A mayor who was never addicted to steel.
Reviewed by Charles Morgan Jr.
Vol. 12, No. 2, 1990, pp. 22-23
BACK TO BIRMINGHAM: Richard Barrington, Jr. and His Times by Jimmie Lewis Franklin (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1989).
Whether to review the biography, the subject of it, the place, or “the times” is rarely answered by reviewers. Here is my answer. Dr. Franklin, a professor of history at Vanderbilt University, has produced a carefully researched chronicle of the life of Mayor Arrington. He strives for accuracy and seems to achieve it. It is worth reading if you are running against Richard Arrington or are seeking his support.
Each year in the United States fifty thousand new books are published. Whether fifty thousand good sentences are annually written or uttered in the United States is a question more pertinent to our collective future than are most books which, if put to the torch, really would produce a bonfire of the vanities.
In this book Dick Arrington emerges as a man who from college “watched closely the unfolding civil rights events” and who “preferred a life of the mind” to a life of politics, which is, apparently, mindless. The book does him a disservice for it is a scholarly vivisection of his political campaigns and service such as would render any politician–mayors Daley and Curley of Chicago and Boston, even the fictional Frank Skeffington–boring. Of course it is possible to write about politics in a way that would make the lives of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Huey P. Long, and John F. Kennedy boring.
“Things have been mighty quiet here lately,” some used to comment about post-1963 Birmingham. True enough, and it is hard to tell an interesting story about The Quiet. The city, however, could provide a good novelist virgin timber. The bawdyhouses and wildness of Birmingham’s early years, the struggles of immigrants in the only non-seacoast Southern city that had many of them, and the competition of poor blacks and poor whites to get the right to live in company houses and buy from The Company’s stores would provide some writers a rich prelude to changed politics in what black folks used to call the “Johannesburg of the South.”
During the Depression, Birmingham–quite understandably–had about as many Communist Patty members as there were in the rest of the South. In its bad old days U.S. Steel exercised raw power. At one time it even expropriated a substantial share of the county’s tax dollars and invested them in “the Company’s schools.”
Why not? The entire city had been created for steel. In the early years Lloyd Noland, a physician fresh from work on the Panama Canal, was hired by U.S. Steel to drain work areas to make them inhospitable to mosquitos and habitable for its labor. Even the way that the water flowed had been decided by steel.
Today there is concern about the homeless. In Birmingham in the 1930s there were those who tried to live in cold, dirty coke ovens for want of another home–and were evicted-but it was the near killing of a white man, Joseph Gelders, by prominent citizens whose livelihood was drawn from U.S. Steel and the ensuing investigation by Senator Robert LaFollette’s committee that resulted in a detente-like end of violence between steel and labor. These events did give William Bradford Huie his first novel, Mud on the Stars (renamed Wild River) but other than that they go unremembered.
In the mid-1940s the city’s efforts at post-war diversification were futile, for steel owned the town’s economy “lock, stock, and mill,” beginning with 50,000 prosperous steel and mine workers.
It was the civil rights revolution and the decline of steel that set Birmingham free and made the election of a Richard Arrington inevitable, but this book treats them like far away ghosts that needlessly haunt the city and its culture.
Dr. Arrington was not a participant in civil rights and labor struggles. He is a product of them, an heir to them, a kind of trustee for the past, and as he seeks to forge a way into that future he is governed by that past.
The driving force of the city was steel. It left. Blue-collar Birmingham stayed behind and so did the ever-present memory of the power of steel to veto all other private en-
terprises. Like East European nations that depended on government for their capital, Birmingham and its bankers depended on steel. Like the white paternalism that governed opportunities for black folks, steel’s paternalism became the habit of white folks. Local business leaders were leaders in satellite industries, like the slag companies that sold waste products, the fabricators that fashioned steel products, and the casters of pipes that left on the trains that had come to Birmingham because of steel. The leading citizens were bankers and barristers who served whims delivered from Pittsburgh and New York.
The world changed. Airplanes, for example, flew over, around, and through Birmingham. Today, Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, and Miami serve the transportation needs of the South. Some might wonder why, after deregulation, a few of Birmingham’s wealthy residents didn’t buy a jet and set up an airline all their own. The answer probably comes from habits of dependence developed by business leaders who depended on Steel for all major decisions. Today Birmingham does have hard-driving, young entrepreneurs. One reason is that these younger people had never become addicted to Steel.
It was government, state and federal, that created the new Birmingham presided over by Mayor Arrington. Now the largest employer is the University of Alabama’s sprawling medical complex. That brought to the city outstanding physicians, who brought with them others with entrepreneurial attitudes. They and younger citizens offer the “Magic City” its best chance to recapture that hundred year-old monicker.
One night a few years ago I went to a fundraising affair for Mayor Arrington in Washington, D.C. Held in a rather dimly lit room and populated by perhaps one hundred people, ninety-five of whom were black, local black leadership chatted until Richard Arrington entered. As he spoke, it dawned on me that I had heard everything he was saying: the bad days of the past are gone; Birmingham is moving forward as a progressive city; hope is abounding; tomorrow will be a better day.
Richard Arrington sounded exactly like his white predecessor, David J. Vann, who had sounded exactly like his white predecessors George Siebels and Albert Boutwell, who had sounded exactly like their white predecessors Jimmy Morgan and Cooper Green. Mayors of Birmingham were its official greeters and for more than forty years I had heard them speak of hope and promise and dreams. But more important were the voices that had come from the pulpits of black churches and the police commissioner’s bull horns.
Yet this Mayor was speaking the same “Mayor’s words” in a different time. Now the state has a Republican governor and the county commission is presided over by a Republican Harvard graduate named Katopodis who has a doctorate. Blacks represent the city in both houses of the state legislature. The Democratic congressman is Jewish. Some judges are black, others are white women. The police chief is from Brooklyn.
The words uttered by Dick Arrington’s white predecessors had been unbelievable. It dawned on me now that I believed those same words when they were spoken by Dick Arrington, probably because of his race. Birmingham, Alabama, had not merely elected a mayor of reason–it often had done that–but had elected a black man as mayor; and–rest in peace Bull Connor–Birmingham, Alabama, has a mayor who is a PhD. And all because the civil rights movement came to town, and “big steel” left, and the City was set free.
The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture says of Charles Morgan Jr. that he has been “involved in much of the litigation that altered political and social life” of the South. During the 1960s up to the mid 1970s when be departed company from the A.C.L.U. and took up private practice in Washington, no lawyer did more or with more commitment, and none with more lasting cadet.