I am not an inveterate — and certainly not an enthusiastic — reader of my own published work. For one thing, when I do happen to look back at something I wrote weeks or months or years ago, I spot every weakness in it, and find myself mentally rewriting it. For another, and on the healthier side, I have managed to adopt the attitude that once something is on paper or in the electronic sphere, it is beyond my power to do anything other than own up to it.
That said, of course, I do find it both necessary and helpful to use my own work as reference. I was in the midst of doing just that over last weekend when I ran across a piece of Birmingham history that I had not thought of for some time, and indeed may temporarily have forgotten — and which I am glad to have stumbled back upon for the instructive light it sheds upon the present day.
Back in 1958, a quartet of prominent Birmingham civic leaders resolved to do something to rouse the city from what had become a reflexive and ingrained inferiority complex. At the dawn of that decade, Birmingham had been home to only 5,000 fewer residents than its neighbor to the east, Atlanta. By its end, with the Georgia capital having branded itself “The City Too Busy to Hate” and the onetime “Magic City” increasingly shackled by the iron-fisted determination of its city government to maintain racial segregation at all costs, the difference had grown to 150,000.
The increasingly lopsided rivalry with Atlanta was only one factor that contributed to what can only be described as a sense of stasis among Birmingham residents who were attuned to the popular view of the city among outsiders. This was especially true of national journalists and others who made public their perception of Birmingham as, variously — and, generally, simultaneously — dirty, racist, provincial and otherwise benighted.
Reinforcing this poor self-image was hardly the intent of the men — real estate developer Sidney Smyer, businessman James Head, Hayes Aircraft President Louis Jeffers and attorney Joseph Johnson — who reached into their pockets to fund personally a study of the city by the Louisville-based Southern Institute of Management. The intent of the “metropolitan audit” was to create a multifaceted profile of Birmingham’s civic character, using statistics, empirical research and anecdotal information gathered from interviews with local residents.
As Head recalled to me in a 2005 interview — he was 101 years old and as sharp as a tack at the time, and would die in 2010 at the age of 106 — he and his fellow funders hoped that the audit would highlight positives as well as negatives, identifying both areas of need and substantive opportunities for moving the community forward. The idea, he said, was to generate broad enthusiasm that would prompt progressive action from the public and private sectors.
“There were several issues we felt ought to be looked at,” Head told me. “Healthcare, jobs, transportation — important needs in the community that we thought we might get some progress on if we could get a little push. We agreed that it might help move us away from the past and give us some reassurance for the future.”
As it turned out, the audit never saw the light of day. In fact, it was never completed. The first phase of the study was a questionnaire that was distributed to several hundred businessmen and civic leaders. Collectively — and almost unanimously — the responses bared grave and deeply rooted doubts about the future of Birmingham.
The report the firm compiled from the questionnaire’s results was nothing but bad news. Nearly 50 years later, the pain still seemed fresh for Head as he remembered it as a litany of concerns over the impacts of racial unrest, the lack of cohesion between Birmingham and its suburbs, and the abiding aversion to risk and change that characterized both business and governmental leadership in the area.
Around the same time I interviewed Head, I spoke to UAB historian Bob Corley about the abortive audit and the circumstances that surrounded it. Corley flatly termed it “a slap in the face” that “sort of stunned” Head and his concerned cohorts.
“The audit had been touted as an exercise in enlightenment, something that would light the path to the future,” Corley said then. “Instead, it brought out the prevalence of the inferiority complex, the race problems, the leadership problem, the fact that Birmingham didn’t envision itself as a dynamic city. [The funders] didn’t expect the assessment to be that blunt.”
Faced with the tone of the responses to the questionnaire and the unambiguously negative preliminary conclusions of the researchers they had hired, the four sponsors decided to cut their losses. They pulled the plug on the remainder of the audit, circulating the draft report from the Southern Institute of Management among a few select peers and then allowing it to die a quiet death.
“I can’t say I was surprised by anything in it, in terms of the problems it identified,” Head recalled. “But the sheer negativity of it shocked us. We knew there were conditions in the city that were holding us back. But here we were, trying to get the message across that these conditions didn’t have to prevail always, and we find out that the people we needed to help make change happen were questioning whether change was even possible.
“It set us back on our heels.”
Now, if you’re anything like me (God help you), you read that and are wondering, at least a little, just how far Birmingham actually has progressed since 1958 — at least as it relates to the essential problems that confront and, seemingly, confound us. Look back at Head’s comments, in which he lists healthcare, jobs and transportation as chief areas of concern at that time. There is about that a “ripped from today’s headlines” quality that is unsettling and not a little disheartening.
The proper response to those feelings, at least in my view, is to use them to inspire us to action — to banish once and for all the ghosts that continue to haunt us. We can either leave for future residents of Birmingham the same legacy of shortfall and stasis that was handed down to us, or we can take the undeniable opportunities that are at hand and do something with them.
I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of rereading the same old story.