham District: An Industrial History and Guide — though published in 1981, it remains essential to a full understanding of Birmingham’s growth and development during roughly the first century of its existence — Birmingham historian Marjorie White noted that local factories of the time produced more than 1,600 different articles and commodities. Lumber, cotton gins, mattresses, wire, nails, railroad equipment, radiators, stoves, bicycles, bricks, brooms, furniture, even cigars, were all produced in what residents of the time still called, openly and without irony, The Magic City. In addition, all of that industrial activity contributed greatly to the development of what was widely recognized as the most comprehensive railroad network in the South.
As became, and remains, apparent, that growth did not come without a price. It was during this time that the rigid dichotomies of segregation — de facto as well as de jure, meaning economic and social, as well as racial — became ingrained. Meanwhile, local ownership of major industries declined steadily, so that Birmingham essentially was in no position to exercise control of its own economic machinery.
While the city’s absentee overlords prospered, there was no general prosperity to speak of. For most of the vast numbers of Birmingham residents who lived below certain well-delineated economic and social levels, access to opportunities to appreciably improve their status were scant. As a result, by the time the arrival of the Great Depression took the wind out of the city’s sails, Birmingham as a community had little claim on its own birthright, and even less on its future.
That prevailing dynamic was instrumental in instilling what can only be called a deep-rooted civic inferiority complex — one that lies at the heart of Birmingham’s habit of social conflict, lagging economic growth, and staunch, sometimes violent, resistance to progressive change. From violence against organized labor during the early 1900s, to the Civil Rights turmoil of the 1950s and ‘60s, to the “white flight” from the city in the 1970s and ‘80s and beyond, to the ongoing lack of substantive cooperation and coordination between the city and suburban interests, our history in Birmingham is one of inability — or, to use a harsher term that places more responsibility on us as citizens, our failure — to take charge of our own destiny.
To be sure, there have been opportunities to break the repetitious pattern of Birmingham’s history. There were the years immediately after World War II, when major investments by the U.S. Government in expanding and modernizing the city’s infrastructure — made during the war, when Birmingham became one of the nation’s top military manufacturing centers — briefly paved the way for industrial diversification at a level unseen since the 1910’s. But those steps forward ended when they encountered the resurgence of official racism in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the adoption of strict segregation ordinances, and the political primacy of Bull Connor.
There was the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, when a cadre of progressive business leaders — perhaps the first generation of real, indigenous local leadership in the city’s history — helped Birmingham begin not only to heal, but to aspire to join a reconceptualized “Sun Belt” South that was focused on economic development, some substantive commitment to achieving social equity, and efforts to attract “major league” sports and entertainment options. But that was sidetracked in the late 1970s, with the collapse of the American steel industry — then still the linchpin of Birmingham’s economy — sent local unemployment soaring.
There was the remarkable resurgence of the local economy in the early 1980s, keyed by the growing prominence of the University of Alabama at Birmingham as a global leader in healthcare and medical and scientific research, and the rise of locally-based banks and insurance companies into the ranks of the Fortune 500. But the momentum was lost in the late ‘80s and through the ‘90s, with concerted efforts to forge civic consensus around “big” issues and initiatives bogged down in a resurgence of racial (not necessarily to say “racist”) politics and the failure of local leadership — business, governmental, civic — to articulate and pursue a unifying vision for the future.
That continued into and through the first decade of this century. Objectively speaking, no city in America could rightly claim to have undergone as much progressive change in so short a time as Birmingham in the four-plus decades after the Civil Rights Movement. And yet, few cities remained so essentially the same.
There were undeniable successes, but they were always tempered by the larger or flashier achievements of other communities in the Southeast. Seeking always to escape its past, Birmingham remained rooted in tradition and insularity, and thus has been obliged to take a more circuitous — indeed, often torturous — path into the future. Birmingham had been transformed, but had not discovered its identity in the process, leaving intact the sense of “perpetual promise” that had dogged its every step for generations.
When World War II ended, Birmingham was the fifth-largest city in the Southeast, with only 5,000 fewer people than Atlanta, and otherwise trailing only New Orleans, Memphis, and Louisville. Jacksonville and Nashville passed us during the ‘60s, albeit aided by governmental consolidations that dramatically increased their populations and improved their competitive positions against Birmingham and its nearly 40 units of municipal government. In the ‘70s, Charlotte relegated us to eighth on the list, and Tampa pushed us down another spot during the following decade.
In 1950, Birmingham was the 34th-largest city in America. Today, we’re 100th.
Among metro areas, Birmingham in 1970 was the third-largest in the Southeast, behind Atlanta and Memphis. Today, we’re 11th.
Still, here we are again, at a moment in our history when we appear poised to step up at last — to shed the perpetuity of our promise and begin fulfilling it in earnest. Not that the old problems have gone away, but in spite of a stubborn lack of progress — and, in fact, some regression — on issues like poverty, education, and mass transit, and the failure to attract and retain middle- and upper-level jobs at anything near the rate of our presumptive competitors in the Southeast and elsewhere, there is in our city a palpable sense of momentum.
Indeed, as I’ve written before, Birmingham’s civic spirit is at an all-time high, or at least at its highest level since I arrived here as a dewy-eyed college freshman some 36 years ago last summer. Signs of progress abound, even if they are far less than all-inclusive, even if they are mostly superficial — as a friend rightly pointed out to me in a conversation a couple of nights ago, the superficial things help to build enthusiasm for more substantive strides forward — and even if the question of whether this will be the time that Birmingham finally gets over the hump once and for all remains very much open.
What will make the difference? More than anything, I think it’s up to us — to you and me, to We The People. If we want Birmingham to succeed, to be a Great City, to be a place of opportunity for all of its citizens, then much is going to be required of us as we moved forward in the coming months and years.
What’s going to be required above all else is our participation. Not just partaking of the fruits of Birmingham’s growth and progression, but participating in their planting and cultivation and harvest.
We must be willing to do the hard work of democracy and citizenship. We must take ownership of what our city is and what we want it to be. We must ask hard questions, be prepared to accept the answers we find, and have the determination to act accordingly to address both the problems and the opportunities that arise from our inquiries.