Our negative history is not the Birmingham I know

Robert Milam
Robert Milam

Today’s guest blogger is Robert Milam.

If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

My heart sank when I read  the piece, “Elitists, racists, and snake-oil salesmen built Birmingham,” published on ComebackTown.

My reaction was one of frustration and some embarrassment because it was so focused on the negative parts of Birmingham’s history.

Though I’m sure the piece was historically correct, I failed to see how publishing it would help our community move forward.

I hope that everyone who saw it read past the negative headline and the 40+ paragraphs to get to the last one (Not that the last paragraph offset the previous 40+ paragraphs–but at least it was somewhat upbeat).

Otherwise the piece totally reinforces any negative view that anyone might have about Birmingham—and Birmingham’s reputation doesn’t need any more hits.

We all have the history we have–not the history we would like to have, but to focus only on the negative parts of our history is not helpful in producing a better future for Birmingham.

Did nothing positive happen in Birmingham in its first 100 years or since?

I’m not saying that the negative parts of our history should be forgotten or glossed over. We can and must learn from it, but if we don’t highlight the good things that have happened and continue to happen in our community daily, why would anyone from outside this community ever want to invest here, do business here or move here?

I was born in 1963 when Birmingham was at its lowest point for racial division. Much healing and positive change has taken place over my 56 years and the Birmingham described in the article is not the Birmingham that I know.

Because of Birmingham’s history people here generally try to be nicer to each other than in other cities because we fully know what the alternative looks like.

Birmingham is one of the most generous areas in the country. Look up the charitable giving statistics.

Dr. King famously once said “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.” That is not the Birmingham that I know. When I go to Sunday service at my church the congregation is fully integrated and are focused on our mutual love of Christ not the pigment of anyone’s skin.

Much of Alabama’s natural resources have been owned by out of state interest for 100+ years that don’t always have our best interest at heart. We can’t control that but we can control how we treat each other and I think generally everyone that I come in contact with in this community treats each other with respect. That is the Birmingham that I know.

My job takes me all across the country and what I hear from the people that I meet who have actually been to Birmingham is that “Everyone was so nice there“. That is the Birmingham that I know.

I know it might be appropriate to use the ComebackTown forum to discuss our history, but I would like to challenge the publisher to focus on how we have overcome our scars or learned from it to make a better future.

Some of the ComebackTown authors can continue to be glass half empty or make the choice to promote the great community that we have the privilege to live in.

I challenge everyone to know our history, but use it to motivate you to make Birmingham better.

Robert Milam is a lifelong resident of Birmingham and former Senior Vice President at SouthTrust Bank and Executive Vice President of Regions Bank. He currently travels the country as Director of Acquisitions for Summit Investment Management.

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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com

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8 thoughts on “Our negative history is not the Birmingham I know”

  1. Robert, I very much appreciate your piece. It is an articulate, positive response—and I agree with almost everything you’ve said here.

    Months ago, I asked David if anyone had ever published anything about the “founding” of Birmingham on Comeback Town—and was surprised when he said that no one ever had. To me, this meant that people in the Comeback Town ecosystem were seemingly ignorant of the sources of most of the issues that still plague Birmingham.

    I felt compelled to tell that story, and yes, it’s pretty tough to read. The saying “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” (which is usually attributed to George Santayana) is just as applicable in this context as is it is anywhere else. You may be frustrated and embarrassed, but this is, as best I can tell it, what happened.

    Even though my article was very long, I knew that it couldn’t come to a screeching halt after the Great Annexation of 1910. No, the groundwork and the inertia of those first forty years are directly connected to the horrors of the 1950s and 1960s.

    As you’ve pointed out, to attract people to this metro area, we need to emphasize our positive attributes. I agree—and I could go on and on about the wonderful things taking place here. In addition to your comment about our charitable nature, there’s UAB (of course), Railroad and Regions Parks and all the economic activity in that area, the great food scene, and the huge numbers of people moving back to the city core. I worked for three years in the Innovation Depot (the old Sears building which is now one of the top business incubators in the world). There’s nothing but hope and positivity in that facility. There’s much good to promote about Birmingham.

    I have to take issue with your comment about your church. It sounds like a wonderful exception, but that’s what it is. Very positive, but not mainstream—in Birmingham or anywhere else, for that matter. I support your effort to promote your church—and wish it could be like that everywhere.

    In the midst of the positive vibe about Birmingham, current statistics are overwhelmingly negative. Check out Comeback Town on al.com (3/14/19). Based on the 2018 Milken major city report, Birmingham’s statistics are appalling—and I suggest that those are more embarrassing than our history. And these are just business statistics; they don’t get into poverty rates, educational levels, food deserts, and so on.

    However, I believe suggest that the “balkanization” of Birmingham is rooted in those first 40 years (1871-1910). From that Milken report: “…The top-performing metros have cohesive strategies that allow them to leverage their assets more effectively.”

    I promise to, if allowed, write more promising stuff in the future! We HAVE to understand the past in order to move forward.

    Again, I appreciate your positivity and optimism. Thanks for being a Birmingham “evangelist!” We need more people like you!

  2. Bill, thanks for your kind comments and explaining the genesis of your article. You and anyone else are welcome to join me for Sunday service at Church of the Highlands Riverchase campus anytime.

  3. I agree we need to know our history, where we come from and be educated about the problems we are facing. I also think when presenting our history and problems you must present and listen to both sides of the story (the good, the bad, the in between). In the same discussion we need to point out ways we have learned or have not learned from our history. We need to share our ideas for how we may solve the problems we are facing. We have to be able to hear both sides of a story, discuss it, be educated by it, and do something about it.

    I thank you both for sharing both sides of the story.

  4. The negative history is the history I never knew, and I am glad to have it. I came to live in East Lake, Birmingham as a teenager, in 1959. I had lived in Africa for 15 years, and knew nothing of Southern racism. I was shocked and wounded by what I experience — from the people at Ruhama Baptist Church (my parents were Baptist missionaries & how was I to understand the opposition from Baptists to what my parents taught me), from my grandparents (“Why are you talking to that nigger, girl, like a common prostitute?”), from the students at Woodlawn High School who on my first day of attendance had gathered on the front lawn to attack the nigger students they were expecting, and who called me Nigger-lover and Jungle Bunny.

    So I have never seen this part of Birmingham’s history and it helps explain some of the emotional brutality I have had to bear for 60 years. It also helps to explain the Depression culture that my parents & uncle at Howard were working to heal in the 30s.

    Sometime we should have an article about the families who worked for Avondale mills, their shotgun houses with the single water fauce out on the alley to save on pipes, their thin arms and legs and pale pale skin, the mill shop where they could buy cheaply the ends of cloth they had woven. These peoples’ bodies also built Birmingham.

    1. Great perspective, Diana! Your family’s history is an example of the “underbelly” of capitalism. You’ve made enough points to create a post yourself—& I would love to learn more about your story. Feel free to email me if you like @ wbivey@gmail.com.

  5. So many important points have been made in the history given and in the comments. My comment now has in ways already been made. So in a sense this might be considered a restatement.
    The significant fact to me is how much the history of Birmingham has changed since 1963 and where a brighter future might be yet found in the way it is headed. Social change has been almost beyond comprehension, although cooperation among its people and its communities still needs to advance and improve. That will likely happen if this history and the past from which the city moves forward is kept in mind. We know what we do not want to go back to, and so now we know what our goals should be for the future. The change is extraordinary, and so much has been positive it is very worthwhile to continue it. Examples: USSteel, once the largest employer has been replaced by UAB; before, no one lived downtown and now more than ever imagined do. The level of better cooperation within the city itself, needs to extend much more thoroughly into the surrounding municipalities and counties. What has been achieved strongly suggests that big and positive changes can be made to benefit one and all. History has proven that the ability exists.

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