Editor’s Note: In this issue of Weld, we continue a new column allowing reasoned voices from the community to be heard on important issues. You are invited to submit your commentary to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Anthony “Alann” Johnson
In the famous 1979 movie And Justice for All, Al Pacino plays Arthur Kirkland, an idealistic defense attorney who believes that justice truly belongs to everyone. Although the storyline has many twists and turns, director Norman Jewison’s creative prowess should be lauded for titling his movie after an excerpt from the United States Pledge of Allegiance. This powerful phrase “And justice for all…” perfectly summarizes the catalyst and/or impetus of the Civil Rights Movement. And it defines where we currently are to date regarding our current struggle for civil and human rights.
This phrase denotes where we’ve been and where we’re going. My grandfather, Rev. Dr. Nelson Henry Smith Jr., referred to as Dr. Martin Luther King’s favorite preacher for his eloquent and fiery sermonic style, was one of the first pastors recruited by King and Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth to hold Monday mass meetings to organize the individuals and families who would engineer the Civil Rights Movement. As the corresponding secretary for the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, he became a pioneer leader in civil and human rights. He later became a co-founder and later president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention. He, along with Rev. John T. Porter and Rev. A.D. King (Dr. King’s brother), formed a trio who led the marches of 1963 during the most tumultuous time of the Movement in Birmingham.
As a third-generation civil rights leader, I believe that Birmingham’s best days are ahead of us. Weld’s feature entitled “Transforming Birmingham” (No More Bull series, November 22, 2012 ) was an excellent time capsule that provided fodder for dinner table and barber shop discussion, a real look at where we are as a city and projections going forward.
Although real work has been done to curtail racism in our city, it is incumbent upon all critical thinkers and those who champion diversity and inclusion to erase the invisible lines of demarcation in our society through commerce, economic development, regional growth, et al. While a healthy and working knowledge of Birmingham’s history is essential, the ethos of Birmingham residents should be one of forward thinking and progressivism.
My granddad use to say that “Bull Connor is dead, but his cousins are still living.” The same struggles of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s are much the same as those that exist today in 2013. The disenfranchised and marginalized want access to the socioeconomic and sociopolitical infrastructures of society. They want to have access to the basic staples of life, such as healthcare, food, shelter, mental health, safe streets, community sustainability, a low sales tax, transparency in government and fiscal responsibility, transportation, a healthy environment, self-empowerment, gainful employment and living wages, a better quality of life for our veterans and our elderly, and a brighter future for our children and youth.
For the Civil Rights Movement, this has been the “pursuit of happiness.” Either directly or indirectly the present economy has affected each individual and every family in every race, every economic bracket and every geographical location. In the words of Herbert Hoover, Americans want “a chicken in every pot, and a car in every garage.” This is the American dream, right? To the chagrin of many, however, this is not the reality. A Baptist preacher once said that the new fight is not for “civil” rights. The new fight is for “silver” rights. Many economic prognosticators have said that we should just forget about what happened in the ’60s and move on.
But should we forget about our turbulent and tumultuous past and forge on to a brave new world? Or can we boldly reconcile ourselves to the reality that the violent and oftentimes bloody events that occurred in the years leading up to the annus horribilis of 1963 actually took place and use it as a point of healing and strength?
Our families, our faith and each of our futures have been inextricably bound by the tragedies of the past. Courage is what defined the men, women, boys and girls who led the Civil Rights Movement. They shared the ideal that Birmingham could be better. Consequently the world used Birmingham as a model, and now the world is a better place not only because of what happened in Birmingham, but also because of what is happening in Birmingham.
We live together. We work together. We play together. We worship together. We celebrate good news together. We mourn tragedies together. Birmingham is a melting pot of many and different cultures, nationalities, creeds, races, religions, cultural beliefs, and professional and economic backgrounds. We too must continue to have the courage to face the new “isms” that impede growth and development. What makes us unique as a city is our tolerance of one another, our compassion and/or sensitivity to those less fortunate, our patriotism for our country and our love for our great city. As we examine what the last 50 years of Birmingham history, let us consider what the next 50 years will be like. I love Birmingham. And so should you!
Anthony Johnson, 40, is native of Birmingham. Write him at email@example.com.