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Birmingham Gets an Alarming Wake-Up Call It Can’t Ignore

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By Barnett Wright

Times staff writer

 

It may have been the wake-up call the Magic City needed.

For years, Birmingham and its leaders have promoted the city’s unquestioned racial progress since the turbulent Civil Rights movement of more than 50 years ago.

And then earlier this month, during a meeting at Birmingham City Hall to discuss proposed changes to the Mayor-Council Act, the community seemed to regress when some residents voiced the kind of racial vitriol that had not been heard publicly in Birmingham for decades.

“I think that was the most toxic community meeting I’ve witnessed in years,” said Birmingham lawyer Doug Jones. “It really caught me by surprise to see that there was that kind of public anger and sentiment out there.”

The meeting left many others baffled, as well, including Birmingham Mayor William Bell and those who have worked for decades to get the city beyond its appalling racial past.

“Sometimes the entire Birmingham area tends to pat itself on the back and look at the great progress it has made in the last 50 years,” said Jones, who successfully prosecuted two former Ku Klux Klan members for the murder of four young girls in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. “But if we don’t learn to treat each other with respect, it will always be a work in progress.”

Birmingham lawyer Jim Rotch, author of The Birmingham Pledge, agreed: “We seem to have lost the ability to compromise and to show respect for those who may have a different opinion from our own. Too many people tend to think that if somebody has a different opinion than their own, they are not to be trusted or respected.”

A Step Backward

The Birmingham Pledge is a statement of principles at the heart of a grassroots movement to eliminate racism and prejudice. Since its launch in 1998, the initiative has had a huge impact, uniting people in Birmingham and across the globe. But now the city that inspired The Pledge appears to be taking a step backward.

“The racial harmony is not where it should be … it’s getting worse,” said Hezekiah Jackson, president of the Metro Birmingham branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). “I hear white people and black people say, ‘If this is where Birmingham is headed, I might have to rethink whether or not I want to be around here.’”

Rotch said, “If we can’t respect each other regardless of our differences, then I believe we begin to backslide toward the kind of chaos that once tore this community apart.”

The State of Race Relations

“You can have diversity without adversity. You can live in a diverse nature,” said the Rev. T.L. Lewis, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, Pratt City. “I don’t have a problem with diversity, but I sure have a problem when diversity creates adversity. This whole nation has gone through that, and we certainly don’t need it in Birmingham.”

Confidence in race relations in America continues to decline, with hopes for the future at their lowest level yet, according to a 2016 Rasmussen Reports poll. Only 20 percent of adults in the U.S. believe race relations are getting better—a new low, compared with 38 percent five years ago.

“People are seeing [Republican presidential candidates Donald] Trump and [Ted] Cruz and other politicians basically running for office on close-to-being-racist platforms,” said Jones, who also serves as first vice chairman of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute board of directors.

Despite problems across the country, Birmingham has seemed in recent years to set an example for racial reconciliation.

“We have paid a terrible price as a community to have a wonderful opportunity,” Rotch said. “That opportunity is to show the world that, whereas it’s here that bombings occurred, we as a community all these years later have made tremendous progress. And if we can make tremendous progress here in the Birmingham community, there is not a community in the world that can’t make tremendous progress.

“That is our legacy. We can take something terrible in the history of this city and turn it into something positive, something that can help make the world a better place.”

What’s Next?

“We just have to get some reasonable voices,” Jackson said. “We need people who don’t have skin in the game, people who are not political operatives, people who are not paid consultants. We need some average, everyday people to say, ‘What we want now is calm.’ ”

Historically, the business community has stepped in, Jones said.

“This is not going to be just political leaders,” he said. “Political leaders run for office, so you never know which way they are going to go. I think the business leaders in this city need to take notice, because [a heated racial climate] can hurt efforts to bring businesses into this area. That’s what happened a lot in the 60s.”

Birmingham’s business community was instrumental in creating the Mayor-Council Act, adopted in 1962, which helped rid the city of a three-member commission determined to maintain a system of segregation. Ironically, the same Mayor-Council Act—with some of its provisions now under assault—is fueling the city’s latest racial firestorm.