Birmingham, Alabama is a city that, by all reasonable calculations, should have been one of America's greatest and most progressive cities. It has the natural resources, the topography, the geographical location, the weather, and the human resources. It may never reach true greatness for the very same reasons it has lagged in the past: the continued domination of its economy by Big Steel, the lack of visionary planning, and the refusal to admit participation in its affairs by all segments of its population.
"It's So Nice To Have You In Birmingham," say the welcome signs all over the city. And downtown and over the nation there is an attempt to "sell Birmingham," and create a better "image" of Birmingham. The economy is lagging, many businesses are barely existing or leaving, the atmosphere is not nearly as conducive to success, to pleasantness, as is desirable, and citizens are leaving for other parts of the country, either out of fear or ostracism, or because the foreseeable future for Birmingham looks only bleak and dreary.
In so far as the power structure is concerned, "it's nice to have you in Birmingham" if you are one who believes only in the status quo in race relations; if you are satisfied to exist with things as they are, without seeking to change them; if you only believe the Negro is a human being and a brother without acting on your belief.
If there is one main reason why Birmingham is less than it should be, it is the official attitude and disposition of the men who have held power for many years. This is why Birmingham is rightfully called "America's most racially bigoted city," and the worst city on earth besides Johannesburg, South Africa. This is why it is said that Birmingham's heart is hard like the steel it manufactures, and black like the coal it mines.
Much has been written about Birmingham since the demonstrations, and what the Birmingham Direct Action has meant to the nation and the world. "But you ought to have seen and known how bad and terrible Birmingham was before the demonstrations," says a typical Negro citizen, "and it ain't much better now. If it hadn't been for the Movement, we would now be back in complete slavery." This reflects the sentiment of most of the Birmingham Negro community. Birmingham, for many years, has been so afflicted with bleakness, and like Tombstone Territory of old, it has been "not good enough to live and too sinful to die."
Years ago, only a few Negro citizens dared to speak out, and there could be no consistent challenge to segregation; the Ku Klux Klan saw to that, and back of them were the police. The unwritten rule was "if the mobs don't stop Negroes, the police will." Not only was there no vociferous clamor for civil rights; the Negro's existence depended upon his keeping quiet and upon the white man's paternalism.
Dialogue between the white and Negro community was non-existent, except that between servant and master; and City Hall's communication was with crooks and racketeers. Indeed, men were arrested for holding interracial meetings. Did not "Bull" Connor brag of arresting ex-Senator Glen Taylor? And when a reporter interviewed "Bull" Connor about his attitude and obedience to law, the commissioner was quoted in the Afro-American newspaper as saying, "Damn the law; down here I am the Law."
With such an official attitude prevailing in Birmingham, one can understand why there has been over 50 bombings in 30 years. The city has sanctioned "keeping Negroes in their place," and so the police were considered to be acting intelligently when they slapped, beat, or abused hundreds of colored people; or when they made it untenable for Negroes to be in the streets late at night — even when coming from jobs.
Behind Bethel Baptist Church, which was bombed twice, stands a house which is known to be a liquor and lottery place. For years the police have made visits there daily, as regularly as the sunshine. One of the reasons that our Movement is asking for Negro police is the hope of breaking up some of these dives in Negro neighborhoods. It is now history that shortly after "Bull" Connor went out of office several years ago, the department broke up a big burglar ring operated by the police.
Despite this and other things, "Bull" was again elected commissioner (1956-58) and he felt this a mandate to continue leading the city backwards. The other commissioners were no better, just more dignified; Mr. Morgan, the mayor, doing more for the Botanical Gardens and the monkeys in the zoo than for the Negro citizens of Birmingham.
Against this background, several years ago the Negroes organized the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR).
At the inception of the "Movement," it was common practice for police to issue a hundred or more parking tickets on meeting nights. We have been used to police attending mass meetings since 1958; but they came many times with sirens screaming, lights flashing, fire axes, rushing into buildings hunting "fires" which were not there but failing to stampede Negroes, or to extinguish the fire that wouldn't go out.
We have challenged segregation so thoroughly that a few days ago in federal court the city claimed to have no barriers now at all. The challenges have indeed been costly. The KKK castrated Mr. Judge Aaron, a common, ordinary Negro citizen, just like a man would a hog. They beat Rev. Charles Billups with chains. In the early days of our Movement countless Negroes went to jail and lost their jobs. Some even lost homes, and many left for other cities. Time would fail to tell of the personal involvement of my family and myself. The thousands of crank and very real telephone threats, the mobs at Terminal Station, and at Phillips High School, before which I was dragged and beaten in the streets and my wife stabbed in the hip; the two dynamite explosions, through which we lived by the grace of God; the agonies of having to crusade almost alone, at first; the brutal tactics unleashed upon us by the city — all these things did not move us, nor deter us from our goal.
They rather proved the mettle of the Birmingham Negro; and laid the basis for the massive assault which took place last summer. Birmingham ought to be a better city. No more should a family experience, as did we, the four-way telephone hookups, to which you would answer, and then the police, the fire department, and the ambulance service; and then in five minutes all would converge at your home. No more ought the telephone keep on ringing, continuously, even when you take it off the hook. No more should a man pick up to dial either Western Union or long distance, and get police calls and signals.
These things happened and many more in Birmingham before last spring. I like to feel, despite the fearfulness and vacillations of the new city council, that the massive demonstrations, led by the illustrious Dr. Martin Luther King, Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Reverend Wyatt Walker, and others who assisted me, have brought Birmingham to her senses; and that further persistence by our Movement will finally make it a City of Brotherhood.
I look back to the 3,300 Who went to jail, and take pride in my people. And I think way back to the dark, dismal days of 1956 to 1963, and see Negroes trekking through snow and cold, rain and heat, persecution and peril, sacrifice and hardship, and then I say "thank God for knowing them, and the power of Faith."
America shall be free, some day!
Copyright © Fred Shuttlesworth, 1964.