The striking thing about Birmingham to an outsider is that it seems so advanced industrially and so retarded politically. It has seized the scientific revolution and rejected the social revolution of our time. Accordingly, it is engaged in a remarkable and hazardous experiment: It is trying to back full speed into the future.
Those words were written 54 years ago, during the Civil Rights demonstrations that took place in Birmingham during 1963 and the violent reaction to them on the part of Birmingham’s city government and its allies in the Ku Klux Klan and other organizations determined to resist racial integration by any means necessary. They were written by James Reston, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The New York Times who came to our fair city — the civic slogan of the time might ring a bell: “It’s Nice to Have You in Birmingham” — to report on the turmoil in its streets and the attitudes of its people.
Naturally, there were those in Birmingham who were quick to condemn Reston’s assessment, saying that it gave an incomplete picture of the city, or even that it missed the mark entirely. In his 1995 book, Politics and Welfare in Birmingham, 1900-1975 — one of the most incisive analyses ever written of the reasons behind the successes and failures of our community, at least through the first three quarters of the 20th century — Ed LaMonte, a longtime professor at Birmingham-Southern College and onetime aide to Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington Jr., had something to say about Reston’s view of Birmingham and the local reaction to it.
This view of Birmingham, LaMonte wrote, could be dismissed by angry local leaders on the grounds that he was, after all, an outsider who had spent too little time in the city to assess accurately its true condition. His column and other accounts by the national media concerning the city during the early 1960s have been cited in later years as the source of an inaccurate negative “image” of Birmingham that often has been viewed as the city’s greatest liability in its efforts to overcome the reputation gained during the racial demonstrations of 1963. But the generally critical evaluations of Birmingham by national commentators were not the only ones made during these years; a few local spokesmen for change reached basically the same conclusions. One young attorney reviewed the recent history of the city in 1964 and concluded that Birmingham had been a “city whose leadership passionately did not want to lead.”
I bring up all of this by way of asking one simple question: What’s the difference between Birmingham a half-century ago and Birmingham today?
Before you answer that question, if you’re inclined to do so, consider the following:
- In April 1963, the same year that Reston wrote his rather scathing indictment of Birmingham, the people of Birmingham went to the polls and decisively rejected Bull Connor, the very symbol of segregation, and elected the much more moderate Albert Boutwell as mayor, with 64 percent of registered voters participating.
- In 1979, when Birmingham elected Arrington as its first black mayor, turnout in the primary was 55 percent, and in the subsequent runoff jumped to just under 63 percent.
- In 1999, when Bernard Kincaid defeated William Bell — who was then serving as interim mayor after Arrington’s early retirement from office, and who now, of course, is the city’s incumbent chief executive — in a runoff, voter turnout was 46 percent.
- In 2010, when Bell defeated Patrick Cooper in the election to fill the unexpired term of Mayor Larry Langford, who had been removed from office upon his conviction on corruption charges, turnout in the runoff was 41 percent.
- In 2013, when Bell won election to the full term he currently is serving — an election that was the first in which elections for mayor and city council were on the same ballot since the city adopted council districts in 1989 — turnout was 21 percent. (Yes, I know that the mayor faced only token opposition, and that several council members either ran unopposed or also had less-than-stellar challengers; and if you’re willing to accept — or, certainly, to offer — that excuse, then you’re part of the problem.)
I’ve written something like this before in this space (probably more than once), but here’s the thing: There is a direct and powerful relationship between the extent to which people vote and that to which elected officials feel obligated to provide good government. As citizens, we can only demand from the system what we put into it, and to the extent that we choose not to participate, then our right to complain about the actions of our government is diminished.
In terms of differences between 1963 and today, the voting figures I’ve cited would appear to suggest, for one thing, that progressively fewer people in Birmingham have bothered to rouse themselves to care about who represents them at City Hall. If that doesn’t suggest that, politically speaking, Birmingham is more stunted — to use a more currently acceptable term than the one Reston employed all those years ago — than ever, I’m open to entertaining alternative explanations for our declining participation in the selection of our elected leaders.
Speaking of leaders, let’s consider the quote about Birmingham’s leadership that closes the excerpt above from LaMonte’s book. The quote is from another book, A Time to Speak, written by Charles Morgan, a noted (white) civil rights lawyer who lived in Birmingham at the time of the demonstrations in 1963. The day after the deadly bombing at 16th Street Baptist Church in September of that year, Morgan delivered a speech to the Young Men’s Business Club, in which he asked and answered one of the most loaded rhetorical questions in history.
“Who did it?” Morgan asked. “We all did.”
A Time to Speak — billed by its publisher, Harper & Row, as “a storm warning of the death-in-life that awaits any community where the good people remain silent” — was released in February of 1964. Later that year, faced with an unending hail of threats and fearing for the safety of his family, Morgan left Birmingham. And whether you believe that his leaving was prudent or cowardly or something in between, his statement about the leadership of the city — that it “passionately did not want to lead” — echoes across the decades and into the present.
It echoes, and on the echoes wafts the question: What’s the difference between Birmingham a half-century ago and Birmingham today?
I’m not even talking about political leadership here — not completely, anyway, not exclusively. I’m talking about progressive leadership, about leaders who are progressive in the sense of talking about things and supporting things and doing things that bring progress to the city as a whole, with the measuring stick for that progress being the extent to which those at the bottom are lifted up, rather than that to which those at the top are lifted higher, made richer, insulated further from the reality of the majority of Birmingham’s citizens.
What is the difference between now and 50 years ago? Well, 50 years ago, the fire of the Civil Rights era forged a class of leadership the likes of which Birmingham had never seen before. These were people who were invested in Birmingham personally, and not just financially or politically or by a happy accident of birth — people who were not only accepting, but also welcoming of a social order in which the broader concerns of the community took precedence over the delineations of race and class that had bound the city to the past at the expense of the present and future.
Now? We are dazzled by superficialities, like rubes in the big city for the first time. We are obsessed with Birmingham’s “image,” with how we are viewed by outsiders, while vast swaths of our fellow citizens starve for opportunity, watch their neighborhoods deteriorate before their eyes, wonder why some parts of the community seem to get everything they want while others get nothing they need.
Here again, if that’s alright with you — if your entire image of Birmingham is based on the fact that you’re fortunate enough to live in a “good” neighborhood — then you’re part of the problem.
And what is the problem? The problem, as it always has been in Birmingham, is that we can do better. Not only that, but we should do better, and yet, ultimately, we do not. We like to think that Birmingham has changed, but a close look suggests that perhaps it has not — or, worse, to the extent that it has, a dismaying portion of that change has not been for the better.
The history of Birmingham is a history of conflict and crisis, of noble failures and missed opportunities, of revolution and reconciliation. No city in America can rightly claim to have undergone such transformation, and yet to have remained so essentially the same. We are not what we were, but cannot for the life of us discover or define what we are.
What will change that? The answer to that is simple: You and I, my friends. It’s up to us. Progress in Birmingham — elusive and halting as it has been, as difficult as it has proved to sustain and build upon — has always come from the ground up. We need to take our citizenship seriously, to demand the best from ourselves and our fellow citizens and our leaders, to refuse to rest until we have built a city in which all of its people can take due pride.
If that happens, we truly will have reversed the tide of our history. We will have shed the baggage that has burdened our city since the day of its birth.
We will have cast the question asked and answered in shame a half-century ago into a new and brilliant light:
Who did it? We all did.