Magazine article Newsweek

Up from Jim Crow: It Was Called the Most Segregated City in America. the Past Still Reverberates in Birmingham, but It Is a City Determined to Escape the Legacy of Bull Connor

Magazine article Newsweek

Up from Jim Crow: It Was Called the Most Segregated City in America. the Past Still Reverberates in Birmingham, but It Is a City Determined to Escape the Legacy of Bull Connor

Article excerpt

After all the years they echo still, the boom of dynamite and the rain of glass through the autumn leaves--just as some of the leading citizens of Birmingham, Ala., feared when, in the aftermath of the calamitous summer of 1963, they seriously debated changing the name of their city. Since then there have been deadlier crimes, but few conceived and carried out with such a purity of malice as the Sunday-morning bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls. And few had such far-reaching, if unintended, consequences. The church bombing was meant to intimidate demonstrations by people then politely called "Negroes," and usually something else, where the beatings, dogs and fire hoses deployed by Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor had failed. Instead, it galvanized the demonstrators, and the rest of the country as well, helping to set the stage for the great Civil Rights Act the following year that set the nation on the tumultuous and still unfinished course of racial reconciliation.

Birmingham long ago lost the distinction of being "the most segregated city in America," in the words of no less an authority than Martin Luther King Jr. The lunch crowd at the Fish Market downtown is a mix of black and white students, blue-collar workers, white businessmen and immigrant nurses from the nearby medical complex--an ordinary scene, except in its stark contrast to Section 369 of the city's original segregation rules ("It shall be unlawful to conduct a restaurant... at which white and colored are served in the same room"). There is little to set Birmingham apart, in its demographics and its problems, from other cities its size (population about 255,000): a clutch of downtown office buildings fed by highways, surrounded by a patchwork of mostly black working-class neighborhoods and enveloped by mostly white upper-middle-class suburbs. There is a small but growing population of Latino immigrants, who are being eagerly courted with social services and language classes by both the Roman Catholic diocese and some of the area's Protestant churches. Blacks make up about two thirds of the city's population--and 96 percent of the public-school students.

But race relations are an inescapable preoccupation for the people of Birmingham, a burden they carry with them even when they leave the South. "When I tell people I'm from Birmingham, I get responses like, 'You can walk down the street?' " says Karima Wilson, a sophomore at Swarthmore College outside Philadelphia. Birmingham has a prodigious infrastructure of groups dedicated to improving race relations--Leadership Birmingham and Peace Birmingham and Operation New Birmingham and the Community Affairs Committee, whose Unity Breakfast on Martin Luther King Day attracts as many as 2,000 participants. Three years ago, while returning from an interracial conference in Mobile, a white lawyer named James Rotch composed a renunciation of prejudice that has become known as the Birmingham Pledge ("... I will strive daily to eliminate racial prejudice from my thoughts and actions..."). It's been signed by 70,000 people, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, although Mayor Bernard Kincaid has so far demurred. Kincaid, Birmingham's second black mayor, says he would be happy to sign a pledge that specified some concrete actions, such as mentoring a black child or inviting a member of another race over to your house for dinner. His stance is an embarrassment to some white civic leaders and the harmony-minded editorial board of The Birmingham News. But in how many other cities would interracial dinner parties become a political issue? "Race is on our minds all the time here," says Cathy O. Friedman, a businesswoman who serves on the Birmingham Pledge Advisory Board.

Having been born long after the end of legal segregation doesn't excuse you from having to think about it, either. Civil rights history is a central part of Alabama's ninth-grade curriculum, and every school for miles around makes an obligatory trip to the Civil Rights Institute, a museum and study center in a Civil Rights Historic District that embraces the restored 16th Street church and the nearby park where demonstrators memorably clashed with Connor's thugs. …

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