In October of 1961, United States District Judge Hobart H. Grooms issued a ruling in a lawsuit that had been filed three years earlier by Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Grooms ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, who had asked that the City of Birmingham be compelled to desegregate all of its municipal facilities. That included 67 parks, 38 playgrounds, eight swimming pools and four golf courses, as well as the Birmingham Zoo, the Birmingham Museum of Art, the City (now Boutwell) Auditorium and Legion Field stadium.
Rather than comply with the ruling, the Birmingham City Commission — Mayor Art Hanes, J.T. “Jabo” Waggoner, Sr., and Eugene “Bull” Connor — voted unanimously to close all of the affected facilities indefinitely. When a small group of concerned white citizens quietly requested a private meeting with Hanes to see whether the commission might reconsider its decision, the mayor granted the meeting but wasted no time throwing cold water on the hope that he would be susceptible to reason.
“I don’t think any of you want a nigger mayor or a nigger police chief,” Hanes told the group. “But I tell you that’s what’ll happen if we play dead on this park integration.”
The private route having failed, a larger group of the city’s business leaders appeared at the regular meeting of the commission several weeks after Hanes’ declaration to make a public plea for compliance with the court order. For their trouble, they received a tongue-lashing from the mayor, who pointed out that most of them lived in Mountain Brook or other suburban enclaves and labeled them “hypocrites” for calling for integration in Birmingham.
A last-ditch effort came at the commission’s meeting on January 9, 1962. There, the city’s governing body was presented with a petition — headed “A Plea for Courage and Common Sense” — asking them to reopen the parks and other public facilities. The petition was signed by more than 1,200 local residents, over half of who lived within the city limits. In response, Hanes, this time joined by Connor, went on an hour-long harangue, railing about the importance of maintaining segregation at all costs and questioning the motives of those who had signed the document.
This shameful episode in our city’s history has been much on my mind over the past couple of weeks, as the drama around the abortive effort to fire Birmingham City Schools Superintendent Craig Witherspoon has played out. It is bad enough that once again, faced with calls for courage and common sense, a deliberative body — this time the Birmingham Board of Education — with authority over an issue that is critical to the current and future viability of Birmingham has chosen a destructive course. Worse still, though, is the ugly racial element that the anti-Witherspoon camp has injected into public discourse on the issue of the superintendent’s performance.
It started two weeks ago at a well attended — and, it should be noted, multi-ethnic — downtown rally of Witherspoon supporters. It continued at last week’s meeting of the school board. It has permeated the community through talk radio airwaves, perpetuated by so-called leaders of the local black community. The essential message is that white people, whether or not they reside in Birmingham, have no business being concerned with the fact that an immoveable majority of the school board is more interested in answering to its political masters — or else just wallowing in its own malevolent ignorance — than in the education of the city’s schoolchildren.
As I noted in this space last week, a school board that acts in direct opposition to the best interests of its constituents is hardly a new phenomenon in Birmingham. The endemic dysfunction of the board is the root cause of the system’s deterioration over the past decade and more, as parents both black and white have fled Birmingham for suburban systems, or else made whatever sacrifices have been necessary to put their kids in private schools. It might have started with white flight, but the continued decline of our city school system has very little to do with race.
Indeed, beyond the need to do everything possible to retain a superintendent who is trying to implement the fundamental changes necessary to make the city schools a viable option for all city residents, the best hope for the future of public education in Birmingham rests with the public. More specifically, it rests with parents of young children, people of all races who are committed to the idea of not only living in Birmingham, but doing everything within their power to help their city grow and prosper, including sending their children to city schools. By demonizing these people for the very act of exercising their rights as citizens — by indulging themselves in a bitterly ironic echo of the racially inflammatory rhetoric employed by segregationists of a bygone generation — the anti-Witherspoon forces are willfully jeopardizing the future of Birmingham.
As events transpired, of course, change was in the wind in 1962, whether or not those in leadership positions in Birmingham knew or cared to acknowledge it. That change happened because people of goodwill made it happen. Fifty years later, with what may be the last, best chance to save the Birmingham City Schools at hand, it is time once again for people of goodwill to come together — and hang together — to change history.
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.