Jeff Drew is a descendant of Civil Rights royalty. He is the son of John and Addine “Deenie” Drew. His father operated the Alexander Insurance Agency Inc., which he co-founded in Atlanta, Ga., in 1932; he opened a branch in Birmingham in 1950. And his mother was known by many as the “Den Mother” of the Civil Rights Movement.
Drew, 66, grew up in the North Smithfield community, named “Dynamite Hill” because it was the most bombed place in Birmingham. He still lives in the Center Street house, where his parents raised him and where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—affectionately called “Uncle Mike” by Drew—would stay during his visits to Birmingham. The national birthday celebration for King is Monday, January 15.
Drew, current president of the Alexander Insurance Agency, spoke about several subjects during an exclusive interview with the Birmingham Times.
“I was proud of my father. He not only gave me a good life but also gave me the opportunity to meet some of the strongest people, strongest personalities in the world. I saw them face-to-face. [In addition to King], the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, [pastor of Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church and founder of Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights]; Andrew Young, [former Atlanta, Ga., mayor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations]; and the Rev. John Porter, [longtime pastor of Birmingham’s Sixth Avenue Baptist Church]. Doing that kind of work drew little boys at the time closer to their fathers.
“The relationship between the active fathers in the movement and their children was very, very close because we as children felt that we were doing our part. I would stay up all night with my dad [protecting the house against bombings]; he had a pistol, and I had a rifle. We’d be out in the bushes, waiting on a white man to come throw dynamite. We [kids] wanted to be part of it.
“The love between us and our fathers was very, very strong. We admired our fathers so much that we almost became the adults they were, with a sense of pride and a sense of history that we feel challenged to pass on to younger people.
“My mother, who was light-skinned and white-passing, used to use it to her advantage to help the movement. Mom used to go out and get dog whistles for the marches. She’d go to the kennels in Hoover, put on her white gloves and a southern-drawl accent, and say, ‘I’ve got a kennel in West End, and I’d like to buy about three boxes of dog whistles.’ She’d buy them, and we’d pass them out to marchers in the mass meetings. When the cops would let the dogs go, we’d blow the whistles and the dogs wouldn’t know what to do.”
Why He Remains in Birmingham
“I can’t leave. … I have to stay here and continue to tell the story to whoever asks for as long as I’m alive and able. That’s what I’m doing, as painful as it is. It chokes me up to think about what would have happened to this house, what would have happened to this story if I had moved away from here.”
Why He Seldom Spoke About the Civil Rights Movement Until Recently
“My mother and father made me promise not to give any interviews about Uncle Mike. They said, ‘Don’t you trust the press. Don’t say anything to the press ever … because the press is going to twist it to their benefit.’
“I found out during [Birmingham’s 50th anniversary commemoration of the Civil Rights Movement in 2013] that I [had to tell the story] because the people who can tell the story are dying off. The stories needed to be told—and told accurately.”
How Mayor Richard Arrington Made a Difference
“We had voting power when we elected Arrington in 1979. … We knew then that we could elect not only black city council members but also black mayors. That gave us a considerable amount of political strength. Arrington … cared about how the city looked. [He oversaw] the hanging of traffic lights and planting of trees downtown. He wanted to bring Birmingham to the forefront based on how it looked, the infrastructure, which was good, very good.”
The Return of Whites to the City
“Young white people don’t have time for racism. If they did, they wouldn’t be living downtown, they wouldn’t be walking their dogs, they wouldn’t be participating inside the city limits of Birmingham. The younger people realize that nothing good is going to come from racism.”
If King Were Alive Today …
“He would be disappointed. … This was a man of superior vision, but he could not have dreamed under any circumstances that we would abuse these freedoms the way that we have. It was not in the equation that we become school dropouts. We have free school, and we’re not going. This would have been beyond his imagination.”
Former U.S. President Barack Obama
“[King and Obama] have some things in common: intelligence, college education, conservative appearance, temperament, and both are articulate.”
“When you see cum laude graduates who come from broken homes, there’s where your hope is,” he said. “They have overcome all the detractors, the fatherless homes, the peer pressure. They got values and controlled their curiosity. That’s where I get my hope.”