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…. I’d like to see all of the people of Birmingham embrace each other in love, in the spirit of fellowship and brotherhood. To the extent that happens, Birmingham, which once rested on the ash heap of civilization, can become known as a shining example of how people can change and how we can move forward in human relations. God chose Birmingham, which means He chose all of us, then and now.
— Fred Shuttlesworth (2005)
As Birmingham moves in earnest into this year of commemoration, it seems wise to take a moment to reflect on a few important questions. For instance, just what is it we’re commemorating? What lessons do we hope to draw from taking a collective look back at our richly checkered past? And, perhaps most critical of all, how can we apply those lessons to building a future that is worthy of the courage of our forbears a half-century ago — of the lives and livelihoods risked, the sacrifices made, the blood spilled in our streets?
First and foremost, of course, we are commemorating the pivotal events of the Civil Rights Movement that took place here in 1963 — the arrest of Martin Luther King, leading to his authorship of one of the seminal documents of American freedom, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”; the “Children’s Crusade” that laid bare the lengths to which some in the city would go in their efforts to stem the tide of transformation; the horror at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that shocked the nation into full understanding of the need for action and propelled the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Cumulatively, these events and the reactions to them, both locally and nationally, made the civil rights of black Americans an American issue, not just a Southern one.
In the course of a few short months, Birmingham changed the world.
The other thing we are commemorating is the process that ran on a track parallel to the dramatic developments of the Movement, though one considerably less public and certainly less known to history. That would be the process that culminated in the voters of Birmingham — black and white — choosing first to change the city’s form of government and then to banish Bull Connor from City Hall.
Shedding the light of historical review on this process is the purpose of Weld’s ongoing series, “No More Bull.” In delving into the “deep history” of change in Birmingham, historians Sol Kimerling and Pam King have called attention to the nuances of our city’s transformation, pointing out that the “revolution” that deposed Bull Connor included the nonviolent tactical warfare of the Movement, strategic skirmishes that took place in offices and boardrooms, and the march on voting booths that forever altered the morally and operationally corrupt system under which Birmingham had operated.
We would do well to remember that in a year in which the voters of Birmingham will have yet another opportunity to go to the polls and exercise their influence over the present and future of our city. In the midst of all of the commemoration, we will be taking the unprecedented step of electing a mayor, a city council and a school board, all at the same time.
As we do so, I can think of no better way both to pay tribute to all of the heroes of yesteryear and set our course for the future than by voting for candidates who demonstrate that they are attuned to the ongoing drumbeat of social justice. By this I mean that it’s time to hold those who would lead us accountable on the issues that must be addressed if Birmingham is to claim its birthright at last — the issues that affect every person in this community in one way or another.
Start with education. By most accounts, the Birmingham City Schools system is finally inching its way in the right direction — though it took a state takeover and the removal of the sitting president of the Birmingham Board of Education to do it. There is a building momentum for true change at the board level, but this an issue that should figure not only in school board elections, but also in our selection of a mayor and city councilors.
Another “social justice” issue? How about our mass transit system — or, rather, what has passed for one for too long in these parts. In all of our fine and generally well-intended community, I wonder whether there is any group of people that is more routinely spat upon, figuratively speaking, than citizens whose ability to get from one location to another is dependent on the good graces of the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority. We desperately need leadership from city government on this, and as voters we should demand it.
We also need to take a look at how we deal with the homeless of our community. This is a problem that is growing, not shrinking, and that’s going to be the case until positive actions are taken. Efforts are underway at the grassroots level to do a better job of providing and coordinating homeless services, and we should elect people who are committed to supporting and accelerating those efforts.
Finally, we need elected leaders who think about the city as a whole, and not just the district that elects them. The attitude of provinciality that rules our City Council in particular is shameful, and must be changed.
Of all of the rights and freedoms won by the Civil Rights Movement, none is more precious, nor more critical to the prospect of ongoing progress, than voting. We should hold this as a sacred trust between ourselves and our posterity — and exercise it as a means of honoring the simple heroism of those who went to the polls 50 years ago to liberate Birmingham from the grip of fear and hatred. Then and only then will we get the leaders we deserve.