June 3, Day 3: Birmingham earned the nickname “Bombingham.” Between 1947 and 1965, more than 50 dynamite bombs devastated black homes and churches to suppress desegregation efforts in Birmingham. As the most segregated city in America, it was referred to as the Johannesburg of the South. Here the civil rights movement almost died. Here it finally triumphed. The story is violent, rife with injustice, and, while hopeful, still far from “happily ever after.”
An Incomplete Education
After Jean and I moved to the South 10 years ago, we began to realize that entire portions of American history had been omitted from our formal education. The coursework always seemed to stop shortly after WW2. People, politics, and history are always messy, but WW2 celebrated American heroes and cast foreign villains with clear lines of right and wrong. In contrast, “Brown vs. Board of Education” occurred 20 minutes from our hometown, and was only mentioned in passing, with little detail around the clashes that followed. Our school semester always seemed to end before we got around raw and recent subjects, such as Civil rights, Viet Nam, and AIDS.
Clay, our slightly eccentric guide from the eponymous Red Clay Tours, had a similar experience. After travelling abroad, he and his wife returned to Birmingham, his hometown, and started an entertaining “Beer and BBQ” tour. Somewhere along the way, he thought he ought to know a little history of the city, in case someone asked. He read the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book “Carry me Home” by Dianne McWhorter. The book shocked him with a violent history of his hometown. He felt he needed to do something about it, and Red Clay Tours was born.
What Happened in Birmingham?
Our tour began and ended at Kelly Ingram Park, with its evocative sculptures commemorating the events of 1963. The irony is heavy; in 1963, the park, surrounded by black churches and in a black neighborhood, was for whites-only. The first sculpture we visit commemorates Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. The KKK bombed both his home and church. When he and his wife Ruby attempted to enroll their girls in the historically all-white John Herbert Phillips High School, klansmen savagely beat him and stabbed his wife on the front steps. The police, notified in advance of possible trouble and need for support, decided to be elsewhere.
We visited Dynamite Hill, where the city earned the moniker “Bombingham.” Here white supremacists dynamited black homes for encroaching on white neighborhoods. the different shades of brick used to rebuild the homes are evidence to the violence.
City leaders suppressed voting, primarily for blacks but also for poor whites. A literacy test was required. They levied a Poll Tax, which accrued for each election opportunity missed. As the taxes stacked up, voting quickly became out of reach. In primary elections, only whites could vote. Video at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute shows police unexpectedly grabbing a black woman as she peaceably waited in line to vote, pulling and jerking her collar as they dragged her away.
The police vigilantly enforced segregation. During a 1938 civil rights conference at Boutwell Auditorium, Commissioner Bull Connor strung a rope from the lawn, through the door, down the aisle, and up onto the stage to separate blacks from whites. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt chose to sit with the blacks, and so police ordered her to move. In defiance, she inched her chair no further than the aisle. In 1948, in the same auditorium, Strom Thurmond accepted the Dixiecrat Presidential nomination, with its segregationist platform. In 1957, again in Boutwell Auditorium, Connor’s KKK associates beat Nat King Cole onstage for playing before a white audience. Birmingham was the epicenter of segregation. Rev Shuttlesworth knew it. “As Birmingham goes, so goes the Nation” he said in a letter to young Dr. Martin Luther King, urging him to join the cause in Birmingham.
Violence was a systemic reign of terror. Supremacists burned crosses in front of schools and churches. They randomly waylaid Judge Edward Aaron, a local youth, beating him with an iron bar, carving the letters “KKK” into his chest, and castrating him with a razor. Dousing him in turpentine, they left him to die to “send a message.” White supremacists firebombed Freedom Riders on their Greyhound bus upon arrival at the Birmingham station, forcing them to choose fiery death or their clubs and brass knuckles. Although forewarned of potential violence, the police gave the mob an unrestrained fifteen minutes before appearing at the scene. When asked why, Bull Connor defended the delay, saying, “No policemen were in sight as the buses arrived, because they were visiting their mothers on Mother’s Day.”
The 1963 Children’s March
Reverend King’s organized marches faltered, and the police arrested him, placing him in the local jail where he wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail .” Moving forward, he and Shuttlesworth agreed to bring youth into the marches to revitalize the movement. The children brought training in non-violence. Bull Connor’s police brought fire hoses and attack dogs. The resulting images of police brutality shocked the nation, but similar attacks continued in Selma and around the country. On September 15, 1963, four young girls preparing to attend Sunday service died, killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Congress passed the bi-partisan Civil Rights Act a year later, in 1964.
No Happy Ending. Yet…
Over time, the once-prosperous steel industry in Birmingham began a slow decline, leaving behind desolate neighborhoods and toxic superfund sites. The city is one of the most violent in the US. In 2020, mobs protesting George Floyd’s murder tried to topple the 50-foot Confederate Monument in front of City Hall. The mayor took the state of Alabama to court to have the obelisk removed. He prevailed. The city placed pavers to cover the hole in the plaza where the monument recently stood. The paver’s contrasting shades eerily reflect the multi-shaded brick houses still standing on Dynamite Hill.
Progress is slow, but Birmingham continues to evolve. The people we met were gracious and friendly. Revitalization is taking root downtown, with eclectic (and excellent) restaurants and breweries. Clay now has his Brew and BBQ Tours in addition to his Fight for Rights Tour. Next time we are in town, we will join him again, and now that we understand the past, savor the present.