To say that I loved Birmingham from the moment I got here — 33 years ago last August, as a wide-eyed and liberal-minded college freshman — is not overstating the facts by much. There was something about the vibe of this place that took hold of me right away, something that led me to immerse myself in the potent dichotomous stew of black and white, city and suburb, beauty and degradation, exploitation and sacrifice, opportunity and failure, redemption and damnation, good and evil — and to know without yet knowing that I had found my home for life.
Having so plighted my civic troth, I embarked on a career (such as it is) and a personal existence in which I have been fortunate to have opportunities to explore, broadly and deeply, the literal and figurative nooks and crannies of this fascinating and maddening community. Through it all, I have found — and continue to find, right up to this very same minute — that the more I know Birmingham, the more I love it.
By the same token, the more I love it, the greater my desire for its success, my determination to ensure its well being, now and for the future. And the greater my sensitivity to events, circumstances and actions that reinforce, rather than remove, the barriers that block our path to the common ground of understanding and purpose, and prevent us from achieving all we can as a community. I have always been able to view our history as a benchmark, a place where — to paraphrase our city’s patron saint, Fred Shuttlesworth — we can stand and take measure of both the remarkable distance Birmingham has come and the daunting distance we still must travel if we are to become what all of us presumably want to be: a Great City.
Birmingham is why I became a writer, when you get right down to it. The stringing together of words is my only remotely marketable skill, and in Birmingham, for both better and worse, I have never suffered from a shortage of raw material on which to hone my craft. In the never-ending process of learning more about Birmingham — most especially the good and caring people who are scattered across Jones Valley and the hills and hollows in every direction beyond, like the seeds of a harvest that if tended well will yield bounty for generations to come — I learned a great deal about myself as well.
And what better place than Birmingham to learn certain things? Where else does the meaning and intent of democracy have such resonance? What city has a greater legacy of civic activism, or a greater claim on the American promise of equality and inclusion? In what other place are there so many firsthand examples of the change that can come when people speak their minds and take specific actions in the interest of progress — or of the social and spiritual stagnation that sets in when no one does? What better place to work in the public interest? These are the questions that have kept me on, roughly speaking, the same course for my entire adult life — and, if I have my way, for the rest of it.
Still, it’s sobering sometimes to realize how long I’ve been at it, and how rocky the road of transformation has been and remains. I had one of these moments just a night ago as I write this. I was at a public event, where I met a person who moved here from Atlanta a year ago.
“How do you like Birmingham?” I asked — and then didn’t have to utter another word for what seemed like five minutes. This person not only raved about how much our city has to offer, but did so in a way that demonstrated a deep connection that has been forged. But then came the kicker.
“I just think Birmingham has such terrific potential!”
“That it does,” I agreed. “But I have to tell you, it had potential when I came here 30 years ago.”
And so it did. Which is not to say that Birmingham has not progressed, or that it is not, on balance, a much better place now than it was then. But at every turn, our growth has been stunted and the full realization of our potential thwarted by our failure, as a community, to alter the substance of the basic social contract under which Birmingham has operated since its founding. The dichotomies that divide us, the gulf of mistrust and missed opportunity that separates what we are from that to which we aspire — these are the proximate causes of every malignancy that has plagued us, from racism to political corruption to the chronic need for bold leadership at every level of the public and private sectors.
Birmingham can do better. But not without changing the very culture of our public institutions — opening all of the windows and airing things out, so to speak. The public interest is a precious thing, and when it is not treated as such by those to whom it is entrusted — be it Mayor Bell, Gov. Bentley or King George III — it is up to the public to demand an accounting. Somebody had better say something, or else all of the civic activism in the world will come to naught.
Yes, Birmingham has had other opportunities to take a great leap forward, and has failed to grasp them. This time is different, because this time we have formed a core of belief to build on, an emerging confidence in ourselves that has been lacking at previous critical junctures. But that difference — and the fact that we are, very simply, running out of time to define ourselves — makes the stakes much higher than they ever have been.
We cannot allow the same forces that have held us back before to prevail yet again. We must take hold of every opportunity to exert the power of individual and collective citizenship. We must seize what may be Birmingham’s last opportunity to mold a civic identity around the things that are ours by birthright.