Can Birmingham progress if we keep dredging up our troubled past?

Maury Shevin
Maury Shevin

Today’s guest columnist is Maury Shevin.

Why are we always dwelling on Birmingham’s racist history?

How are we ever going to enjoy a brighter future if we fail to focus on what Birmingham looks like now?

I think a lot about these questions.  They are important.

In addition to being a Birmingham cheerleader, I consider myself an amateur Birmingham historian.  Actually, now that I am of a certain age, I am able to recount a lot of Birmingham’s history firsthand.  So, let me share some thoughts with respect to the questions posed above.

Birmingham has an undeniably awful, racist history. Racism has cost us dearly.  Just think about the exodus of black and white people from our City, particularly over the past 50 years.  Just think about the number of other Americans who have chosen not to move to Birmingham because of our history.  One can only guess at the financial and social cost born by us who live here today.

So why dwell?

I am mindful of the experience of South Africa when it moved from Apartheid to Black majority control.  The first thing that the new government did was to set in motion “truth and reconciliation” committees.  It was their job to ferret out the truth—because there can be no reconciliation absent telling the truth.   That is what we do when we dwell on Birmingham’s past.  We are coming to terms with ugly truth.

And, we do this for at least two other very good reasons:  We do this to honor the legion of African Americans who lived and died in Birmingham’s gulag; and those who came of age during what the Irish would call the “troubles.”  (Interestingly, people all over the world remember and recount their “troubles.”  It’s just what all human beings do.)  We also do this to make certain that we don’t ever slip into the abyss again.  Never again.

So, are we going to enjoy a bright future if we recount our past?

Of course we are.

We initially play the cards with which we are dealt.  But, that doesn’t mean that we can’t discard and play for a better hand.

Birmingham’s natural beauty, climate and location in the USA makes us an ideal spot for business and industry to grow and prosper.  Many of us can and do enjoy a wonderful standard of living—quality of life.  The parks, arts and entertainment, colleges and universities, and houses of worship have prospered here, and with the control of COVID, will once again.

We are not perfect—far from it.  There are too many in our City and region who suffer because of inequity in opportunity.  I recently heard it said that it’s really hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, if you don’t have boots.  And, too many of our people don’t have boots.  But, we continue to strive.

So, yes, let’s do focus on the here and now; let’s celebrate our successes.  Let’s enjoy our accomplishments.

But, let’s face our challenges head-on too—be they economic disparity, social injustice or radical selfishness.  Indeed, this is what is required of us.  In every religious tradition, it’s about facing inequities, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing those with no home.  This is what we humans, we humane humans, are called upon to do.

Acknowledging the past is not an exercise in negativity.  It is a necessary part of the struggle to achieve honesty and integrity for the growth of a credible and honorable society.  And, this is absolutely achievable in Birmingham.  In fact, this attribute embodies Birmingham.  We are the most charitable and hospitable of cities.

When we find our better selves and act on our innate goodness, our future is assured.

This is what Birmingham looks like to me in this third decade of the Twenty-First Century.

Maury Shevin—passionate about the City of Birmingham–lives, works, thinks and plays on Birmingham’s Southside.

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David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  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.

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7 thoughts on “Can Birmingham progress if we keep dredging up our troubled past?”

  1. I agree with thoughts and reason. There has been a renaissance from for me since born in 1948 and age 73. I have seen schools desegregate and back of bus removed. Personally I don’t like to dwell on it as much and my grandkids could care less. But sometimes it is necessary to relate to how far we have come and how farther we want to go. Give minority the opportunities to sell and let financing and craftmenship be displayed in all areas of economics.
    Then we don’t have to remind the lender to give it a try. Developer/Economist

  2. You have to bring up the past. Otherwise, you’re avoiding the issues that lead to the problems of today. But, of course, Alabama already knows this. That’s why the state has taken the path that it has since the Civil Rights era.

  3. People who worry about truth and reconciliation programs and the extremes that can be reached with them usually have something to which they need to speak truth and reconcile.

    Seriously, the equivalent of this article in 1963 would be “well, I understand and agree with the underlying idea that this Martin Luther King fellow is preaching, couldn’t he go about it a different way? I feel like sometimes, he just forces Bull Connor’s hand.”

  4. It is vital to understand and face the past, through reading, engaging in dialogue, facing the darkness. It’s strange to me that people get bent out of shape about statues coming down, yet they won’t try to read complexities of history and see things from other/many viewpoints. Anyway, good column Maury!

  5. Alabama’s 93rd amendment to its Constitution — adopted in 1951– is the biggest drawback to progress in this city and state. Amendment 93 does not allow funding for mass transit. However, mass transit would allow easy access to jobs, hospitals, grocery stores, colleges, etc. Until Amendment 93 is either amended, deleted or replaced, inequality will continue to thrive in our city. Everyone pays taxes but everyone does not get their most needed benefit from what they pay. Access to better transit enhances everybody’s life.

  6. Time to say it again. The state’s constitution is really bad. This is only one indication of how bad it is. I fear that if they new about it it could be thrown out by the US Supreme Court. It ought to be reworked totally, turned from a nightmare into a dream.

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