Birmingham at 150—Part 4
|Mayor Richard Arrington at the opening of the Research Library. Photo via the BPL Digital Archives.|
Even as Birmingham began to come to terms with its racist heritage, new methods of maintaining segregation were explored.
Separate Use statues were passed, ostensibly to boost businesses, but practically created to keep black and white citizens apart. Suburban areas consistently voted against joining the city for fear of further integration of their schools and business districts.
White Flight, the practice of thousands of residents moving to less integrated areas, led to a recession and poor funding for the city government. Birmingham, which once challenged Atlanta as the hub of the South, shrank.
At the same time, the institutions in Birmingham struggled with how to navigate a new integrated community. The first black police officer in Birmingham, Leroy Stover, joined the force in 1966.
Stover described his first experience walking into roll call like this:
As I got closer, I could see and hear some of the officers saying, "Hey y'all, here comes that N....., and look, he's wearing a police uniform and he's got a gun." Several others were chanting "N....., N....., N.....," while still others were saying, "EENIE MEENIE MINIE MO, GRAB A N..... BY THE TOE, IF HE HOLLARS LET HIM GO." Several other officers began pulling their weapons from their holsters, pointed them at me, and then pretended to blow smoke from the barrels, simulating that they had fired their weapons at me1.
The Birmingham Public Library (BPL), which was integrated, led the way in instituting progress. Through aggressive affirmative action policies, the BPL raised the percentage of black librarians by more than 20% between 1977 and 19872.
Dr. Joseph Volker of the University of Alabama at Birmingham opined in the 1960s about the difficulty in integrating with local politicians opposing integration at every level3. By the 1970s, that integration paid off as UAB grew into one of the premier medical universities in the country—something that would never have been possible without generous federal funding.
Still, the story of Birmingham continued with one step forward and one giant leap back. In 1979, Birmingham Police Officer Leroy Sands shot Bonita Carter in the back.
Sands was never charged.
This injustice shook the city and its aftershocks reverberated politically and socially for many years.
Richard Arrington Jr., who served on the staff of Mayor William Vann at the time, was so moved by the case and the city's lack of a response that he would run for mayor himself. Arrington won and was sworn in as the city's first black mayor on November 13, 19794.
Stover, who against all odd stuck it out on the police forces, was also finally beginning to make headway. Due to federal oversight, it became more and more difficult to avoid promoting black officers. Soon, Stover and others held leadership positions on the force.
The city continued to make progress in the public forum, but the underlying tension—couples with the historically systemic geographic and economic discrimination against the black community—handcuffed the city's ability to make meaningful change.
The library could hire more black employees, but they couldn't change the fact that the building built in black neighborhoods were inferior in size and amenities to those in white neighborhoods. The police could be forced to promote black officers, but they couldn't change the fact that redlining and Separate Use statutes resulted in many black communities lacking adequate public services and resources. The black citizens could finally use the power of their vote to sow seeds of diversity in the political forum, but they couldn't change the fact that the generational wealth was pooled on the other side of the table.
And the truth is that much of that has not changed.
In 2016, The City of Birmingham signed an inclusion agreement that would pay 1.5 million dollars to Top Golf, who in exchange would use at least 30% minority and women owned construction firms on their project (a seemingly low bar to jump in a city that is over 70% black and 52% female). In 2019, it was announced that the inclusion agreement was nullified after Top Golf spent less than 2.5% of their total costs with minority and women owned businesses5.
Now, here we are, in 2021, after The Civil Rights Movement, The Black Lives Matter Movement, the murder of EJ Bradford, and if you turn down a random street in East Ensley, you can still see the line where the tide of social justice rose and quietly receded.
As a child I was taught that repentance without restitution is just lip service.
And so, nearly 60 years after integration, it comes as no surprise that we have not made as much progress as hoped. Without serious divestment, we continue to do the same thing over and over and expect different results. Perhaps that is because white people—like me—are the ones doing the talking when in reality, any path forward is laden with the burden of quietly listening.
In 2021, the State of Alabama named Ashely M. Jones as Alabama's new Poet Laureate. As a black woman from Birmingham, she experienced our successes and shortcomings in a way that I never will. Let this excerpt of her poem, "A Case For Reparations," speak for itself, for me, for you, and for our city.
Let down your guard and simply listen. This is American Humanity. This is Birmingham at 150.
When, Governor, can we enjoy the full richness of the Great American?
My grandmother was a sharecropper. My grandfather beat his Black wife and Black children. My uncle was arrested for a crime he didn't commit—in America, even the shadows of Black people are black enough to hide all innocence. Some nights, I dream of being killed like Emmitt Till or Trayvon Martin or Sandra Bland or [INSERT BLACK PERSON'S NAME HERE]. Some nights, I insert my name there. Is that the American Dream? Governor, President, Mayor, Boss, Man, Woman With A Cell Phone or a Police Badge or a Bank Account and the Skin Tender Enough To Make Murder Legal, when will you be tired of the taste of black blood."
—from "A Case For Reparations" by Ashley M. Jones6
By Caleb Calhoun | Library Assistant Ⅱ, Powderly Branch Library
5 Johnson, Roy S. 2021. "After Top Golf Shanked On Minority And Women Owned Participation". https://www.al.com/news/2020/04/after-top-golf-shanked-on-minority-and-women-owned-participation-in-construction-birmingham-terminated-tax-incentives.html.↩