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Birmingham, Alabama: A much more interesting city

Published
September 10, 2021
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ALABAMA sits in the southeast of the United States. The population of the state is roughly five million and the biggest city in the state is its capital city, is Birmingham. It is a place filled with very recent civil rights history and an iconic place to visit for those interested in that. I mean, I only have to mention the name of Dr Martin Luther King Jr — that says it all.

I stayed in a place that cost $74 a night. It was horrific, the roof leaked and the tiles in the hallways were wet so you had to be careful you didn’t slip over.

I went out into the city and looked around and met a few people. One woman I spoke to told me she prayed every day. Her husband was a cop and had two sons. We talked about the old civil rights protest days, and she surprised me by saying, “you know they had to put the dogs on the children because they wouldn’t stop what they were told to do”. She said, “if a cop, if a policeman tells you to do something you do it”. I thought well not necessarily, not when it comes to protesting, because the state of Alabama had opposed the Federal Government, segregation was meant to be ending but it didn’t, so people protested.

There was a huge civil rights movement in Alabama in the 1950s, started by Rosa Parks and her Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat for a someone who was white on a bus in the smaller Alabama city of Montgomery, so a yearlong boycott of the bus system began. It hurt the bus companies because 75% of the passengers were black people, and it got their attention. In 1956 the Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional for public transport to be segregated.

(In later years, buses were also used to mix up school pupils from majority-black and majority-white neighbourhoods by federal decree so that they would attend the same classes in school, a policy called ‘busing’. It is interesting to note that interesting to note that in the 1970s Joe Biden was opposed to this further extension of integration.)

In 1960 Birmingham was still one of the most divided cities, in terms of black vs white. Students from the Birmingham University were part of the protest the woman was referring to. The police used dogs on children and the students who were part of the protest. People went out and protested, nonviolently and in civilly disobedient ways — so they didn’t listen to the policemen telling them to go home. These protests helped give rise to the 1964 Civil Rights Act: meaning no one should be discriminated for in anything simply because of their colour.

Especially interesting for me was a downtown museum and interpretive centre called the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. There, I learned that a local commander had arrested so many people that they had to use schools to keep people in.

Birmingham was one of the biggest industrial cities in the south. Back in 1960 the population was 720,000, of which 240,000 were black. It is really interesting how the policies of South African apartheid and American segregation were almost identical, in terms of buses, housing, etc. After blacks got the vote at the end of the Civil War and for a time played an active role in politics, the black vote was gradually suppressed by means of various tricks such as poll taxes and property taxes, as well as the outright terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan.

In Alabama, many black people were disenfranchised well into the sixties. This was a policy that the Civil Rights Act confronted head-on, though voter suppression continues to this day by means of policies linked to the criminal justice system, such as denying ex-prisoners the right to vote: policies Michelle Harrison calls The New Jim Crow in her book of that title, after the nickname for the old systems of suppression of black civil rights. In Alabama, they just simply refused to follow the anti-racism statutes that were eventually enacted at the federal level, where racist movements like the Klan had ultimately failed to take over. They said it was a state matter. Dr King was arrested and locked up in a Birmingham city jail, where he wrote a famous letter of protest.

There were the so-called freedom riders, busloads of students and activists down from the north: they were dragged out and beaten up and some even murdered. It looked like it was extremely hateful, and it wasn’t actually that long ago.

I walked into Kelly Ingram Park, where important protests had happened in the past and which was now full of powerful sculptures on civil rights themes.

Along with the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and several other local landmarks associated with the Civil Rights Movement, Kelly Ingram Park (named after a World War One sailor) is part of an area designated as the Birmingham Civil Rights District, and also proclaimed as the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument by President Barack Obama in 2017.

I met and interviewed a woman named Judy; she went there every Friday out of respect for what had happened. She believed that white people need to show that black lives do matter.

I didn’t realise that people had set fires in churches in the past: it was a pretty heavy time. There was a movie called The Birmingham Five that I made a note to watch. In fact, there was a Klan rally scheduled soon even in 2016, for goodness’s sake.

More recently, some Confederate monuments have been taken down in Birmingham and other Alabama cities, with the mayor of Birmingham, Randall Woodfin, opting for his city to pay a fine under the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act after tearing down one of the monuments in 2020, rather than risk further civil unrest in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and other such high-Black Lives Matter cases by not tearing it down.

Not all the statues in Birmingham are to do with Confederates and protest movements, though! Nor, I would imagine would people from Birmingham want to be known just for that. The city’s less political monuments include a golden 1920s statue of a goddess of electric power and light called the Divinity of Light but more often known as ‘Miss Electra’, on top of the art deco Birmingham Power Building, and another statue of the Roman god Vulcan, god of the forge, dating back to 1904. A marble replica of Miss Electra was also unveiled at a lower level of the Birmingham Power Building in 1988.

I also visited the Iron and Steel Museum of Alabama at McCalla, in the suburbs of Birmingham. Birmingham stands on vast reservoirs of iron ore, which give their name to the Red Mountains just outside the city. At the time of the American Civil War, Birmingham did not yet exist, and the iron ore reserves of Alabama were largely untapped, the Southern slavers preferring to grow cotton instead.

You might recall that scene in Gone with the Wind where Rhett Butler chides his fellow Southerners for proposing to go to war against the North without a single cannon factory to their name. The Confederates had some iron works but not anything comparable to the North. Which is one reason why they lost.

Birmingham, which was supposed to be the cradle of a new and more industrial South, was founded in 1871. It was named after Birmingham, England, at that time the most important industrial city in the UK. There were Polish and Lebanese people who worked there, immigrants from all over the world, plus the Scottish and the English.

In truth, I loved Birmingham. I walked into a hippie store in the Five Ways district of inner-city Birmingham; and that’s where they had all the restaurants as well. I went to a place called Golden Temple health, foods and vegetarian café: they had some great meals there.

Judy introduced me to her friends Sherry and Winnie. All three were white women, and they happily volunteered to talk with me about an organisation they had just founded, called White Birminghamians for Black Lives. I wanted to find out more and they readily agreed to speak with me. I hit the record button on my phone and began with the question, “So tell me, why did you start the movement?”

“The name of the action is ‘White Birminghamians for Black Lives’,” Judy told me, “and we started it on September the 23rd. It was the week of the police shooting of Mr Crutcher in Tulsa, and Mr Scott in Charlotte in North Carolina. And I just felt that I had to get out of the house and show some opposition to the rash of police shootings, it’s been a rash of them, but they have been going on for decades. And so, I posted an event on Facebook and we had the first witness that afternoon, and we have continued them on Fridays since then. And the point is to particularly invite white people who have a conscience to oppose violence and discrimination against people of colour, to come out and make that statement — to have a place that they know that they will feel welcome and that they will be given something constructive to do. And it’s for everyone who feels that white people need to stand up for racial justice.”

“Ok and have you just got one organisation here or has it grown into a national organisation?,” I asked, interested and completely absorbed by the three women who had volunteered to talk with me.

“Well, we are not an organisation and don’t have any ambitions to be that,” Judy said, gesturing with her hands, “we are simply a series of activities that take place in this park on Fridays. But we work closely with the local Black Lives Matter chapter — there is a Black Lives Matter Birmingham chapter, and there is about to be a local chapter of ‘showing up for racial justice’, a chapter of the national group, that particularly organises among white people, in conjunction with Black Lives Matter. And we are in touch with a number of other good things that are going on within the city — that’s one thing that we do is, help people know what all is going on and how, if they come to a witness here, they can learn about other things they can do in an organisational way about social justice and other issues.”

I hit on some serious issues: “I’ve seen a recent documentary about the rise of the Ku Klux Clan and also there was a Ku Klux Klan march in North Carolina in the third of December — and that occurring had been released by the black member — I have forgotten her name, I’m not good with names, on the Democratic National Committee. Do you think that more white people are going to have to stand up and show that they believe black lives matter, considering the rise of the Ku Klux Klan?”

“Well, I think it is a dangerous time in our country,” Judy said forthrightly, while Sherry and Winnie nodded in agreement, “I think the politics of the recent Presidential campaign have emboldened a lot of the old prejudices and fears, that have never died away, and that we have never dealt with adequately. And so that is one thing that we are doing is casting a wide net and inviting all people of good conscience to come out and tell the truth about themselves, which is that at heart we want a real democracy, and we want equality for everybody in the nation, so it is a time of danger for our democracy. And there are negative voices that are empowered, but that just means that it’s a time where people of good will have to be more visible and more vocal than ever and cannot lose hope.”

“Yeah, it’s very cynical that divide and conquer has worked so beautifully and so manipulatively,” Sherry added. “You know, appealing to the worst in people — let’s blame the immigrants not our government that has really failed us, in terms of some of the crises that we have gone through.”

“Very interesting,” I said, “because I just went and visited a local shopping centre. I went and bought food for a friend of mine who I’m going to send to Detroit, and I said everyone says why did you want to come to Birmingham, and I said ‘Well, Birmingham seems a lot more interesting than Charlotte!’ “And the women there turned around and said, ‘What is there to see here?’, and I said ‘Well you know you have got a history of civil unrest and so on’.”

It’s amazing that the segregationists here were so stubborn. The President had to personally intervene to stop the segregationist policies that still pervaded the state of Alabama in the 1960’s which I found really interesting.

And they just wouldn’t, I mean the Alabama State and the city would just not stop it, at the end of the day.

So that just goes to show that you know, this place here was a bastion of extreme racism. And I wonder from the reaction I got off the shop owner, she turned around and said but oh they disobeyed the law that’s why they put the dogs onto the children — and I said, “sorry this was just two blocks down at a shop where I bought food.” I had been mortified and intrigued by all this information I had recently learned, and so I told these three women. “Are you serious?” Judy said raising her eyebrows. The other woman muttered and shook their heads. “I am serious” I told them. “Wow,” they said in tandem.

“That shows you, you know we have come a long way but there is still a long way to go” Winnie said sadly.

“And her three — her husband and her two sons, are in the police force — current police force” I informed them.

“Oh jeez” Judy exclaimed.

“Well yeah” Sherry said looking around at our faces.

“And that’s just walking around, buying food, coming from a local shop” I said.

“We’ve not come to terms with our history here” Sherry mentioned still shaking her head in disbelief.

“That’s one reason why we do the witnesses here,” Judy told me matter- of-factly, “to help Birmingham, white Birminghamians, work out what their history means to them. And help them figure out how to orient themselves in regard to the history of their city, which is that, if we are honest, we are in awe of the movement for human rights which took place here, and we can only appreciate and support the great advances in human rights that the courage of black people in Birmingham brought about, and with that reorientation their only response is ‘I want to be a part of it, I want to be a part of this movement’. And there are ways for white people to be a part of this movement, and so that’s one of our missions is to help people rethink and reorient themselves rather than going around their whole lives with this antagonism and this confusion and this dissociation within themselves and from their city — we want them to feel an integral part of the city, and integral part of this movement, that’s why we do it the way we do it.”

“Why do you think they are so confused about their history,” I asked seriously. And in reply I received their answers.

“Denial” Winnie said. “White people?” I queried.

“That’s a philosophical question — fundamentalism, the world over, is going to kill us all, eventually, if anything does,” said Judy. “And a lot of it can be laid at the foot of a misguided, exclusionary, punishing religion, that is at the heart and soul of our region — But nothing is exclusively true to the south. If this election has shown anything, it’s that the nation is capable of being Alabama.”

I felt I had gained a little more insider knowledge, if you would call it that. I thanked them for their time all the same and went on my way.

At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a person showed me an online photo of Michelle and Barack Obama, America’s graceful first couple, that had been altered on a computer to make them look monkey- like.

Quite apart from the President himself, I’d always thought Michelle Obama to be America’s most elegant first lady since Jacqueline Kennedy. Where did these people who’d doctored the photo get off?

The person who showed me the doctored photo had been crying about it and she was saying “how were these images allowed to be?” And obviously they are allowed to be. I mean where else would you see images like that of the President and his spouse?

This sort of thing would probably be illegal in New Zealand too, not because of the prominence of the people in the image but because it seems that we have somewhat stronger laws against hate speech and incitement than the Americans seem to have. I forwarded the picture to some people in New Zealand, and they were shocked and said I should delete it.

The person who showed me the image told me that her great-grandparents were slaves and she said she has been studying for six years, and she doesn’t allow her children to accept what the mainstream media tells them. So, that was very interesting that she said that she doesn’t believe anything that she reads in the media anymore, and also that democracy in this country with the Russian hacking is very much in question.

She said she is just going to teach her children what is real. She did think there was a conspiracy or hate campaign against Hillary Clinton, and also blamed the mainstream media for what took place. She thought the media gave Trump the candidate far too much free publicity over all his antics, in ways that eclipsed the fact that the media was mostly critical of him. The images trumped the words.

She’s not the only one to have worked that out. Images trump the words, no pun intended. Trump shouldn’t have been allowed to hog the TV screens for about eighteen months, as America’s number one naughty celebrity.

She just turned around and said that she’s going to step back and, you know, watch the show (an apt metaphor). She was very positive about the whole thing, although I gathered that she didn’t vote for Trump. She thought he would trip himself up pretty soon. I had to agree, at the end of the day he would trip himself up. It was an interesting conversation.

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