Over the past three weeks, Weld’s review of the “50 Who Shaped Birmingham” has counted down from Number 50 (James Hatcher) to Number 6 (Sidney Smyer). This week, it’s the top five most influential people in Birmingham’s history. For more on those who made it, those who didn’t and the compilation of the list in general, click here.
5. David Vann
Name a watershed moment for Birmingham between the early 1960s and the early 1990s, and David Vann was at, or very near, the center of it.
In 1962, Vann — then in his mid-30s, a brilliant and liberal-minded young attorney who had come to work in Birmingham after clerking for United States Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black — had moved into a leadership role with the Young Men’s Business Club, a progressive civic group. Recruited by bellwether business leader Sidney Smyer, Vann and YMBC led the petition drive and subsequent successful referendum to change Birmingham’s form of city government. Five months later, the voters of Birmingham rejected Bull Connor at the ballot box.
In the pivotal year of 1963, Vann mediated and acted as high-level go-between in the delicate negotiations that involved Birmingham’s business and civic elite, local and national Civil Rights leaders and top officials of the Kennedy administration. Those negotiations produced the “Accord of Conscience” that ended weeks of Civil Rights demonstrations in the city by committing key businesses to begin dismantling segregation. Vann then became an assistant to new Birmingham Mayor Albert Boutwell, who had defeated Connor in an April runoff election.
In 1970-71, Vann was the driving force behind the most ambitious attempt ever to eradicate political boundaries in Jefferson County. Working with business leaders like retailer Richard Pizitz, banking executive Norman Pless, accountant Donald Brabston and lawyer Jim White, Vann pushed a plan that would have expanded the boundaries of the city of Birmingham to encompass almost all of Jefferson County, including “all of its surrounding suburban cities.”
“Our proposal is a dramatic one,” Vann said in one speech. “It is simply an effort to express as a political reality the true city that we have become…consolidating all of our human, leadership and revenue resources.”
One Great City died in a committee of the Alabama Legislature in the spring of 1971. Vann viewed it as Birmingham’s “last chance” to fulfill its destiny by uniting the political, economic and social futures of all of its citizens.
Elected to the Birmingham City Council later that same year, Vann quickly formed a political alliance and personal friendship with fellow freshman councilor Richard Arrington Jr. In 1975, strong support from white liberals and black voters — the latter due in no small part to Arrington’s endorsement — was the core of a coalition that put Vann into the mayor’s office.
As mayor, Vann had trouble holding that coalition together. In a 2005 interview, Arrington pointed out the dilemma Vann confronted.
“David was a liberal, very much so by Birmingham standards,” said Arrington. “The die-hard conservative elements in city politics, they absolutely hated him. As mayor, he tried to bridge that by adopting a more conservative posture on some things.”
One such political shift by Vann, combined with the fallout from a tragic event, would make him a one-term mayor and something of a tragic figure. Even so, he continued to serve Birmingham after leaving office. As a lawyer for the city, Vann was responsible for the annexation strategy that, during the 1980s, expanded the physical area and tax base of Birmingham. Among the areas annexed was the land that now is The Summit, the retail and restaurant mecca that accounts for well over 10 percent of the city’s total sales tax revenue.
Always the visionary, Vann never stopped trying to make Birmingham bigger in every sense of the term. To him, it meant growing larger and more prosperous, but it also meant asking the people of the community to look within themselves and find the capacity to change their perceptions of what might be possible, socially and politically as well as economically. That driving philosophy — along with Vann’s love of Birmingham — was encapsulated in a letter he wrote to a friend as the One Great City campaign was getting underway.
We want to show the people of the area how big they are, and then ask them to think that big.
4. Richard Arrington Jr.
Politics in Birmingham changed forever on the night of June 22, 1979. A young black woman named Bonita Carter died after being shot three times while sitting in a car at the scene of a convenience store robbery in the Kingston neighborhood. The shooter was George Sands, a white Birmingham police officer.
Mayor David Vann appointed a blue-ribbon committee to investigate the shooting, and the panel found unanimously that Sands had no “sufficient provocation” to fire the fatal shots at Carter. Flying in the face of both his own committee and the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Vann refused to dismiss Sands from the police force.
That turned out to be an act of political suicide for the undeniably liberal Vann, who already was facing a tough re-election campaign that summer and fall. At least in part, his action in response to the Carter killing was an effort to shore up his credentials among conservative white voters. It backfired, and Vann soon found himself opposed by a field of candidates that included a card-carrying Ku Klux Klansman and an ultraconservative local attorney, as well as one white and two black Birmingham city councilors.
One of the latter was Vann’s close friend and colleague Richard Arrington Jr. Arrington had been drafted into the race — “One of the most difficult decisions I ever made,” Arrington has said of getting into the race against Vann — by a coalition of SCLC activists, black professionals and political operatives of several stripes. Most seasoned observers gave him only a slim chance of winning — at that time, whites maintained a small, if diminishing, majority of the city’s voting-age population — but Arrington carried 44 percent of the vote in the primary, leading the field in which the incumbent Vann finished fourth. Three weeks later, in an election in which 68 percent of the city’s voters turned out, Arrington defeated attorney Frank Parsons by fewer than 2,000 votes. He would serve as mayor for nearly 20 years, winning five terms before stepping down voluntarily in the summer of 1999.
While Arrington’s election as the first black mayor of Birmingham was of monumental significance, to pay tribute to him purely on that basis is to damn him with faint praise. Taking office not only under the circumstances in which he did, but also at a time of national and local economic turmoil, Arrington steered the city through rough waters and into the most progressive period in its history.
By any measure, Arrington’s first two terms in particular were a time of economic growth and social transformation (though the latter was a two-edged sword, with gains in workforce diversity and race relations in general offset by accelerated white flight to the suburbs and internal political discord of which race was almost always a proximate cause). It’s also fair to say that the seeds for much of the progressive momentum Birmingham is enjoying at present were planted during the Arrington era.
“It was an absolute joy to see the mayor’s office functioning in those years,” Ed LaMonte said in 2005. Now retired from a longtime professorship at Birmingham-Southern College, LaMonte was Arrington’s chief of staff from 1979-87.
“It was Birmingham government at its most competent and efficient, before or since,” LaMonte said. “There was a passion and intensity that pervaded the administration, the sense that this was history in the making.”
For his own part, Arrington, characteristically, is both modest and honest in assessing in time in office. In a 2005 profile of him that ran as a five-part series in Birmingham Weekly, Arrington acknowledged that his last two terms in office were a time of diminishing returns, during which his administration atrophied, and he “ran out of ideas.” But he also laid claim to his legacy as Birmingham’s best mayor to date.
“I always tried to do the best I could for Birmingham,” Arrington said. “I tried to keep the city moving forward, and also to serve the interests of the people who put me in office and kept me there. Sometimes that was a balancing act, and sometimes those two goals were one and the same.”
3. Fred Shuttlesworth
“The Klan intended to blow me into heaven, but God had bigger purposes,” Shuttlesworth once said of the bomb that destroyed his family’s house on Christmas Night 1956. Miraculously, the leader of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement — along with his wife, children and a church deacon with whom Shuttlesworth had been meeting in the bedroom beneath which the bomb detonated — emerged unscathed and, undoubtedly to the chagrin of those who had planted the bomb, more certain than ever of the mission for which he believed he was chosen by God.
“I was kept by his grace,” Shuttlesworth said. “And I must tell you, that incident really took fear out of my mind once and for all. When that bomb didn’t kill me, I realized how close God was to me. Closer than the clothes on your back, the spirit of God can get in you. It can fortify you and make you almost unaware of danger, or at least you don’t care about danger. You learn that you live only for His purposes, and that when you put your physical self into what you believe, that pleases God more. After the bomb, I was never afraid again.”
As more than one associate put it over the years, Shuttlesworth was “a hard man for a hard town.” (He himself liked to say that “the Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head.”) To his pulpit at Bethel Baptist Church, in the streets of Birmingham, to meetings with white business leaders and to clashes with members of the city’s black elite who disagreed with his embrace of civil disobedience to confront segregation directly, Shuttlesworth brought a working-class sensibility, an unshakable sense of fairness and justice and a Gandhi-like willingness to allow himself to be the physical object of oppression and violence.
“It was like a battering ram,” C. Herbert Oliver, one of the ministers who followed Shuttlesworth during the Movement said years later, speaking of the minister and his Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. “It was clear that they simply were determined to push the barriers of racial segregation down. No apologies, no excuse. Just, ‘We want our rights as Americans and we must have them.’ That was Rev. Shuttlesworth’s belief, and it was his approach to confronting Bull Connor and the segregationist system.”
Arguably, Shuttlesworth is more responsible than any single person for ending segregation — not just in Birmingham, but in Alabama and the South as a whole. Or perhaps it is not so arguable, for there can be little doubt that if not for Shuttlesworth’s constant presence and unswerving leadership of the Birmingham Movement, the national Movement would have faltered and perhaps failed. He not only shaped the future of his city, but also that of his nation and the world. He never claimed that mantle for himself, but a few years before his death in 2011, he alluded to the larger objective behind his life’s work.
“I’m for freedom, freedom for all men and women everywhere,” Shuttlesworth declared. “I never did think the human rights struggle was just for black folks. Enough sacrifice has been made that anybody ought to feel ashamed not to want freedom.”
2. James Withers Sloss
No less an authority on the history of ironmaking in Alabama than the late Auburn University historian W. David Lewis paired Sloss with one other man as “Birmingham’s greatest founding fathers.” Weld concurs.
In the spring of 1871, the would-be founders of the city of Birmingham found themselves outmaneuvered by another group of capitalists. They were out of money to pay the interest on the state-backed bonds that were funding construction of the railroad that would connect the new city to Decatur and the growing network of the Louisville and Nashville railroad beyond. The rival group, which had no intention of building a city, but merely wanted to exploit the mineral wealth — coal, iron ore, limestone — of the area, had obtained the bonds and was prepared to foreclose, ending forever the dream of a great ironmaking center rising from the floor of Jones Valley.
Into the breach stepped Sloss. At the time, he was one of the wealthiest men in Alabama. A native of Limestone County, he had received almost no formal education, but made a fortune before the Civil War as a merchant and plantation owner. Seeing the wave of the future, he had begun dabbling in the railroad business in the early 1850s, successfully enough that when the Alabama Legislature chartered the new Tennessee and Alabama Central railroad in 1853, Sloss was made its president.
As one who foresaw the economic impact railroads would have in the latter half of the 19th century, Sloss became a leading proponent for expanding Alabama’s rail network after the Civil War. He had founded the Nashville and Decatur Railroad in 1867, and found natural allies in the Montgomery-based group that was working to build the Alabama South and North line and found the new city of Birmingham.
What did Sloss do when the wolf appeared at the door to foreclose on Birmingham’s very existence? He closed a trap on them, with a plan conceived solely of his own device and carried out in absolute secrecy. In the crisis that confronted his associates from Montgomery, Sloss saw an opportunity to leverage his ties with another, more powerful ally: the Louisville and Nashville railroad. Sloss’s Nashville and Decatur line had become a satellite of the L&N, which was indisputably the predominant rail line in the South.
By 1871, the L&N was eager to establish a direct rail connection to the Gulf of Mexico. Prompted by a masterful presentation from Sloss, the company’s board of directors quickly came to see Birmingham as a vital link in that effort. Sloss offered to lease his railroad to the L&N, provided it assumed the debts of the South and North railroad, paid the interest due on the state bonds, and agreed to complete the tracks between Decatur and Birmingham.
Brilliantly, Sloss had handed the L&N control of what would be a consolidated rail route from Nashville to Montgomery — and, in the process, single-handedly saved Birmingham. Without his decisive action, the new city that was formally incorporated in December 1871 would never have existed at all.
1. John T. Milner
On June 1, 1858, a man on horseback became entranced by what he saw in the wooded hills and hollows of Jefferson County and by the vision that came to him as he contemplated both the natural beauty of his surroundings and the rich industrial potential of what then was a near-wilderness. An engineer by trade and the son of a slaveholding Georgia planter who also owned a gold mine and a railroad, that man — John T. Milner — had an expert knowledge of metal deposits and their value.
Milner’s first ride through what would become known as the Birmingham Mineral District was a business trip. He surveyed the area and scouted potential rail routes in and out of Jones Valley. Setting down his memories of that day much later in life, Milner’s first impression remained vivid. He wrote of riding “along the top of Red Mountain” and looking “over that beautiful valley where the city of Birmingham lies today…one vast garden as far as the eye could reach.”
His ode to the “quiet beauty” of the landscape notwithstanding, Milner’s focus was on building an industrial metropolis. In an 1859 report to the Governor of Alabama on the progress of a planned rail line from Decatur to Montgomery, he noted that the “necessary elements in the economical manufacture of iron, coal and the rich ores from the Red Mountain can be as cheaply brought together as at any other place in the United States.”
“It would be difficult to overstate Milner’s role in the birth of Birmingham,” the late Marvin Whiting, longtime archivist of the Birmingham Public Library, said in 2008. “He was the first to articulate the vision of what Birmingham became. He chose the place where the railroads would cross. Milner was not going to be satisfied until this great industrial city was up and running.”
With James W. Sloss, Milner was the other “greatest founding father” of Birmingham as rated by historian David Lewis. Writing of Milner’s tremendous influence on railroad development in Alabama and his pivotal role in the founding and early development of Birmingham after the Civil War, Lewis referred to him variously as “one of Alabama’s greatest industrial pioneers,” “one of the South’s greatest prophets of economic growth,” and “a propagandist for Southern economic development [who] had few equals.” Milner’s death in 1898 merited an obituary in the New York Times, in which he was described as “the most conspicuous figure in the creation of Birmingham, and one of the ablest and most distinguished citizens of Alabama.”
Milner was a visionary, possessed of the knowledge, confidence and financial and political wherewithal to build a great city from nothing. He was also a racist, steeped in Southern sectional pride, loyal to the Confederate cause, and firm in his belief that blacks were “fitted only for servile occupations,” and that the black man was “a peculiar being [who] differs widely from all other races of men…an inferior being.”
In a very real sense, the extraordinarily gifted and deeply flawed Milner is a perfect metaphor for Birmingham, a city beset by intractable dichotomies — of race, of class, of economic and political power — from the moment of its founding to the present day. On balance, his influence on the founding and development of Birmingham — to the extent that the city prospers today, it is in fulfillment and furtherance of Milner’s vision of more than 150 years ago — must be acknowledged as unequalled.
“Milner never has been given his just due,” Marvin Whiting said. “He had tremendous faith in the promise of what became Birmingham. He saw the possibilities. He was determined to see his dream come to fruition, and was not deterred by the fact that nobody had ever attempted what he and others were attempting — to build, virtually from nothing, a city founded on industrial technology.
“He really was remarkable.”