For writers, Birmingham is a rich vein, more inexhaustible than the ore and coal that fueled the founding of the city and its early rise to prominence.
Birmingham has been the subject of books, novels, short stories, poems, articles, dissertations, films, plays, songs — and still the vein continues to yield material that adds to the texture and complexity of this ongoing story of an American city.
What follows is a highly selective list of things written about Birmingham, passages from writings that I have encountered in my years of, well, writing about Birmingham — along with some commentary to provide further information and context for each of the selections.
This doesn’t purport to be a “best of” list, just a collection of words that strike me as capturing something of the essence of this perennially underachieving but strangely beguiling city that we call home. As collected here, the words of these writers convey a connection to our past, a greater understanding of our present, and hope for our future.
The crowd pressed as close as they dared while the fiery soup rushed down the main sow and spread out into the dozens of pig beds. The keeper, a white man red from the intense heat, directed the flow of sizzling liquid into the sow while two Negro helpers walked about on the wet sand with pointed hoes, opening clogged runways and leading the iron…into the pig beds.
Off to one side slag skimmed from the iron rushed by gravity toward the great slag pots lined up on the railroad cars on the lower side of the wall. This wall…stretched above the wide mouths of the eight-foot high cauldrons which were filling rapidly with the waste material from the furnace. When full, the boiling pots would be pulled off to the top of the growing mountain of slag and dumped over the sides in a torrential river of fire. Now they bubbled with volcanic heat.
“Some fireworks!” Joe shouted. “Like the Fourth of July in hell!”
Heat shimmered with lurid brilliance over the pig beds and the slag pots…It had a brutal magnificence that gave it dignity and an awful kind of beauty, dwarfing its human masters. Even the sky had a hectic flush.
“It’s terrible — and beautiful!”
—Ethel Miller Gorman, Red Acres (1956)
If you’re only going to write one novel, then here’s hoping it’s one that encapsulates the time and place of its setting with the alacrity and insight of Red Acres. The author was a Birmingham native who left the city for college and returned some years later as a young divorcee with two small children and an idea for a novel set in her hometown. Her only novel — she later worked in the Jefferson County Juvenile Court System and helped found the Head Start program in the Birmingham City Schools — is set in the years after the Civil War. Its protagonist, a would-be iron baron, lives on an estate called Red Acres, Gorman’s stand-in for the real-life Arlington house and grounds on Cotton Avenue.
A great work of literature? No, but Red Acres is a good read, with elements of romance and adventure wrapped around a consistently sharp-eyed dramatization of the founding of Birmingham and the roots of the racial and class divisions that have plagued the city throughout its history. In this, Gorman’s novel calls to mind Giant, Edna Ferber’s sprawling, generation-spanning look at the clash between old-line Texas cattlemen and nouveau riche oilmen.
For any reader interested in Birmingham’s history, there’s a thrill in reading passages that give a glimpse into the city’s past (Women in calico gossiped around the new well on Second Avenue and Twenty-fifth Street. Dan skirted the pond between Third and Fourth Avenues and then drove back northeast.). Gorman interweaves her fictional characters with historical figures whose names — Powell, Milner, Linn, Morris — still resonate in the everyday life of our city.
It was easy to be a “first” in Birmingham. It was on the corner of Third and Twentieth that the city’s first fire occurred, unfortunately but appropriately on July 4, 1872. Gallant volunteers responded but there was no hose, and, for that matter, no water. The bucket brigade did what it could, which was practically nothing, but the newly built first drug store burned to the ground. The fire had one good result. It aroused public interest in the fact that Birmingham was entirely without fire protection.
— John C. Henley, Jr., This is Birmingham: The Founding and Growth of an American City (1969)
And who says Birmingham has no history of learning from its mistakes and oversights? Actually, this passage in the slim-but-lively history written by the founder of Birmingham Publishing Company puts me in mind of both our best civic qualities and our less desirable ones. On the latter hand, we seem to require a disaster, or at the very least some literal or figurative conflagration, to propel us in the direction of progress. On the former, one need think back only to the community response to the tornadoes of 2011 and 2012 to see how gallantly Birmingham comes together in times of crisis.
[At the beginning of the 1920s], Birmingham, they said, was wide awake, “a progressive, energetic and active town,” bustling with keen merchants, aggressive real estate promoters, enterprising industrialists, and sweaty workers….the “South’s one big city which knows no heritage of civil war”….And so it was, but Birmingham, for all its progress, had its share of problems and disappointments. The full measure of industrial grandeur never quite materialized; poverty, congestion and crime were prevalent; and the race question, shared with all southern cities, was perennially troublesome.
— Carl V. Harris, Political Power in Birmingham, 1871-1921 (1977)
The first quarter of the 20th century brought heady times to Birmingham. Firmly established as the steelmaking center of the South, the Birmingham District was also a major manufacturing center, with factories that turned out more than 1,600 different products; between 1902 and 1928, at least a dozen downtown office towers that are still in use were built. But signs of the coming depression began to abound at least two years before the stock market crash of 1929, and the only consistent response to “the race question” came from the Ku Klux Klan, which by 1925 claimed 18,000 members in Jefferson County.
Confronting the worst crisis in its history, Birmingham had little in the way of local leadership. The “nativist progressives” who had taken charge of the city in the 1917 municipal election retained their grip on local politics throughout the 1930s and long thereafter. Adept at penny-pinching, dodging responsibility, and perpetuating ethnic and racial cleavages, they were far more disposed to temporize than to meet the challenge of change.
—W. David Lewis, Sloss Furnaces and the Rise of the Birmingham District: An Industrial Epic (1994)
At more than 500 pages, the work of the late Auburn scholar is indeed epic. It’s also my favorite book about Birmingham. Using the story of Sloss Furnaces — its founding, the succession of its ownership over the years, its ultimate designation as a National Historic Landmark — as his hook, Lewis delivered a multi-layered account of our local history, from the geologic formation of iron ore, coal and limestone to the early 1990s. It’s heavy in every way.
Anne O’Hare McCormick, of the New York Times, told me she had never seen a place in which business men worked harder proving to themselves and the world that they work hard than in Birmingham. She thought they should take more time for lunch.
— John Temple Graves, The Fighting South (1943)
Graves was a Birmingham newspaper columnist for more than 30 years, right up until his death in 1961. He started with the Age-Herald, moved to the Post and finished his career at the Post-Herald after the two papers merged. His column was syndicated across the Southern and Western states, and he also was a frequent correspondent for the New York Times. Viewed for many years as a liberal, Graves by the late 1940s had become such a passionate defender of states’ rights and segregation that he was hailed as the “poet laureate” of the Dixiecrat movement. As the snippet above suggests, his writing had an appealing drollness.
I was a citizen of Birmingham in 1963, close to the age of the girls who died in the bombing. But I was growing up on the wrong side of the revolution….In my quest to understand how a family of Ivy-League educated country clubbers could have produced a vigilante spirit like my father, I ended up discovering that the elite establishment of the city itself had nurtured the Ku Klux Klan and created the brutal conditions that incited a magnificent nonviolent revolution.
— Diane McWhorter, Carry Me Home (2002)
I skimmed my way through McWhorter’s Pulitzer Prize winner not long after it came out, and then for some years spoke of it in vaguely disparaging terms whenever it came up in conversation. I gave it a close rereading about a year ago and have wondered since what my problem was. Still a source of quiet controversy locally a decade after its publication, it’s a unique perspective, compelling as both history and memoir.
Or I shall marry me a wife and live me a life in the lovely green environs of Atlanta or Memphis or Birmingham, which, despite its bad name, is known to have lovely people.
— Walker Percy, The Last Gentleman (1966)
As Percy informed readers in a note preceding the first chapter of this peripatetic novel about a young man grappling with the effects of a nervous condition and confronted with a succession of existential questions, “the Southern city herein set forth bears certain resemblances to Birmingham.” As that relates to the protagonist’s reflection on Birmingham’s people, I’m thinking that truer words about us may never have been spoken.
What the proponents of “One Great City” had was a vision, one at odds with existing reality….To [opponents], the present reality was satisfactory…The result of the struggle between these two groups was a victory for reality and a defeat for vision, a result with which the city of Birmingham continues to wrestle.
— Marvin Yeomans Whiting, One Great City (1997)
In conversation, my friend Marvin, who died two years ago this Thanksgiving, often despaired of the missed opportunities that litter Birmingham’s history. As was Marvin’s way, his despairing was gentle and, usually, conveyed with a good deal of humor. Then, often as not, after bemoaning “the serial failure of Birmingham to fulfill its promise,” as he once termed it, he’d shrug and splay his hands and say with a conspiratorial smile, “But still we love it.”
My election is a clear indication of our progress in human relations. As a resident of this city…I know that the Birmingham of today is very different from the Birmingham of yesteryear, which was wracked by racial strife.
— Richard Arrington, Jr., First Inaugural Address as Mayor of Birmingham (1979)
“There is an almost total disconnect of young people to their history and to the political process,” Arrington told me in 2005, sitting in a classroom at Miles College. “Talking to them about what African-Americans have been through in this country, it’s hard even to put it in terms they can identify with. They’ve grown up seeing blacks elected to office, and many of them don’t see the difference in the blacks holding office and the whites — politicians are politicians. I guess you can view that as a commentary on how rapidly things have changed, but I’m not sure it bodes well for participatory democracy.”
The election of Barack Obama in 2008 altered the dynamic Arrington noted, though the presidential election this November will give a good idea of whether that alteration will prove more than temporary. Regardless, the former mayor’s words still stand as a challenge to those who care about the future of Birmingham.
There’s no place like Birmingham in my heart. I love Birmingham, and not just because some of my blood was spilled in its streets. I love it because it’s a place where we can look out and see where we’ve come from and how far God has brought us.
— Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth (2004)
Not much need for commentary here.
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. Write to him at email@example.com.