Birmingham has had its share of monikers. The most famous are the Magic City, Bad Birmingham and the Pittsburgh of the South — and once, in the early years, the Murder Capital of the World. By the 1960s, it was known as the Most Segregated City in America (sometimes said as a bragging right), Bombingham and the Johannesburg of the South. In 1937, a bit tongue in cheek, Harper’s Magazine Editor George Leighton wrote that Birmingham was the City of Perpetual Promise, always promising, never fulfilling.
In the spring of 1963, however, Birmingham was poised to show Leighton it could deliver on its potential. It had come through years of public scorn, a long season of racial tension, serious economic dislocation and a foul government. While its reputation would take time to fix, the economy was transitioning nicely from blue collar to medical, and voters had brought in new, forward-looking men and women to lead them.
That April, the city’s new mayor, Albert Boutwell, and the nine-person city council inherited an economy on an upswing; their job was simply not to blow it. The resurgence began in 1954 when the Medical Center — later morphing into the University of Alabama at Birmingham — launched the first phase of its massive federally funded building program. In 1963, it geared up for the second phase set to begin the following year.
During those years, from 1953 to 1958, Bull Connor had been benched politically after a sex scandal prevented him from running for office. While he was gone, the city put together a plan, not to solve racial problems, but to revitalize downtown. Almost a year to the day before Connor returned to the city commission, downtown merchants and businessmen organized the Birmingham Downtown Improvement Association (BDIA).
On April 17, 1957 the Birmingham Post-Herald announced, “Rebirth of Downtown Area is Started.” Referring to the BDIA, the paper said its goal was to “pump new blood into Birmingham’s ailing downtown business section.” William Engel, temporary chairman and prominent downtown businessman, told the newspaper, “You must have a plan for development. You can’t wait until the blight is far advanced. It will cost us far more if we wait for it to happen.” He added that downtown areas “are ugly, uninviting, in many cases, and not clean and open.”
In May the group appointed committees to study their “adopted” projects. They included Traffic, Parking, Promotions and Advertising, Project Construction, Downtown Beautification and Feasibility of Employing a Consulting Firm to Study Downtown Problems. A month later, the BDIA completed its permanent organization and named a nominating committee. Clarence B. Hanson, publisher of The Birmingham News, was named permanent chair while Harold Blach and Charles F. Zukoski became co-chairs.
Blach was a successful downtown merchant; Zukoski had been executive vice president of Birmingham’s First National Bank. He was also an early Civil Rights activist who penned a series of newspaper articles under the name “Button Gwinett.” Published from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s, Zukoski tried to ridicule, chide and provoke Connor and the commission into ending its “knee jerk” race-baiting and move toward “inevitable change.” Zukoski never succeeded in silencing them; instead, after Gwinett’s” real identity surfaced he lost his job.
Zukoski’s vision, however, teamed up with Hanson’s and Blach’s business savvy to inform the BDIA’s plan. In its first phase it recommended building a new expressway to connect the area’s most affluent and desirable areas, the so-called Over the Mountain suburbs, to downtown businesses. It was unusually ambitious because it meant blasting through Red Mountain; it also required working with the state’s regressive government, as well as the city’s unpredictable commission. In March 1958, the BDIA named a 15-man Red Mountain Tunnel Authority to study construction of the new road.
Step two was to annex the suburbs. By then cities all over the country were falling over themselves to take advantage of federal largesse directed to building suburbs. It was a trend that began after World War II and continued, virtually uncontested, over the next 60 years. Coupled with Federal Housing Administration monies available to new construction only, it was plain to see what was going to happen to older, established neighborhoods. At the same time, federal desegregation laws mandated school desegregation, and a string of rulings from 1961 to 1963 would put middle class whites on a fast-track to suburbia. The beginning of re-segregation, it became quickly apparent, was just around the corner.
Keeping up with national trends, Birmingham developers opened the city’s first suburban mall in 1957. Located in the city’s eastern area, Eastwood Mall was dazzling. It was also one of the first – and biggest – of its kind anywhere in the country. Birmingham was on the move.
Step Three of the BDIA’s mission was to prepare a master plan and development strategy for the Central Business District. Elton B. Stephens — a self-made millionaire born in the same Barbour County hamlet as George Wallace – had become president of the BDIA. Recently elected to his second term, Stephens also headed the Red Mountain road project. In 1960 he and the BDIA hired Harland Bartholomew, a well-known planning firm, to come up with a redevelopment strategy. A year later, it unveiled the city’s first Master Plan.
The plan’s most tantalizing recommendation was dubbed “Sky City”, in which planners seemed ready to shock Birmingham out of its doldrums with a jolt of space age design. It called for air-conditioned walkways, street furniture and fountains and a “moving staircase” to shuttle shoppers from the street level to second floor shops. Then, to encourage better use of downtown buildings and of commercial buildings’ second floors, planners suggested a promenade to “unite the major foci of pedestrians within the core-department stores and important retail shops, offices, banks and major parking terminals.”
While Sky City never materialized, other recommendations eventually did, including the civic center and entertainment complex, expressways and interstates, construction of office and public buildings, beautification of 20th Street and revitalization of Morris Avenue. Even Jabo Waggoner, one of the city’s three commissioners, knew change was coming, and he did not want to miss out.
“I know we have the potential – the essential ingredients – for an alert and progressive downtown business community,” Waggoner told the News. “I am as sure of that as I am that the sun will rise tomorrow. No city can stand still for long without dying a little. But we will not die, not even a little, for already, with this plan, we have moved a step forward.” Prophetic words from an unlikely messenger.
Unlikely or not, in the 1961 elections, Waggoner held onto his office; so did Bull Connor. Newcomer Arthur Hanes also won and was named mayor. A month later, on Mother’s Day, the Freedom Riders came to town, found themselves on the wrong end of the Klan, and made history when the bloody results aired around the world. A month later, the BDIA, Chamber of Commerce, and Committee of 100 called on the commission to “ease the city’s racial tensions.”
Better times were soon at hand. In 1962, Birmingham’s Bank for Savings completed its new headquarters, making it the biggest investment in the city’s downtown since World War II. Topped by a modern electronic rooftop reader board, it was cool and sleek, and signaled good times ahead. It also represented the first time in the Birmingham’s 90-year history that a commercial entity – not an industrial one – led an economic boom.
The City of Perpetual Promise was on a roll. The next year, moreover, on April 2, 1963, progressive whites and blacks put Bull Connor, and his junta, out of their jobs for the last time. A month later, Birmingham’s new mayor, Albert Boutwell, announced plans to appoint a Citizens Committee on Community Affairs to deal with racial problems. In July he announced the 212-member group, which was a who’s who of prominent whites and blacks, and they were ready to work.
On July 17, they arrived at City Hall. To get to the meeting, according to the Post-Herald, they had to “thread their way through an estimated 70 sign-bearing pickets,” who had shown up to protest the historic event. “Men and women, white and Negro,” the newspaper reported, “they paid little attention to the placards or those who waved them as they gave their names at the door and accepted appointment to the committee.” Police eventually dispersed the protestors.
Boutwell told the News what he wanted from the committee. “Let us put the past firmly behind us,” he said. “Let us fix our eyes and our attention on the present and what lies ahead. I do not need to elaborate upon the bad publicity which has come our way. If we mean to cure the problem of massive unemployment, the very first step is to communicate to the warm and friendly people of this nation a message that we are good and reasonable people, and that we are determined to be a great city.”
With a bit of caution he added, “We do not claim here to have the perfect blueprint, the perfect plan or the perfect operation. But we do believe, deeply and sincerely, that we have made here tonight a good beginning.” He also confided complete confidence “in the local leadership of both white and colored. It is here where the problem exists, that the answer can be found,” he said. “The key lies in the knowledge and understanding of both sides.” Then, six days later, the Birmingham City Council repealed all existing segregation ordinances.
The city had done it. It had turned itself around. Now, all the city had to do was to get through August and, more importantly, September 4, the date set to desegregate the schools. Once it got beyond, that nothing — barring something unimaginable – would stand between Birmingham and its perpetual promise.
Information about the BDIA was taken from Pamela Sterne King’s 2008 book 50 Years and Counting: A History of Operation New Birmingham (1957-2007), which also chronicles later downtown revitalization and historic preservation in the Central Business District.
The photography and art for this story, some of which appeared in the book, originate in a special section about the Barlowe plan published for the BDIA by The Birmingham News and Birmingham Post-Herald August 20, 1961.