Growing up in the Birmingham that came after the Civil Rights Movement is experiencing several contradictions on the path towards reconciliation.
Another Black History Month has arrived for the nation. However for me, Black History Month is all year round since I live in one of the epicenters of the Civil Rights Movement, Birmingham, AL.
I’ve written a bit about Birmingham on and off over the years, and I’ve been working on highlighting more people around the city to show how Birmingham has become a cosmopolitan place of business and entertainment in the 21st century. But I think what is just as important is recognizing the past Birmingham represents.
One thing I’ve realized about living in Birmingham is that it’s easy to take its history for granted. I think a lot of Birminghamians like me get tired of feeling like the city will forever be known as “Bombingham” in the national consciousness. A lot of us want the city to become known for something different than its past, and even I will sometimes think, “I hope people know we’ve changed down here.” It’s easy to want to sweep the past under the rug under the guise of “starting over.” But starting fresh means remembering where you came from, so we must keep our past in our minds to remember the lessons it taught.
Birmingham was notorious for its institutionalized racism in the 1960s, and rightly so–the city deserved to be the headline of every paper for how it would bomb its own (i.e. “Dynamite Hill,” a neighborhood for affluent Black people, many of them being activists, got its nickname because of how often white racists would bomb the neighborhood, and of course, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church). There was literal terror in these days, from Bull Connor putting his dogs out on young Black kids marching for freedom, to the KKK being in open daylight.
Sadly, the KKK continued to be a force, even though extremely reduced, in the city even until the late ’90s–I remember being at an outdoors art event with my family in downtown Birmingham, and my dad shielded us from having to directly look at the Klan, who had scheduled to have a march down the street. The reason they were allowed to march was because of freedom of speech, and everyone who was there–Black and white–reacted with hushed shock, discomfort and anger. No one wanted to see them, and it seemed like everyone mentally telegraphed to each other not to give them the attention they wanted. So the small group went down the street without much reaction given to them. But just their presence was a reminder that Birmingham’s past didn’t want to die easily or without a fight.
Keep in mind that in the ’90s, Birmingham was a city that was virtually unrecognizable from just 30 years ago at point. In the 60’s, Birmingham was run top to bottom by white men. By just the late ’70s, once Richard Arrington won his mayoral race and became the city’s first Black mayor, Birmingham started becoming run by Black men and women. Unfortunately, part of the shift happened because of white flight–white people running from Birmingham after the fall of the white order of the city (and, quiet as its kept, some also probably left because of the fall of the Klan’s stranglehold over the city). These white families went to other places within Jefferson County and annexed them into cities of their own–Mountain Brook, Hoover, Pelham, Vestavia and Vestavia Hills, Trussville, etc. All of this turned Birmingham into an island of Blackness. But while they probably thought it would mean the ruin of the city, Black people were able to finally turn Birmingham into, what I felt throughout my upbringing, an oasis of Black thought, professional culture, and Black learning.
My point of view of Birmingham growing up was that it was a city that was mindful of its past, but wanted to celebrate the brave Black men, women and children who put their lives on the line–with some losing their lives–for the freedoms I was able to experience as a young girl. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was one of the first places I visited as a child with my family and on school trips. The 16th Street Baptist Church not only still exists, but still functions as a working church with its congregation meeting every Sunday, a testament to the belief that no weapons formed against goodness can prosper. Other monuments, such as Kelly Ingram Park, where Martin Luther King Jr. stood while carrying out the Birmingham campaign, Bethel Baptist Church, and other places around town also, on the whole, still function as gathering spaces and meeting spaces, much in the same way they were used decades ago. Kelly Ingram Park, for instance, is where a lot of Birmingham’s commemorative marches or rallies for current civil rights issues, such as for women’s reproductive and sexual rights, are still held. Don’t even mention the fact that many of the footsoldiers from those times are still alive today, living and working in the city just like everyone else. For me, so much of the city means being in touch with a living past that is still teaching its citizens right from wrong.
Of course, my viewpoint on Birmingham isn’t every Black person’s viewpoint. There still is a lot of underhanded stuff happening in the city. North Birmingham has been used as a dumping ground for plants and other industry, even though the neighborhoods have complained about the environmental racism impacting them for decades. Gentrification has hit Birmingham just like other major cities, and some parts of Birmingham are receiving more attention than others, with white and/or affluent people being catered to the most over older and/or majority Black neighborhoods. With Birmingham being majority Black, you can see how this means that only the few are being catered to over the many. Birmingham might be experiencing the national stage in a different way–we recently held the World Games here in our bid to showcase the city as a place worthy of the Olympics one day–but there are still neighborhoods who haven’t been given the redevelopments they were promised, proof that just because a Black person is in power as mayor doesn’t mean that they have every Black person’s interest at heart.
The cities within the greater Birmingham area are also still changing, sometimes for the better. But, based on how they were created, these cities also reflect the ideologies that are still baked into their identities. It’s still hard for Blackness to feel comfortable in these cities, even if times have changed on the surface and Black people live and work there. Just from my experience of living in Mountain Brook as an adult, it’s clear there’s still a certain way Brookies like things to remain, and that is for white folks to live in the big, rich houses, and for the amenities for a comfortable quality of life to stay centered in their white neighborhoods. And if you’ve been following the recent news, Hoover City Schools is now embroiled in a scandal because of cancelling a Black History Month author talk with I Am Every Good Thing author Derrick Barnes. Birmingham-based organization Antiracist Library is now fundraising to make sure Hoover-area children are exposed to books that educate on Black history and Black experiences.
There’s still a lot of work left for Birmingham to do to complete Dr. King’s mission of making a just society. But for what it is worth, I am proud of how far Birmingham has come in such a short amount of time. Within a generation, the city has done as much as it can to show a different side to itself, a side that is remorseful and hopeful for the future. From my vantage point, I have seen a city that wants to keep putting the lessons of the past into practice, even as those in power make missteps. But also, as history as taught us, it is up to us to keep fighting for everyone’s freedom–the lessons of the past give us the blueprint to fix the wrongs that are currently ailing Birmingham and truly make it a city for everyone to live peacefully, happily, and healthily.
To learn more about my experience growing up in Birmingham (and about Black history in general), consider buying my book, The Book of Awesome Black Americans, available now at bookstores online, Amazon, and local bookstores including Birmingham-area bookstore Thank You Books.