By David Sher
On November 18, Donald Watkins published a column on his website entitled, “Birmingham is Dying.”
I immediately began getting e-mails from ComebackTown readers looking for my reaction.
I was dumbfounded!
This one-sided mean-spirited attack on Birmingham and specifically black political leaders was beyond my comprehension.
Mr. Watkins seems to take great pride in the large readership of his editorial. He made a post on his Facebook Page entitled, ‘”Birmingham is Dying’ Breaks a Publication Record.”
He wrote “as of November 20, 2022, at 8:30 a.m. PST, more than 72,077 readers across all of my social media platforms and all of the Facebook sharing have viewed “Birmingham is Dying” since the article was published on Friday morning. None of the 800 + articles I have published since 2013 has reached this many people within 48 hours of the publication date.”
“The citizens of Birmingham obviously see the city’s plight in the same light as I do. The numbers don’t lie.”
However, just because someone clicked on an article doesn’t mean they agree with it.
Mr. Watkins also wrote on his Facebook page that “No public official in City Hall or member of the school board has contacted me to offer an article in rebuttal of my data-driven analysis that Birmingham is dying.”
Since no one else responded, here is my rebuttal.
An attack on black political leaders
Mr. Watkins wrote, “Birmingham’s City Hall, the city’s school board, and other city boards and agencies became majority black between the late 1980s and early 1990s. Blacks have enjoyed rock solid control of the organs of city government in Birmingham since the 1992 municipal elections.”
“African-American officials are presiding over the slow and painful death of Birmingham…”
“Today’s black elected officials in Birmingham City Hall are an embarrassment to themselves, their constituents, and the entire city.”
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin can’t be expected to magically fix systemic problems overnight that have been tugging at Birmingham for six decades.
It’s important to note that Mr. Watkins was heavily engaged in Birmingham City government for many years when Birmingham struggled with the same issues.
According to his own website, “In 1985, Mr. Watkins…became a confidant of and Special Counsel to Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington, Jr., the City’s first African-American mayor. Mr. Watkins served as Mayor Arrington’s Special Counsel until 1998.”
Mr. Watkins builds his case for a dying Birmingham on poor rankings in crime and student test scores.
Birmingham’s rankings appear much worse because of the way the rankings are computed
The City of Birmingham is one of 35 municipalities in Jefferson County and represents only 29% of the county’s population.
Compare that to Nashville.
The City of Nashville represents 100% of Davidson County’s population because Nashville has a county-city government. Nashville’s crime rate and student test scores include all of Davidson County with its high-income suburbs.
Birmingham’s rankings do not include affluent suburbs like Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills, or Homewood.
So Birmingham’s poor rankings are not measured the same way as Nashville or many other cities.
It’s not acceptable that homicides are increasing in Birmingham, but homicides are rising all over the U.S.
To continue our comparison with Nashville.
My search of the Internet quickly discovered this article where the Mayor of Nashville laments that Nashville’s murder rates are unacceptably high surpassing year-to-date numbers for 2021.
Or this column complaining “Nashville recently ranked #4 among state capitals for violent crime and the 18th most dangerous city in the U.S. with a homicide rate that recently reached an all-time high.”
Mr. Watkins criticizes Birmingham’s failing schools and low test scores. His concerns are not unfounded, but Birmingham schools have been struggling for decades.
Alabama law allows municipalities with populations above 5,000 to have their own school system. When school integration began in the ‘60’s there was a mad rush in Jefferson County to create new cities–many with their own school system. This is why there are twelve public school systems in Jefferson County.
Many states do not allow cities to have their own schools—only county schools are permitted. So in states like Georgia there was no urgency to create new city or public school systems.
The result is that many of Birmingham’s higher-achieving students moved out of the city limits—leaving Birmingham with lower- achieving students who live in the city’s poorer socio-economic neighborhoods.
It’s important to note that Birmingham schools are beginning to make progress.
Last year Birmingham had 20 schools on the failing schools’ list. Now, 13 of its 43 schools are on that list. That’s still too many, but demonstrates improvement.
Birmingham is not dying
Mr. Watkins complains that “public officials are merely re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic after it has struck the iceberg.”
That is not true.
The mayor’s office has launched a program to improve reading skills among the young students in Birmingham City Schools. Studies show students whose reading skills are lagging at the end of the third grade are likely to struggle to learn other subjects in their remaining school years. Poor academic performance, in turn, feeds violence and crime.
So helping young students become better readers is a tangible way to improve their academic performance and prevent crime.
In recent months, the mayor and council have invested:
- $1 million into a proven conflict resolution program in schools to keep the city’s young people safe and prevent violent crime.
- $1 million for a financial literacy program to help students and their families lay a solid foundation for the future.
- $1 million in mental health services to ensure counselors in every single school and interrupt the cycle of trauma that fuels violence in Birmingham.
- Launched a Real Time Crime Center.
And let’s not forget Mayor Woodfin’s signature initiative, The Birmingham Promise, which the council has committed to support with $10 million over five years. This program provides paid internships for high school seniors and a path to a tuition-free college education to every graduate of Birmingham City Schools.
Since its launch in 2020, Birmingham Promise has provided more than 100 internships – and tuition assistance to more than 700 graduates of Birmingham City Schools.
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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