Sick and tired of Birmingham being stereotyped as racist

16th
16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham

My wife and I got on the shuttle bus leaving Protective Stadium following a UAB football game.

We walked to the back, sat down, and watched as people boarded.

A young couple, likely UAB students, sat down in front of us. The male was African American and his girlfriend was white. He put his arm around her and she laid her head on his shoulder.

And then do you know what happened?

Nothing.

No one stared. No one said anything. It was a nonevent.

I grew up in Birmingham in the ‘50’s. If that couple had sat down together back then, the young man would have been thrown off the bus—or worse.

In those days, blacks and whites weren’t allowed to sit together on a bus or anywhere else. Blacks were required to sit in the back behind a sign labeled ‘Colored.’

And the football game experience would have been totally different. No black players or coaches, separate restrooms, and separate water fountains.

In the 60’s Birmingham made headlines around the world with the bombing of the 16th Baptist Church and Bull Connor’s dogs and firehoses.

Birmingham was an ugly place for African Americans, but Birmingham was not alone.

There were segregated cities all over the South.

Through the 1900’s there were dozens of race riots across America where huge numbers of blacks were murdered –New Orleans, Atlanta, Houston, Charleston, Knoxville, and Tulsa.

In 2015 Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, killed nine blacks during a prayer service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

More recently there has been racial violence in Cincinnati, Oakland, Ferguson, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Charlotte.

It seems that every national TV news story about Birmingham–either good or bad–begins with grainy black and white film footage of police dogs and firehoses.

When Charleston, Charlotte or any of the aforementioned cities are featured by the media, the introduction is not film footage of their racial past, but Birmingham somehow remains the poster child for racism.

1963 was almost sixty years ago. Very few people reading this column were alive then.

So why are we still being shamed by the media?

We were not perfect then and we’re not perfect now—but enough is enough.

Some folks feel strongly that we should use our racial history to show the positive impact we have made on the world. Some feel just as strongly that we should forget about our past and concentrate on our future.

George R. Leighton wrote in an article published in Harper’s Magazine August 1937 entitled “Birmingham Alabama: The City of Perpetual Promise.”  “In a mountain wilderness, laid a region devastated by the war and inhabited by bankrupts, a group of speculators and industrialists in 1871 founded a city and peopled it with two races afraid of each other. This town without parallel anywhere, was Birmingham, Alabama.”

Birmingham has still not reached its potential, but as I’ve heard Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin say, “Birmingham’s history didn’t end in 1963.”

Yes, we should embrace our history, but we shouldn’t allow the national media to define us.

Look around, folks!

Birmingham’s preparing to host the World Games next year.

The world will see a new Birmingham

A Birmingham in which we can take pride.

A Birmingham moving proudly into the 21st Century.

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).

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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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26 thoughts on “Sick and tired of Birmingham being stereotyped as racist”

  1. Well said, David.

    RE: “There were segregated cities all over the South.” Let me hasten to add there were – and are – segregated cities in the “north,” such as Boston.

  2. Wonderful piece. There were and still are segregated cities, in this country- some of it has to do with socio-economic segregation now. Well it always had to do with that too. Many cities, even many in south were rather intergrated until FDR’s administration came in and tore several of them up via race.

    1. Oh! FDR? So you say it was a Democrat thing? Pul-leese…

      So you want to make this issue political? Lessee, I believe George Wallace was a Yellow-Dog Democrat…before all the state Democrats turned into Republican to get elected after the Alabama Blacks identified with the Democrat Party.

      “Rather integrated?” List the southern cities that were integrated in the 1930s…

      Your turn…

  3. I also grew up with that, and have seen happily mixed crowds in Railroad Park.

    Missing from this is the terrible 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. In a new national landmark zone around it there is to be a new gathering place with international scope, designed by globally renowned British Architect Sir Norman Foster. If that could be ready for the world games, or at least something reportable, that would tell how Birmingham’s history of the future is moving forward, not forgetting, but looking ahead more than behind.
    So what is hurting everyone the most these days? It is the awful continuous non-stop repeat of that work ‘racist’ by politicians and mostly the news programs. Politicians, some are still self segregated and should stop that. The never ending racist blame game goes on. It is much worse in other places than Birmingham. Over and over and over again it fires up that message, and it is already at the high point of rioting etc. There are claims that the intention is to get rid of racism ? That is not working well! It is fueling the fires ALL OVER THIS COUNTRY for TV advertising money by attracting attention and viewer ratings.

    Birmingham is on fast forward and should be encouraged to continue. It is time that we are recognized as being a leader in a movement toward a right aim. The results we should see will be the new history we should plan to see.

    Just one more point. I grew up a Baptist in Birmingham, and at kindergarden age we were taught this little song: ‘Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white. they are lovely in his sight. Jesus loves the children of the world.

    And that is real history. ‘Racism’ was not in our little vocabulary!

    The church was thought to be neutral politically, but most likely were majority conservative. If it was mentioned it would only have been in quiet gatherings, or conversations on the side. Southside Baptist Church. Many Birmingham leaders were members, all white then of course. Segregation did exist, and did its damage.

    Great post by the way

    1. I am in the process of researching the life iof Birmingham’s Fire Chief during that time of the height of the racial struggle 1959-1963. His name was Chief Hoyt M Ayers. Specifically, I need to contact those , still living, who worked at Birmingham Fire Dept during that time period. When Commissioner Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor ordered the firefighters to use the hoses and high-pressure water to be turned on the children who marched in the ‘struggle’ in downtown during that time period. Chief Ayers refused Connor’s orders to have his men perform this heinous form of crowd control, which incensed Connor. Connor to Ayers, ‘You either order your men out there with those hoses, or I’ll find somebody who will!” Chief Ayers then tendered his resignation from the Birmingham Fire Dept after 40 years of service-his final years as Chief of the Dept.

      Ayers later went on to serve as the first Chief of the newly formed Bluff Park Fire Department covering the newly created Bluff Park Fire District. I consisted mainly of volunteers in the community. I was one of those volunteers. He served there for another 20+ years, all the while collecting a 40 year pension from the City of Birmingham. Soon therafter in the mid 1980’s, the City of Hoover, AL annexed Bluff Park and th old station on Park Avenue near the intersesction with Shades Crest Rd became Hoover Fire and Rescue Station 5, which it remains until this very day. Many in Birmingham and surrounding communities do not know about this account of Chief Ayers’, ‘profile of courage’ in standing up to and refusing to obey Connor’s orders. This story needs to be told.

      Mr. Mike Ness (above): I need to know more about the historical sources you used when you stated above, “Many cities, even many in south were integrated until FDR’s administration came in and tore several of them up via race’. Those sources would be significantly valuable to me in my research for a possible future biography and historical account on the life of Chief Ayers.

  4. I grew up in the 40-50’s in Bham…I had a black nurse/housekeeper named Lottie..often I loved her more than my own mother..Many nights I slept at her house between she and Dave..her husband. I learned very early in life that we all were created equally in life in God’s eyes..as I grew older I learned that if I treated black people fairly and with kindness then they treated me the same way..in conclusion. There are nasty whites and nasty blacks but their skin color didn’t make them that way ..Society did..

    1. Such stories as yours need to be more widely know. I grew up and experienced similar experiences, but without the spending nights in their house.

      I see through the same perspective as you.

  5. We moved to Birmingham a year ago. We hesitated exactly because of its reputation. It took me only 6 months to fall in love with the city and its people. It is a hidden gem, where the old mentality coexist with the progressive one and amazing things are happening. Birmingham needs a huge marketing campaign to attract tourism. New eyes, new experiences will write a new narrative.

    1. Great idea! I think a consortium, of sorts, between Mayor Woodfin, the Birmingham City Council, the Jefferson County Commission, the Greater Brminingham Chamber of Commerce(impotent, as it may be with it’s current membership issues), UAB, Operation New Birmingham, Alabama Power/Southern Company, etc. could jointly provide the public relations expertise and financial resources to make this endeavor possible. I would gladly offer my services, contacts, and resources gratis(pro-bono) to make this worthy venture a reality.

    2. I can only say I completely agree with you about the need for the truth about the present day Birmingham and it amazing story of survival and recovering. There is that one word that is so overused and over reported it is causing the current national flare up. We simply must not forget it, but we also must stop giving that all together too squeaky wheel so much grease. It is not helping to solve this problem. It is planting it in people’s minds ever more deeply. That word the one I fearlfully hesitate to write: ‘race’ . Birmingham is one of the least advertized places of its size and significance on earth! Thank you. This thinking should have the response that people like you are welcome newcomers. Bring your friends too please, at least to visit, and help spread the good word. Just curious, from what place did you move?

  6. Great post! My wife and I have been saying the same things for years. While we do need an honest awareness of history, we don’t have to be chained to it. Instead, we can learn from it and make life better for all people.

  7. Every right winger knows that members of the national media are propagandists with no intention of publishing any news that fails to promote their agenda. They even called left-wing tyrant Josef Stalin, “Uncle Joe” Stalin. If members of that group said hello, I would figure they were lying about something, and you can’t expect them to report fairly about race relations in today’s Birmingham. Btw, there was a huge peaceful crowd of blacks, whites, and Hispanics at the recent Alabama State Fair.

    1. Durham, I am completely 100% totally in agreement with your comment! That is what press and media are doing and to stir everyone up so they get their hits up and paid for more advertising. Propagandists indeed, and just to bring in more money, leaving all of us to deal with the massive damage. And they cover a basic left wing lie, they are poor but the opposition is rich, NO it is exactly the other way around! That is where their money is coming from. (Durham, here is an unforgettable personal memory I want to share but not here. Send a note to me at royknight 624@gmail.com and I will reply. Thanks It will be short) I do not mind others here having my email address if you wish. You are a great group!

  8. What absolute frosts me is the people who say (Including civil rights leaders and media across the country) that nothing has changed in Birmingham. It is the same as it was 60+ years ago.
    I have lived here most of my life, around the same time David was growing up, I was too. And i can attest to the fact that a lot has changed. I see mixed couples all over, and mixed groups having lunch at our wonderful meat & 3s all over town. That is about as close as it gets! They socialize. Institutional membership and participation is mixed. Leadership is mixed. So don’t tell me nothing has changed. I know first hand that it has, and much for the better. We’re not perfect, no one is. But we have accomplished a lot that is good, and continue to do so. And will continue to!

  9. Not surprised that this perspective and the “amen” shouters comes from the experience of a white male/males. According to every national statistic that includes Birmingham Alabama, White men have historically and currently are in positions of authority throughout levels of government and media that have the power to control and manipulate the narrative by implying that things are (comparatively) “better” than they were before. “Better” for whom and by what level of betterment is what I would like to ask. While I will agree that it is “better” to have the right to live in a safe community. Access and inclusion are not the same. Having racist neighbors come to my door and indignantly tell me to “go and get the owner” and home repairmen asking me if I had gotten my home through a foreclosure didnt cause me to feel less victimized. As a 53 year old black woman born in Bham and raised as a child throughout every city ranging from 7 different southwest Bham communities yet as an adult lived in Pinson,Hoover,Homewood,Mountain Brook and Alabaster. I can definitely attest to the fact that racism is alive and well throughout Bham and surrounding cities. The problem is that the roots of racism are so deeply implanted in the hearts and minds of people who are “sick and tired” of being exposed to the truth that they pretend that they cannot see what is no longer disguised by cowards who have always been in control of the narrative. Those cowards pretend to be oblivious to the truth when the fact is that they cant see the forest for the trees or they dont care to see. So they manipulate the truth. At 53, I too am “sick and tired”… of being invisible in a state that is controlled by the privileged/entitled and cowardice oppressors of today whose families once owned generations of my family.

    Cancer/racism begins as a covert attempt to destroy what ever it cannot control. The insidious nature of racism planted a tree that has now grown branches of classism,sexism,and ageism, as well as other malignant forms of oppression. These forms of oppression created a systemic disease that further poisoned the hearts and minds of those who have the privilege of pretending not to see what is clearly everywhere. A toxic dose of cognitive dissonance then fed already poisoned hearts and minds which has led the privileged to feel entitled to superiority (hence oppressive behavior) and that cycle of oppression perpetuated generational poverty that benefitted the legacy and following generations of oppressors via inheritance. I am sick and tired of white citizens of Birmingham being too cowardice to acknowledge and repair the generational affects of the damage their families caused.

    1. This is in reply to the anonymous poster today, just above me in this thread. Birmingham and surrounding ‘fiefdoms’ continue with overwhelming white, male, straight, and privileged persons, many times due to the inheritance issues of property and financial resources. I don’t know how to solve those issues, perhaps there are some who do have feasable, creative ideas of solutions to address the current inequities. Personally, I am quite open to hearing – no, LISTENING to those possibe solutions and doing the hard work to make those ideas realities. We STILL have a lot of weeding to do. This is generational and the roots run very deep. My kind regards to the anonymous person who shared things that need to be shared.

      1. Durham, You can hardly state what you did here in any more truthful way. I try to be a ‘no-winger,’ and the result has me feeling like I have a deepening understanding. What I observe listening to and reading both the right and the left. I look for the truth but from the left I see an ever widening series of ways to lie. What I don’t get is this. Why? It gets no one any where good! On the other, I see overreaction to those lies. The result is the vast political split of today. No I am not a moderate either. When I weigh the source of lies against what is more practical and sounding like truth connecting to real evidence, it makes me seem more red than blue. And that is how my voting goes. The World Games could be a significant picture change for Birmingham, especially if what is seen and reported is similar to what you saw at the State Fair.

  10. I would like to express my appreciation to the editor for allowing my voice to be heard and commentators for reading,hearing and hopefully listening with your hearts and mind. Having the opportunity to speak, listen and hear each others testimony is the first step to healing. Many leaders in Bham have disregarded ongoing constructive dialogue in order to avoid being reminded of the pain( a history of mistreating people is also not very profitable for the city) however just as any victimization, the victim must first tell their truth and the abuser or criminal must acknowledge wrongdoings, show remorse/recompense and be accountable for deplorable behavior. Those are the first and foremost steps to healing.
    Four hundred year old wounds MUST first be cleaned from the inside out. Bham leaders and many citizens have instead placed a bandage over an open and festering wound that was never cleaned before haphazardly stitching the wound with facades of quick fixes, disguised as community empowerment and job development. Wounds can only heal if they are exposed to light. My suggestion would be the aforementioned and giving all races of people with wounds infected by generational darkness, opportunities to heal by the light of truth. Those who are sick and tired of Bham racial stigmas must be willing to intercede on the behalf of the oppressed. Remember seeing a kid being bullied during school? Did you feel compelled to speak up and tell the bullies to stop? Were you the bully or did you side with the bullies?

    When government leaders choose to fund building prisons instead of building opportunities, advocate for those who have suffered the affects of generational imprisonment. When government leaders choose to manipulate or distort historical facts in order to hide the truth from future business deals, potential civil rights activists, or due to shame or political posturing, advocate on the behalf of the oppressed. When those of us who know better, refuse to do better, we are complicit in the wrongdoings. Extend an olive branch by being courageous and selfless. Tell the bullies to stop! The oppressed would then be receptive to trusting and healing and consequently find value in themselves and their communities. Lastly, dont be so quick to judge the actions of people who have learned to survive generations of being poor by doing things many of us have not felt forced to do. For example, my sister lives in an predominately white community and was disgusted because her white neighbors son was shooting squirrels in his yard for dinner. She asked him to stop but felt humbled when he explained that he was 14 years old but hunting food for his family to eat because the pandemic caused his parents to lose their jobs after they contracted the virus. This family lives in a upper middle class subdivision in Shelby county. This boys parents have been disrespectful to my sister in the the past by calling her a racial slur but we are donating food and money to him and his family. His parents actions are not his fault and we know what hunger feels like regardless to the color of skin.

    I am 53 years old, but clearly recall going into a grocery store on Bessemer Super Hwy with my grandmother(a then Mountain Brook maid) and seeing her black hand give green cash to a white hand in exchange for food. I then asked my grandmother if I could get a drink of water but felt confused when she reluctantly said yes which I later realized was due to her fear of racism. At 7 years old, I stood at 2 water fountains, and had to choose between using a “colored fountain” or a “white fountain”. I didnt want to drink water that was “colored” nor “white” and since I was confused, I chose to simply go back to the comfort of where my grandmother stood waiting for me without using either fountain. I didnt realize that I was considered inferior/colored by whites until a year later when white men riding on the back of a pick up truck aimed and threw cans full of chewing tobacco spit on me as I walked from “my” neighborhood candy store. They yelled hey “colored girl” as I continued to walk home. In shock I sat in my spit covered clothes and waited for the Walt Disney show to premier Cinderella. I loved the Walt Disney show because I could escape to a world where it was safe to be “colored” and there was always a happy ending to stories like mine despite nobody looking like me! I experienced abuse, hunger and misery being “colored” while growing up in generational poverty in Bham but found solace in seeing televised depictions of happiness in the purity of being “white”. I then naively decided that when I grew up I was going to be white because being white meant being safe and happy. Subsequent poverty related experiences contributed to warping my self confidence (and not loving myself) which as a 53 year old I can definitely attribute to the formidable years of my life. Ironically because I feared being controlled or abused by people, from a psychological perspective today I would be diagnosed as having post traumatic stress disorder but from a societal perspective I would be considered an angry black woman. The truth is that I am a 53 year old woman born with dark skin in a country, society, city and state built on racism and oppression. When others choose to deny my truth or change the narrative to my story, they revictimize me. What you can do is help tell the bullies to stop!

    A heartfelt thanks to all of you for allowing me to use my voice! By the way I am not anonymous, I am simply revelation of my truth.

  11. The fact that “sick and tired” is able to share her experiences without shame, is a testament to our city’s positive change!

    1. Positive change, I’ll acknowledge, but it is not enough until the wrongs of the past, as described above, are FULLY acounted for. Too much is still ignored, incomplete, left unadressed, many times, purposefully. Those in power, polically, and financially in the greater Birmingham area fear change – that their ‘slice of the pie’ will be smaller. But, evereyone must come to the realization that the faster these inequities are addressed, the size of the pie itself will grow larger, thus, the fears their ‘piece of the pie’will shrink in size are false. Rather, there is the real potential for it to grow larger, as well. More open minds will come to understand that this WILL happen. Area power brokers and elites will understand this only if they can think this idea thru and reach this conclusion themselves, as I have.

  12. In response to the comment by Brandon Logan
    NOVEMBER 28, 2021. With all due respect, the fact that I can share my story via this platform is a testament to my courage, tenacity and Gods will to allow the truth to be known. It also a testament to the editors judicious discretion in allowing this platform to be used in a constructive manner.
    “The city” did not earn the right to be a testament to productive change, albeit progressive actions in some regards.
    That is clearly and unfortunately where “the haves” are misrepresenting the truth. Productive and progressive is not the same.
    At 53 years old I am still living with scars that “the city” inflicted upon me and have been receiving trauma related treatment for 40 years due to those scars.
    I agree that Bham is more diverse and overt racism is less widely accepted despite covert racism being alive and well. Systemic (covert/cowardice) racism is like a tree with strong roots that cannot be seen on the surface. The roots spread wider and deeper than what the naked eye can see. The branches however reflect the diseased condition of the tree hence the tree is bearing poisonous fruit that the have nots must eat and hope to survive, because there is no other food. To disregard, dismiss, deflect or demean losses due to having to eat the poisonous fruit, gives credence to the fact that the oppressors (the haves) do not truly have any concern for the generational damage (Systemic racism tree) that still affects and controls the lives of the oppressed(the have nots).

    1. This is only a suggestion for Mr, Richard St. John Perdue. Have you ever read the book entitled, ‘The Man in the Mirror’, by author Patrick M. Morley? Should you so choose, I think you may find it an interesting read. The book is available for lending in the Birmingham Public Library system, including nearly all the surrounding municipalities whose libraries cooperate in concert with BPL through mutual agreements. Or, you may simply make a visit to the Littlle Professor bookstore in Homewood and purchase a copy for yourself. His work is avaiable in paperback and hardback covers.

      1. Is racism not being practiced when it is applied, admitted and when it is practiced by accusing others of being racist?
        To have that subsect in mind in any way continues it in full life so here all of us go. Racism must therefore thrive. It might be best to try to change the subject and find friendship like the people in the busses, parks, fairgrounds, theaters and shops.

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