More Than Steel Mills Are Silent
By Kelly Dowe
Vol. 4, No. 4, 1982, pp. 3-5
Several times, thinking about it all, I’ve been taken back to the First Presbyterian Church in Montgomery.
It is a particular Sunday in the early 1960’s that I remember. I must have been eleven. I was waiting in our pew in the middle section of the cavernous sanctuary for services to begin, my family nested around me. My mother and my brother sat on one side, and two great-aunts, whose husbands, my uncles, were an elder and a deacon in the church, sat on the other. The air was cool and still, and in the enormous room with its high ceilings and dim light, where stained-glass and brass appointments forever needed polishing, I felt an abiding sense of security. That was when the commotion began.
Not much happened that I could see, but it centered on the main entrance behind us and sparked a crackling tension among the worshippers. Several heads swivelled toward the rear of the church, only to turn quickly around again. Several of the men strode with quiet purposefulness toward the rear doors. I could see nothing, but in a few minutes I knew the excitement had ended. The men returned to their seats. The organ prelude began on schedule. It was only after church, probably when we were driving home, that I learned what had happened: a small group of black people had tried to attend our Sunday service. They were turned away at the door. Someone, perhaps one of my uncles, had simply told them they were not welcome. They left without incident. Everyone seemed to think the situation had been handled masterfully. The church had behaved correctly and in the best possible taste.
That was twenty years ago. The incident re-emerged in my mind with startling clarity this spring, when I learned that Birmingham’s Downtown Rotary Club, one of the most exclusive organizations in the city, had quietly voted to continue its policy of excluding black members. Specifically, when Rotarian Angus McEachran, editor of the Birmingham Post-Herald. asked the membership to remove the word “white” from the Constitution’s membership requirements–“Any white adult male person of good moral character”–he was voted down, one hundred twenty to ninety. It was the culmination of a three-year campaign McEachran had waged within the club to bring about the change. He resigned shortly afterward.
The club’s reaffirmation of its barrier against blacks, erected when the club was founded in 1913, made national headlines and prompted an outcry from Rotary International and Rotary clubs around the globe. On June 3, nearly a month after the original May 12 vote, the membership reversed itself and voted overwhelmingly to ask its board to reconsider the ban on black members. But when the Rotary board of directors met, it voted unanim-
ously not to delete the word “white,” but to drop the club’s sixty-nine-year-old bylaws and to adopt the consitution of Rotary International which makes no mention of race.
Despite having their feet held to the fire, the Rotarians, like we Presbyterians years ago, had remained firmly in control and behaved correctly and in good taste. They could pretend the club had made no error, not even in basic practicality, and no one had to apologize or recant. They obfuscated the real issue–their decision, as an institution, to practice deliberate racial discrimination in choosing members. Many Rotarians later said they had not voted against having black members, but against overruling the board of directors. That, they said, was not how Rotary works.
The more I thought about the Rotary vote, the angrier I became. I was angry at the corporate board chairmen, the bank presidents, and the lawyers who recorded their bigotry. I was angry at all forms of institutional racism–the all-white country clubs with their columns and black footmen, the segregated churches, debutante societies and service guilds. I was especially angry at those Rotarians who knew better but were too complacent to speak out. Six are ministers or rabbis. One is president of a Baptist university. Did they feel no tearing sense of injustice? McEachran had already taken the lead. All they had to do was add their voices to his.
I was angry at the Rotarians for obliging all those people who think Birmingham is the national headquarters for racism. Many Rotarians do not even live in Birmingham, but in affluent, outlying communities. The run-of-the-mill Birmingham resident, who might live in an integrated neighborhood or send his kids to an integrated school, didn’t seem to deserve this new black eye. In the Birmingham school system, which is seventy-five percent black, test scores are at and above national averages and integrated PTA’s are strong. Through a network of ninety-three neighborhood organizations, blacks and whites have come to city government jointly with successful appeals for improved drainage, better lighting, and more recreational opportunities. Under Richard Arrington, the city’s first black mayor, the crime rate has dropped, the budget remains balanced, and the city has worked with developers and merchants to revitalize the downtown business district. Obviously the city has a long way to go in race relations, but it has come a long way since 1963.
After a while my anger gave way to cooler questions. Why had the Rotarians put their racist posture on paper, when they could just as easily keep blacks out by the exclusive nature of the club? “Extremely difficult” was one Rotarian’s description to me of the process of getting any new member into the club. “To get somebody in the Birmingham Rotary Club would take about six months.
You must have so many people to nominate you and so many people to second it. Some of these people pride being in the Downtown Rotary Club more than they pride being in a country club,” he said. And the chances of a black person’s admission by the current membership? “Practically impossible.”
Why would the likes of the head of the local Merrill Lynch office, I wondered, the president of the First Alabama Bank of Birmingham, and the president of the Alabama Power Company find it so difficult to have lunch alongside a black federal judge or a black insurance company executive? And in bad economic times, why would Rotarians jeopardize the city’s already shaky image with a written ban on black members? Unemployment now stands at thirteen percent. Did the members believe news of their vote would not get out? Displaying awesome faith in Rotarian discretion, eight former Rotary presidents mailed a joint letter to each club member a few days before the original vote, urging defeat of the proposed change. “As everyone knows, it is a very controversial and complicated subject . . . The fact that it is even coming before the entire membership is not only damaging to our club, but also our community,” they advised.
The scuttling about before the vote would have been funny, in retrospect, had the outcome not been so dismaying. One particularly prominent parson cornered McEachran at a cocktail party to wish him luck. “I wrote to the board for you. And I’m going to vote with you,” he said. McEachran replied, “I’m counting on you to do more than that.” The minister backpedaled. “Angus,” he said, “when you’ve been here as long as I have, you’ll learn that in Birmingham you have to pick your fights.”
Even the image of Angus McEachran taking on Birmingham’s business upper crust is funny. McEachran, who constantly battles extra pounds, who routinely hangs up the telephone when kept on “hold” more than thirty seconds, whose reporters make fun of his stoop-shouldered gait and grunting speech, hardly seems like a wedge of social change. Deficient in the skills of small talk, impatient with diplomacy, he is apt to end prolonged debate by tossing a verbose dissident from his office. But in the Downtown Rotary Club, where acceptance of the business elite deterred the voice of objection for sixty-nine years, McEachran alone was willing to be consistently recognized as breaking rank.
You could name a dozen reasons why individual Rotarians might have wanted to retain their color ban. Many are elderly and longtime residents of the city where change has never come easy. The average age of the eight former presidents who mailed the letter, for example, was seventy-four. Many, with their executive positions, their homes in all-white suburbs like Vestavia and Mountain Brook, and their memberships in all-white country clubs and churches, probably expected to continue their racial isolation. Some, seeing the Downtown Rotary Club not as a service organization, but as an exclusive social club, perhaps saw no more reason to admit blacks to it than they would to their country club.
The phenomenon is not that a few, wealthy, conservative men are able to isolate themselves from the realities of a changing world and insist on systematic exclusion of
non-whites. Southern history is full of affluent people who, while they didn’t ride in the night with torches and whips, urged on those who did with their voices of approval. James Armstrong, a black Birmingham barber who saw his entire family arrested in the 1960’s after attempts at integration, summed it up best. “The Klansman doesn’t always wear a hood. Sometimes he wears a tie,” he said. “It took me a long time to realize that.”
The depressing thing is that racists are allowed to prevail in 1982. That’s what makes me most uncomfortable of all. Because the people who allow it are not confined to Birmingham’s Downtown Rotary Club. They are all of us whites who fail to bring black families to our churches, who don’t ask black couples to consider buying the house next door, who don’t include blacks regularly in our socializing, for fear of offending our friends who are not so right-thinking as we.
“The ultimate tragedy of Birmingham was not the brutality of the bad people but the silence of the good people.” Martin Luther King Jr. said it in his 1963 book, Why We Can’t Wait. It still hits too close for comfort.
Kelly Dowe is a freelance writer living in Birmingham, Alabama.