By Ariel Worthy
The Birmingham Times
A new mayor in Birmingham. A Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama for the first time in more than two decades. A national monument designation for the Civil Rights District. These were just a few of the newsworthy events in the Magic City in 2017. Here is a closer look at those and other significant events, in no particular order.
Historic Municipal and Senate Elections
Challenger Randall Woodfin, who grew up in Birmingham, defeated incumbent William Bell for mayor. Woodfin, 36, and Bell, 68, finished first and second, respectively, in the August 22 municipal elections—which drew 12 hopeful candidates—to make the October runoff. Throughout the campaign Woodfin knocked on tens of thousands of doors, put in place a social media strategy that reached thousands more, and repeatedly told residents the city’s 99 neighborhoods deserved more attention.
After being elected the youngest mayor in more than a century, Woodfin told a cheering crowd at his watch party at Haven in Lakeview, “Birmingham, this is our moment. For the last year and six weeks we have been on a journey not for what’s in my interest but for what’s in our interest. This is a we-us-and-our moment.” Bell, more than a month later in his farewell to the City Council at City Hall said, “I walked into this building with my head held high, and I am going to walk out with my head held high.”
The city elections also saw three new council members elected, including Darrell O’Quinn, who unseated incumbent City Council President Johnathan Austin in District 5. Also, newly elected to the nine-member council were Hunter Williams in District 2 and John Hilliard in District 9. Valerie Abbott was elected new City Council President and will serve through 2019 when new elections for Council leadership are held.
In the special election for the Alabama U.S Senate seat left vacant when Jeff Sessions assumed the role of U.S. Attorney General, Democrat Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney, defeated Republican Roy Moore, a former state supreme court chief judge, 49.9 percent to 48.4 percent. It was the first time in 25 years that a Democrat was elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama. Jones is expected to take office on Jan. 3, 2018.
Jones faced an uphill battle, but that changed when Moore was accused of sexual assault and other misconduct by multiple women, accusations Moore vehemently denied. With an embattled Moore campaign clouded by controversy, Jones ran a masterful race with extensive outreach to the black community that emphasized his role prosecuting the Klansmen who took the lives of four little girls in the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. The hard work paid off: exit polling found that 97 percent of African-American women voted for Jones, and more than 90 percent of all black votes went to the democrat.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI), the A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club (AGGBGC) , and the Ruffner Mountain Nature Coalition all celebrated anniversaries this year.
In August, the AGGBGC, founded by legendary Birmingham businessman Arthur George “A.G.” Gaston in 1967, celebrated 50 years. The youth organization tutors, mentors, and helps more than 1,400 young people from Birmingham and Bessemer, encouraging them to become productive, successful adults who support their communities. Gaston stated in his later years that the club was the “brightest” moment in his long, illustrious career. AGGBGC CEO Frank Adams Jr. believes the organization’s next 50 years will be even better: “I’m hoping to see a level of impact that is clearly transformational and can be seen clearly by the community.”
In October, the Ruffner Mountain Nature Coalition marked its 40th anniversary. The organization, founded in 1977 when a small group of individuals decided to save a mountain threatened by deforestation and development, has worked to grow the area from a few acres to more than 1,000. Today, Ruffner is one of the largest privately held urban nature preserves in the U.S., and over the past four decades it has become a gathering place for many in the Birmingham area. Ruffner Mountain Executive Director Carlee Sanford said, “A misconception is that the reason this is here is because some agency or federal government came in and saved this land. That’s not what happened. It was people caring, … small groups saving four acres, five acres, 20 acres at a time.”
In November, the BCRI turned 25. During the annual Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Awards Dinner the Institute honored former Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington Jr., the city’s first African-American mayor; and activists Harry Belafonte and Viola Liuzzo (the latter honored posthumously). Arrington said establishment of the BCRI was a priority when he was first elected to office in 1979 and put together a 21-member task force that eventually led to founding of the BCRI. Since its opening, more than two million have visited the Institute, and its role today is more important than ever. BRCI President and CEO Andrea Taylor said, “Almost everyone would agree that this is a very challenging and troubling time in our history. We can play a very important role by providing a place where people can gain factual information and share dialogue; by providing a place where people have an opportunity to interact with different people by building coalitions; and by providing a place where people can continue to learn, share, and grow in an increasingly complex society.”
Controversy About Confederate Monuments
Controversy over monuments that pay homage to the Confederacy swept across the nation and in Birmingham, as well. In downtown Linn Park, former Mayor William Bell covered a Civil War monument while the city’s law department examined whether to remove the landmark. Former City Council President Johnathan Austin urged removal of the monument, saying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sat in a cell not far from City Hall and instructed citizens about “the importance of identifying and defying unjust laws.” The state filed suit against the city, stating that it violated state law by constructing barriers to deliberately obscure a historical monument. The monument remains covered up today.
Key Economic-Development Projects
Two announcements in September were among highlights of the year in Birmingham business: commercial truck producer Autocar expanded and opened a $120 million plant in Pinson Valley, not far from where auto supplier Kamtek opened a $60 million expansion.
Hagerstown, Ind.–based Autocar announced that it will expand and open a manufacturing plant in Jefferson County to build its heavy-duty cab-over-engine trucks. The company, the oldest motor vehicle brand in the United States, will create more than 700 jobs with its expansion. The deal was consummated with assistance from former Birmingham Mayor William Bell, who had to think beyond the city’s limits. Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA) President and CEO Brian Hilson said, “The existing facility Autocar acquired was physically located in the city of Center Point. But, because there are so many employees (746), the land around the building facilities was not sufficient for all the employee parking, truck maneuvering, and so on.”
Kamtek, an operation of international automotive supplier giant Magna, officially opened its $60 million aluminum-casting plant, bringing a new capability that is in high demand as the automotive industry seeks to make lighter cars while retaining strength and safety. The company added high-pressure vacuum die-casting to its existing stamping and assembly operations in Birmingham’s Pinson Valley. The nearly 150,000-square-foot plant will eventually employ more than 100 workers.
In other Birmingham business news:
- In June, the $27 million first phase of CrossPlex Village began construction. “We are about to start vertical construction of three buildings: a [Comfort Inn and Suites] hotel, a building [that houses a] Starbucks, and a building with five other restaurants,” said Bob Nesbitt, principal with Engel Realty, in early 2017. The city of Birmingham is now adding $6 million in infrastructure improvements, paving the way for the $21 million first phase of development for the commercial shopping center surrounding the CrossPlex sports venue.
- In December, Topgolf opened its first Alabama location. The new three-level, 65,000-square-foot venue is the company’s 37th location worldwide; it features a chef-driven menu, top-shelf drinks, and big-screen TVs and music in climate-controlled hitting bays. Topgolf Birmingham Director of Operations Tyler McCarthy said, “We are so excited to be opening during the holiday season. Topgolf is a great place to bring family and friends of all ages. With lots of entertainment options throughout the venue, we are ready to welcome the community and create great times for all.”
New School Superintendent
In May, Lisa Herring, EdD, took over as superintendent of Birmingham City Schools after a contentious search. The previous superintendent, Kelley Castlin-Gacutan, was fired, and her replacement, interim Superintendent Larry Contri, was placed on paid leave after Herring was hired. The search drew criticism from some board members because no internal candidates or Alabama residents were selected as initial finalists. One finalist withdrew citing “the political climate and controversy.” The Birmingham Federation of Teachers, part of the American Federation of Teachers, filed a lawsuit over expenses for the search. Nonetheless, Herring—who served as chief academic officer with the Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky before her move to Birmingham—remained positive: “My intent is to build strong relationships with our board,” she said during a 15-minute press conference inside the auditorium of the Central Office in downtown Birmingham after she was selected. “My vision is a reflection of [the board’s] vision, and our vision is a reflection of the community.”
Return of UAB Football
Despite a late-December loss in the Bahamas Bowl, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) football team recorded a successful season that included head coach Bill Clark winning several national Coach of the Year honors. UAB finished 8-4 overall and 6-2 in Conference USA (C-USA), a program record for league wins.
After a two-year hiatus, the Blazers returned to action on Sept. 2, 2017, with a 38-7 victory over the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University Bulldogs in front of a school-record crowd of 45,212 at Birmingham’s Legion Field. The team was led onto the field by Birmingham’s Tim Alexander, a graduate of E.B. Erwin High School and the first paraplegic to ever get a scholarship in Division I football. Alexander became the face of the student movement to reinstate UAB football. “I’m forever grateful for this university and the football program,” said Alexander in an interview with UAB Magazine. “I’ve grown a lot by being here and being around this football team. The team taught me how to be a man and how to demand excellence in myself.”
Clark was named Coach of the Year by CBS Sports and was awarded the prestigious Maxwell Football Club’s Thomas Brookshier Spirit Award for his courage, leadership, and outstanding effort this season. Maxwell Football Club Director Mark Wolpert said, “There’s really no historical comparison for what Coach Clark and his staff have done this year, guiding a program out of dormancy and into a bowl game in just one season.”
National Monument Designation
As one of his last acts in the Oval Office, President Barack Obama signed an executive order in January establishing the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument; the area will include the A.G. Gaston Motel, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Bethel Baptist Church, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Kelly Ingram Park, the Fourth Avenue Historic District, and the downtown Masonic Temple building. The order came four days before Martin Luther King Jr. Day observances and eight days before Obama—the first African-American to serve as U.S. President—completed his second term. “These monuments preserve the vibrant history of the Reconstruction Era and its role in redefining freedom,” said Obama. “They tell the important stories of the citizens who helped launch the civil rights movement in Birmingham and the Freedom Riders whose bravery raised national awareness of segregation and violence. These stories are part of our shared history.”
Former Birmingham Mayor William Bell, surrounded by foot soldiers and other civil rights activists inside the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, was in a “joyous mood” when he said, “I understand the struggles that had to occur for this day to get here. When I say struggles I’m going all the way back to the marches that took place in Kelly Ingram Park and the streets of Birmingham, and the fact that Dr. King came here. My heart is overflowing with joy and happiness that on this day this president has acknowledged that so many people made sacrifices for all of us, including him, and that this community should be recognized as part of the National Park Service’s monument program.”
U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, who spearheaded the legislation for a national park in March 2016, said the president’s executive order designating the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument “ensures preservation [of its sites] for future generations.”
The Jan. 21, worldwide Women’s March was the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. The event advocated for legislation and policies regarding human rights and a broad range of issues, including racial equality; reproductive, worker’s, and LGBTQ rights; and immigration and health-care reform. It also targeted many of President Donald Trump’s positions during the 2016 presidential race.
In Birmingham, thousands assembled at Kelly Ingram Park and marched through downtown in conjunction with the main march in Washington, D.C., and “sister marches” in cities throughout the United States and around the world. Another rally at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport against the President Trump’s immigration ban also drew thousands of participants in total.
BPD Chief Retires
After serving as Birmingham’s police chief for a decade, Birmingham Police Department (BPD) Chief A.C. Roper on November 8 announced that he would not reapply for his position; he will continue to assist newly elected Mayor Randall Woodfin as the search for a new police chief begins. In a statement, Roper said, “Several weeks ago, all department heads were given a choice to apply for reappointment to their positions. However, after a considerable amount of prayer, my family and I decided I would not submit a resume for consideration.”
Roper was assistant chief of the Hoover Police Department when he was named by former Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford to succeed BPD Chief Annetta Nunn. Roper was sworn in at the Birmingham Museum of Art on Nov. 30, 2007.
Major Concerts and Music Festivals
Pop superstar Janet Jackson highlighted a long list of legends, Grammy Award winners, and popular rappers who entertained audiences across the Magic City at venues large and small, including the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex (BJCC), Avondale Brewery, and Iron City.
In 2017, there was at least one live music concert every month. Some featured R&B acts: Jackson (BJCC), Brian McKnight (BJCC), Lalah Hathaway (Alys Stephens Center), Leela James (Workplay), Charlie Wilson (BJCC), Gladys Knight (BJCC), Joe (Legion Field), Babyface (Legion Field), Erykah Badu (Legion Field), and Lauryn Hill (Iron City). Rap and hip-hop performers included J. Cole (Avondale Brewery), Future (BJCC), Lil Uzi Vert (Iron City), Goodie Mobb (Legion Field), Juvenile (Legion Field), Big Freedia (Saturn), and Doug E. Fresh (BJCC). Other shows: Bon Jovi (BJCC), Sheila E. (Alys Stephens Center), Tamela Mann (BJCC), Idina Menzel (BJCC), and the O’Jays (Linn Park).
Festivals were also a big part of the 2017 music scene. The Funk Fest at Legion Field on May 6 featured Juvenile, Joe, Goodie Mob, Babyface, and Erykah Badu. The Steel City Jazz Festival in June showcased Rachelle Ferrell, Ken Ford, Boney James, David Sanborn, the O’Jays, and Jeffrey Osborne. The Sloss Music and Arts Festival attracted Alabama Shakes; Byron the Aquarius; Run the Jewels; Shaheed and DJ Supreme; Sturgill Simpson; Waka Flocka Flame; and Widespread Panic. The Taste of Fourth Avenue Jazz Festival in Birmingham’s Fourth Avenue Historic District included performances by Elnora Spencer; Belinda George-Peoples; Netra Young; Top Secret; Birmingham 7; poets Jahman Hill and Shaun Judah; and comedians JP Laffsum and Felicia Ellison. And the Magic City Music Fest roster included Doug E. Fresh; En Vogue; Experience Unlimited, commonly known as E.U.; and Keith Sweat.
Other News of Note
- In January, the Talladega College Marching Tornado Band accepted an invitation to march in the parade for the inauguration of President Donald Trump. That decision thrust the school into the international spotlight and split its alumni base, some of whom still haven’t gotten over the institution’s participation in the event, said Talladega College President Billy Hawkins: “I got a nasty letter about a week ago from an alum who will not give to the institution because I chose to allow the band to participate in [President Trump’s inauguration]. Some people are so narrow-minded. It’s so very unfortunate.” Hawkins said he considered the best interests of the students when he made the decision.
- In January, Birmingham was named a Sanctuary City after the City Council adopted by unanimous vote a resolution pledging that the city “strives to be a community free of hostilities and aggressions and uphold the commitment to be a community free of prejudice, bigotry and hate.” The resolution came shortly after President Donald Trump issued an executive order suspending entry into the United States for refugees and visa holders from seven majority-Muslim countries. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered at the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport to voice their opposition for what was widely interpreted as a “Muslim ban.”
- In September, tech giant Amazon announced its plans to open a second North American headquarters. Birmingham and more than 200 other cities scrambled to throw their hats in the ring and become the billion-dollar company’s new home. The hashtag #bringatob spread across social media and giant Amazon boxes popped up throughout the city.
- In September, Oliver L. Robinson Jr., a former Alabama legislator, pleaded guilty in federal court to accepting bribes from a Birmingham lawyer and an Alabama coal company executive in exchange for advocating their employers’ opposition to EPA actions in North Birmingham.
- In December, Birmingham Water Works Board (BWWB) Chair Sherry Lewis was indicted for violating Alabama’s ethics laws. She was appointed to the BWWB in 2008 by former Mayor William Bell and was named board chair January 2017 after a shift in power resulting from from a state law that added four members. Brett Bloomston, an attorney for Lewis said his client “is innocent of the charges returned against her, at the prosecution’s request, by a grand jury that heard only one side of the evidence . . . Sherry looks forward to her day in court and expects to be acquitted of all charges by a jury of her peers in a trial where she will have the right to confront the prosecution’s evidence.”