Back to Birmingham

Back to Birmingham

By John Egerton

Vol. 20, No. 4, 1998 pp. 3-7

On November 14-16, 1998, more than four-hundred Southerners convened in Birmingham, Alabama, on the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the Southern Conference on Human Welfare to recommit to the challenging work for social justice ahead. The conference, “Unfinished Business: Overcoming Racism, Poverty, and Inequality in the South,” capped a two-year process of local gatherings initiated by the Jessie Ball duPont Fund in conjunction with the Center for the Study of the American South, the Southern Regional Council, the Southern Education Foundation, the Southeastern Council of Foundations, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

This initiative on the part of Southern philanthropic, academic, and non-profit institutions, was inspired in part by Nashville writer John Egerton’s book, Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South. An excerpt from Egerton’s essay, “Back to Birmingham,” follows.

We have passed this way before–some of us painfully, in the searing heat of social upheaval, and all of us, at least figuratively, in our struggle to make sense of the South and its place in the American democratic experiment. There is no way around Birmingham. We have to go into it, become a part of it, make our peace with it, in order to find the way to the Good South of our dreams.

In the long and anguished history of racial and economic conflict in the South, Birmingham looms as a powerful symbol of the worst and best in us–a symbol of exploitation and resistance, of violence and valor, of pervasive despair and abiding hope. These sharply contrasting images arise not only from the dramatic civil rights clashes of the 1960s, but from almost a century earlier, when Birmingham was forged on the anvil of post-Civil War recovery.

Its founding in 1871 near rich deposits of north Alabama iron ore and coal soon gave it identity and notoriety as the Pittsburgh of the South–a noisy, smoke-wreathed hub of iron and steel production and railroad activity built with Northern capital and Southern sweat. A racially segregated, non-union labor force kept the mines open, the trains running, the furnaces roaring. Power gravitated to the ruling industrial barons who, in a self-conscious act of majestic symbolism, erected an iron statue of Vulcan, the Roman fire god, to protect and bless their empire from a mountainside pedestal.

Those whom the gods were beseeched to favor–white men all, and rich, and conservative, at least in the sense that they sought to conserve at all costs the wealth and power they had amassed–had put their stamp on Birmingham from the start, and it was still very much their company town, an oligarchy, when the Great Depression of the 1930s plunged the Old Confederacy into its deepest and most desperate crisis since the Civil War.

No region of the country was more devastated by the depression than the South, and no class or race of Southerners was spared the devastation. In 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the South to be “the Nation’s No. 1 economic problem,” and the National Emergency Council, a White House agency, delivered in its “Report on Economic Conditions of the South” a grim catalog of human and environmental losses that reads today like a profile of a third-world country on its last legs.

In anticipation of that report, a small group of reform minded, New Deal Southerners, including several Alabamians, came up with the idea of organizing a region wide assembly–the Southern Conference for Human Welfare–to take a hard look at the economic and social problems of the region and begin a search for some solutions. When the four-day meeting was convened in Birmingham’s Municipal Auditorium in mid-November of 1938, some 1,500 citizens from all over the South came to take an active part. Even now, sixty years later, that conference still stands out as the largest and most diverse public gathering ever held to address the basic human needs of Southerners.

Governors, senators, and congressmen attended. The speakers included Eleanor Roosevelt, the President’s wife, U. S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black of Alabama, and

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University of North Carolina President Frank Porter Graham. The Judeo-Christian establishment was well represented, as were business and labor, academia and the press, political parties of the left and right, and non-government organizations concerned with a variety of social issues. From across the spectrum of Southern humanity they came: men and women, white and black, rich and poor, young and old–most, if not all, looking for ways and means to make their region a healthier, better educated, better paying, less violent, more charitable, more equitable, more democratic place.

Virginia Foster Durr, an Alabama citizen then and now, would recall years later the excitement she and many others felt on the night the assembly opened. “It was exhilarating,” she said. “We felt like we had crossed the river together and entered the Promised Land. It was one of the happiest experiences of my life.”

But the joy gradually gave way to frustration and dismay as a multitude of competing interests and shades of opinion clamored for attention. At first, the divisions appeared to follow the familiar lines of liberal or conservative ideology, with no mention of race or class. Then, however, as a committee of the conferees was meeting in the auditorium on the second day, the Birmingham police commissioner suddenly appeared and ordered the racially mixed group to segregate itself or face arrest for violating a city ordinance. Segregation was enforced for the remainder of the conference, and the incident shattered whatever semblance of unity the delegates had managed to achieve. (Twenty-five years later, in 1963, the same police commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, would bring shame on Birmingham by ordering police assaults with (logs and fire hoses on nonviolent civil rights demonstrators.)

Nonetheless, the 1938 assembly in Birmingham, when viewed through the long lens of history, casts a far more positive than negative light. In advancing visionary ideas about health care (“birth spacing” clinics), racial equality (“full rights and privileges of citizenship for all people under the law”), education (public appropriations based on school-district censuses), justice (public defenders for the poor), employment (equal pay for equal work across race and gender lines), and numerous other issues, the Southern Conference for Human Welfare was far ahead of its time. We still grapple now, three generations later, with many of the same issues that were on the table then–race relations being the most obvious.

In the 1940s, economic improvement stimulated by World War II brought some relief to the South, but pushed local and regional social issues aside for the duration as most Americans focused on the military campaigns abroad, not on problems at home. But then, in the twenty-year period after 1945, as the white South tried frantically to maintain the stranglehold of segregation that the war itself had finally loosened ever so slightly, age-old inequities and grievances were revived. The South slowly spiraled downward in a whirlpool of destructive state, municipal, and private conflicts fed by the crosscurrents of race. This painful tightening of social pressures and the pervasive atmosphere of impending crisis touched almost every community–and none more profoundly than Birmingham.

The celebration of victory over “super race” enemies across two oceans had hardly begun to fade when racial hostility boiled over in the Iron City and elsewhere around the South. Wherever working-class whites and blacks were pushed into proximity, there was separate-but-unequal competition for meager resources, and these flashpoints–neighborhoods, worksites, schools, parks–were the front lines in an ominous new struggle orchestrated from the top by elected officials and influential private individuals who considered it essential to maintain segregation by whatever means necessary.

Between 1947 and 1965, more than fifty sneak bombing attacks rattled windows and nerves in the urban core of Birmingham. Black citizens who had dared to seek their constitutional rights in opposition to the laws and customs of Jim Crow segregation were singled out as the principal targets; virtually all of the perpetrators were white vigilante terrorists bent on intimidating and punishing anyone who threatened the racial status quo. The most devastating of these bombings, on September 15, 1963, killed four young girls in Sunday School at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

Against this wall of violent resistance to social change, Birmingham’s black population of more than 130,000–40 percent of the total–had only the most limited defenses. In the mid-1950s, as the U. S. Supreme Court was declaring school segregation (and by implication, all forms of legally enforced racial separation) unconstitutional, and as a boycott against segregated seating on city buses in Montgomery, the Alabama capital, was lifting Martin Luther King, Jr., to prominence as a civil rights leader, Birmingham had only about 3,000 registered black voters, a small local chapter of the NAACP (but no other civil rights organizations), and only one practicing black attorney.

It did, however, have the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth, a charismatic and fearless black Baptist minister, and in 1956 he became the catalyst for a local movement that in less than ten years would bring the wall of segregation tumbling down. His house was bombed in 1956, and his church in 1962; in 1957, he led four black teenagers into a segregated white high school, and for that was severely beaten on a public sidewalk; he was threatened, jailed, and firehosed; and still, in the spring of 1963, the Reverends Shuttlesworth and King and the thou-

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sands of adults and children they had inspired broke the back of massive resistance to equal rights, not only in Birmingham but all across the South.

A third of a century has passed since then. Birmingham and the South have changed tremendously in that time, in ways both measurable and abstract. This city that only a generation ago appeared to raise a virtually united front of white opposition to any change in the status of its black minority is now majority-black; its mayor and congressman are African Americans, and so are many of its judges and local officials, elected and appointed. In the churches, the colleges and universities, the media, the professional ranks, the corporate management and labor forces, there is evidence of cooperation and collaboration between the races now, where once there was only segregation, discrimination, and hostility. Such signs of change can be found all over the South.

In 1938, more than 400 Southern counties had no high school for black students; today, blacks in the region complete high school at about the same rate as whites. In 1958, there were fewer than a dozen black elected officials in the South; now, there are well over 5,000. In 1978, the South had only half as many jobs for its citizens as it does now, and Southern per capita income in the past twenty years has risen to 92 percent of the national average. And now, in 1998, the rate of population growth in the region outpaces that of the rest of the country–completely reversing the pattern of half a century ago, when millions of poor Southerners, black and white, migrated north and west in a desperate quest for survival.

And yet, in spite of these advances, much inequality remains, and its harmful effects are clearly visible in every state, every city, every rural county. Black family income in today’s South, though dramatically higher than it was three decades ago, is still only about 80 percent that of white families. Nearly four in ten black families in the region, compared to only one in seven white families, live on less than $15,000 a year (a benchmark approximation of the poverty line for a family of four). In the late 1990s, one-fourth of the South’s children are poor (a higher ratio than in the late 1960s), and a disproportionate number of them are nonwhite. The average black Southerner is about three times more likely to be poor than his white neighbor (four times more likely in Mobile or Savannah, six times more likely in rural East Carroll Parish, Louisiana, the South’s poorest jurisdiction).

Other nonwhite groups in the region–particularly Native Americans and Latinos–also tend to be poorer than whites, and their numbers are growing rapidly (indeed, citizens of Hispanic origin are projected to become the nation’s largest minority group early in the new century). And, poverty makes more volatile the interaction among different cultures; racial conflict was once taken to mean black-versus-white, but now the wounding knife cuts in many directions.

More than facts and figures can be seen through the lens of racism, poverty, and inequality in the South. Consider these images: the dwindling number of farm families and their endangered livelihood; the escalation of poverty in small villages and rural areas; the loss of manuf acturing jobs to third-world countries; the pressures of immigration, viewed as a challenge or a threat by many; the sprawl of suburban affluence, encircling densely concentrated populations of the poor; the pervasiveness of crime, much of it driven by an underground drug economy; white flight from public schools; the cost of housing and health care soaring beyond the means of working people; the speed of technological change and its tendency to segregate and isolate the uneducated, the poor, the elderly; the homogenizing impact of mass American culture; the growing threat of environmental dam- age, especially to poor and vulnerable communities; and, in certain consequence of all these, the widening canyon be- tween the haves and the have-nots, those who race ahead and those who fall behind.

The disturbing signs of resegregation and growing distance between the rich and the poor are especially ironic now, with the United States riding the longest and mightiest train of economic growth in fifty years–and with the South as the locomotive this time, not the caboose. It would be far

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easier and more effective for the region and the nation to attack these social problems here and now, from a position of strength, for the problems themselves will be much tougher and more daunting when the economy weakens, as it eventually and inevitably must.

There are other compelling reasons why this is a good time for a people’s initiative on economic and social issues. The eve of a new century and a new millennium is certainly an appropriate occasion for stock-taking, pledge-making, and serious planning. A strong show of public readiness to end racism, poverty, and inequality might embolden elected officials and political party leaders to put aside their partisan agendas and address these matters cooperatively. And, perhaps most compellingly, all Americans–and future generations-will pay a heavy price for delay and denial and inaction. Moralists, idealists, and pragmatists can all agree on the consequences of ignoring these problems. Just as the nation in the Civil War could not survive half slave and half free, the nation in the 21st century cannot survive with its lightest half rich and its darkest half poor. In the words of Georgia Congressman John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement, ‘We may have come over here on separate ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.”

Unfinished business. The transcendent question in our history as a region, as a nation–our supreme crucible, past, present, future–is the question of race, amplified by class and culture. What the Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal half a century ago called “the American dilemma” still haunts us to this day: How can we be e pluribus unum, with liberty and justice for all, without reaching the inescapable conclusion that equality and diversity are the twin pillars of our national superstructure, the bedrock of our identity? We will either find reconciliation and unity within this framework, or else our great and venerable experiment in egalitarian democracy will end in failure.

History has always been important to Southerners. But the past is prologue, and the most compelling reason to heed it is to avoid repeating the mistakes of our forebears. We have to live in the present, and look to the future. That is the primary reason this ad hoc assembly of contemporary Southerners is back in Birmingham.

Change is never easy. The pursuit of equality and other idealistic goals often runs up against some sobering everyday realities: plant closings, school failures, health woes, homelessness, crime and violence, the scourge of drugs, the clash of core beliefs. Not only is the role of government hotly debated these days; its very existence is being called into question by neo-secessionists and other disaffected citizens. We lament the decline of values, but can’t agree on which values are most significant–and all too often, the list leaves out such virtues as civility, fair play, respect for others, forgiveness, empathy, generosity, nonviolence.

We start and end with one another as individuals, as Southern men and women drawn by the challenge of trying to overcome racism, poverty, and inequality in our corner of the United States, and hoping in the process to inspire the same reforms elsewhere. There have been times in our checkered past when such an effort would have offered no promise of success at all. The white population in those times was racist to the bone. It is incumbent upon us now to prove that those times are past and gone, and the people of the contemporary South–white, black, and other hues–must define anew, in egalitarian terms, what it means to be a Southerner, and an American.

As black and white Southerners, we have much in our experience that is recognizably similar, if not altogether common to us both-from food to faith, from music and language and social customs to family ties and folklore and spellbinding parables out of the past. We are, said James McBride Dabbs of South Carolina thirty years ago, “cultural first cousins,” more alike than different, because we were “all brought up down here” where (let another South Carolinian, Jesse Jackson, finish the sentence), “we were separated by race but bound by grits, bound by biscuits, bound by circumstance and history.”

Out of our kinship as Southerners, as citizens, as figura- tive and literal brothers and sisters, can come a mutual understanding and respect and an affirmation of equality that fundamentally redefines the model of race relations in America. To get there, though, will require new ways of thinking and behaving, new public and private initiatives. Birmingham can only be a start, a small first step along that road–but this is the place to begin thinking about the region and nation we will leave to our children and grand- children.

Sidebar: A “New Southern Agenda”

Education: In order for this country to flourish as a free and open democratic society in the 21st century, we must make the transformation of our public learning institutions the highest priority of our local, state, and national governments.

Health: We need a universal plan to put an adequate floor of medical security under every person, helping healthy people to stay healthy and sick people to get well, and offering basic care to the most vulnerable among us–the youngest and oldest, persons with disabilities, the poor. The bottom line must be access and affordability for all, as a fundamental right.

Employment: Every member of our community should have the opportunity to earn a living wage that yields adequate income and benefits. We support it so strongly, in fact, that we want the public and private sectors to join together in guaranteeing full employment and economic opportunity to all members of our community.

Housing: Every person in our community must have access to a safe, comfortable, and affordable place to live and grow, free from environmental hazards.

Justice: The equal administration of justice is paramount to civil society. Citizens must have equal protection under the law, and the expectation that our system ofjustice will be applied firmly without regard for race, color, national origin, sexual orientation or economic status.

The Birmingham “Unfinished Business” conference closed with a call to action, which was debated in small groups and drafted by a team of more than twenty people from several states, including (left to right) Ellen Spears, Afesa Adams, unidentified, Ahmed Obafemi, Eric Rubin, Christopher Myers, Jackie Jones, (seated) Jeffy Will, and Merceria Ludgood. The agenda emphasized five areas for action.

Photos courtesy of Alabama Power.