“When the history books are written in the future, somebody will have to say, ‘There lived a race of people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. And thereby, they injected a new meaning into the vein of history and of civilization.’ And we’re gonna do that.”
Martin Luther King Jr. @ Bus Rally in Montgomery, AL. Dec 05,1955
That is how you speak in a mythos that all can understand.
Five Points South water fountain. Five city streets converge into one confusing intersection.
I lived on the same Birmingham city block as Dreamland BBQ (2nd location) across from Wilson’s Market. The University of Alabama at Birmingham (go Blazers: best mascot in the state: dragon!) is about four blocks away. The ‘professional downtown’ area took about 4 minutes to drive 3-ish miles, over bridges with railroad tracks below. It is a shell of almost-skyscrapers. Sky-risers. Many blocks look forsaken. A seeming majority of professional spaces in these older buildings sit empty and yet, next door you will find the home offices of several major American Banks, Insurance Companies, etc. (Circa 2016 from memory).
All or nothing.
Sloss Furnace looms like an industrial dreamscape an installment of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser universe.
I also lived quite near a number of historical sites that witnessed the struggles of social revolution. I lived in this area 30+ yrs since childhood. I went to public school. The memory of this time is very much a still a live, shared cultural memory. A work in progress. The future needs some magic, leadership, and kindness.
Birmingham incorporated in 1878. Already, there were 20–25 major iron and steel producing blast-furnaces and companies in the Jefferson/Shelby county seat. The name ‘Birmingham‘ was picked to correspond with Birmingham England (the center of that country’s iron industry.) The new Alabama city boomed so quickly that it came to be known as the “Magic City.” It later became known as the “Pittsburgh of the South” after the Pennsylvania center of iron and steel production. Jan 8, 2008 This tribute to local deity Vulcan looks over the city and protects the workers. Many, many moons ago, his arrow would shine at night: green if there were no casualties in the steel/iron mills & red if a person died working. This was discontinued after the number of red light nights began accumulating to a simple majority of the time. The citizens found it distressing. The light was removed. I cannot be sure, but assume this resolved the problem and decreased the number of deaths substantially. Ahem…..
1963, Birmingham, AL USA: QUICK FACTS
- “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States,” according to King.
- city’s population nearly 350,000: 60% white & 40% black,
- unemployment rate for blacks was two and a half times higher than for whites.
- the following professional limitations existed
- no black police officers, firefighters, sales clerks in department stores, bus drivers, bank tellers, or store cashiers.
- Black secretaries could not work for white professionals.
- Jobs available to blacks were limited to manual labor in Birmingham’s steel mills, work in household service and yard maintenance, or work in black neighborhoods.
- When layoffs were necessary, black employees were often the first to go.
- The economy stagnated while the city shifted from blue collar to white collar jobs.
- Fifty unsolved racially motivated bombings between 1945 and 1962 had earned the city the nickname “Bombingham“.
- A neighborhood shared by white and black families experienced so many attacks that it was called “Dynamite Hill”.
Protest organizers knew they would meet with violence from the Birmingham Police Department and chose a confrontational approach to get the attention of the federal government.
“My theory was that if we mounted a strong nonviolent movement, the opposition would surely do something to attract the media, and in turn induce national sympathy and attention to the everyday segregated circumstance of a person living in the Deep South.”
He headed the planning of what he called Project C, which stood for “confrontation”. Organizers believed their phones were tapped, so to prevent their plans from being leaked and perhaps influencing the mayoral election, they used code words for demonstrations.
The plan called for direct nonviolent action to attract media attention to “the biggest and baddest city of the South”.
The final day the arrests totaled 1,200 jailed protesters in the 900 person-capacity Birmingham jail.
King wrote his essay “Letter from Birmingham Jail“. It responded to eight politically moderate white clergymen who accused King of agitating local residents and not giving the incoming mayor a chance to make any changes. Bass suggested that “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was pre-planned, as was every move King and his associates made in Birmingham. The essay was a culmination of many of King’s ideas, which he had touched on in earlier writings. King’s arrest attracted national attention, including that of corporate officers of retail chains with stores in downtown Birmingham. After King’s arrest, the chains’ profits began to erode. National business owners pressed the Kennedy administration to intervene. King was released on April 20, 1963.
The facts of the dogs and hoses, bedlam, and barbarism is imprinted. But King’s language and lyricism during his lifetime would feel right at home alongside the best strings of words that world and classical literature has to offer.
“The right to protest for right.”
“When you are forever fighting a degrading and degenerating sense of nobodiness…”
“Grim and bold determination…grim and firm determination.”
“If we are wrong, justice is a lie.”
Many public domain documentaries can show you the footage immediately following the rally. Here is my summary of one of the most poignant documented parts of this entire Birmingham campaign.
In an attempt to handle the anticipated volume of arrests of public demonstrations, Birmingham authorities brought in the big yellow school buses, proudly proclaiming Jefferson County School on the sides,
Dr. King Jr. fills the Birmingham jail with arrestees from demonstration activities enacted over the past few days. 2,500 people were arrested in total and held in the 900-capacity Birmingham jail. Genius. The arrestees were very nearly in number severe enough to overwhelm their captors physically, should they choose to. They did not, of course, but Bull O’Conner saw what could have happened.
The city at stalemate.
“Laying the issue before the conscience of local and national communities.”
While arrested, King very clearly defines that for which the movement campaigns. He calls them “requests”. Adept. The very reasonable nature of these requests and the disproportionate reaction by segregationists shocked the country. It turned out it was VERY different in Alabama.
- Desegregate restrooms, lunch counters, fitting room.
- Allow employment access: “have black clerks, salesmen and women.”
- Drop charges against those arrested in the demonstration.
- Appoint a biracial committee to solve bigger issues with time-table settings
- Desegregation of schools.
- Reopening city parks, integrated.
- Maintaining compliance with federal court orders
- Fair hiring in municipal organizations, including the police.
With great fluidity the demonstration rapidly disperses from the church, issuing onto the public sphere. No yelling, no first pumping aggression. People stream out politely; there is no human spill over into the road way; there is no trodding over “other people’s grass.” It is orderly and almost like a formal dress code was needed to join the campaign. People looked sharp. Jackets and slacks with ties. Dresses, hose, small heel, nothing immodest. The Birmingham authorities wore collared, short-sleeved pseudo dress shirts. The police uniforms aired of casualness in uniform. They were in uniform. That’ll do her well ‘nough. My assumption is their time was spent mobilizing shields, gas, hoses, dogs, practice runs and meetings to review. That was their focus. Such a large number of people dressed decorously makes even the smallest wrinkle in uniform, the slightest slag of an unpressed pant, the casualness of the collared, short-sleeve work shirt, tie-less, top button undone, highly noticeable and suspect.
As a lone policy car siren wails upstream this human river current, it is able to drive easily along a defined and unobstructed roadway. The car might feel encroached upon, but not infringed on by the demonstration Mass; most of whom now smile, broadly and even wave a joyful hello to the cameras which are taking them to living rooms all over the country. Even the little kids know it is ok to be excited–after all the nation just saw.
There is no yelling or antagonizing from the procession of the rally Mass. There is music audible and sung in sincerity.
Then the camera pans back. The police encroach the scene. They are already certain physical violence will break out when the Mass gets to the streets.
This explains why they bring weapons, dogs, body armor and shields. They expect and planned for various eventualities in preparation. They are nervous. They are being filmed. They are scared to engage.
The first two or three police show up on foot “to see what’s going on here” and generally “just wanna make sure we aren’t gonna have no problems, here today.” The Mass gets antsy at their presence but does not provoke. Nods and waves of hello become bitten thumbs, emasculating mocks before a television audience.
The first handful of cops seem to struggle with identifying who exactly should and should not be arrested–appearing, at times, to choose indiscriminately. Then they brought out the dogs and simply let them choose. Now, a smooth river of people flowing turns into a stewing churn of confused particles.
You have heard the sound of what follows as more cops arrive: frenzied barking, panic of voices, whoosh of water bursts. in. spurts. Monsoon pouring onto concrete for 15 seconds. Ceasing. Beginning again.
You can fill in the blanks. That part of the story is very well-known.