Birmingham is dying—a rebuttal to an editorial attacking black elected officials

PHOTO BY CHRISTINE PRICHARD--Donald Watkins, a lawyer for Richard Scrushy, in this file photo talks on his cell phone as he approaches the Hugo Black Federal Courthouse.
PHOTO BY CHRISTINE PRICHARD–Donald Watkins, a lawyer for Richard Scrushy, in this file photo talks on his cell phone as he approaches the Hugo Black Federal Courthouse.

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.

Violent Crimes

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.”

Failing schools

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:

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.

Birmingham dying?


Link to Mr. Watkins’ website

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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27 thoughts on “Birmingham is dying—a rebuttal to an editorial attacking black elected officials”

  1. if the state of Alabama stayed out of Birmingham business it would improve Birmingham raised minimum wage to 10hr within a week Montgomery passed a law to stop it passed law to remove Confederate Statutes within a week Montgomery changed the law an when you look at the corruption in Montgomery they need to Police their selves an stay out. of City government especially the Largest City in Alabama

  2. So, Donald Watkins offers a lot of statistics. What he fails to acknowledge is that the era in time that he measures against was the era of segregation and virulent racism. I don’t want to return to those days. When we consider Birmingham’s first 100 years against Birmingham’s next 50, we have so much to be proud of. Yes, we can do better. Yes, we will do better. And yes, it might even be nice if Watkins offered some constructive ideas to the discussion. Then his blog would be worth reading.

    1. Quote :
      ” When we consider Birmingham’s first 100 years against Birmingham’s next 50, we have so much to be proud of.”

      What ?…You have a crystal ball, seeing into Birmingham for the next 50 years ?…That’s some feat. You should sell your talent…

      Ballard from Huntsville

    2. I agree with you, Maury! BUT, sometimes it takes a kick in the ___
      to get the ol’ mule to MOVE! The Mayor’s noble intentions and goals are inspiring! However, for many years ,now, the “David Shers” of Birmingham have pleaded our case: ONE GREAT CITY! Until that day, it is what it is…..not all bad, but, NOT GOOD ENOUGH! Not good enough to attract more industries with high wages. Not good enough to keep our brightest children here. Not good enough to attract new residents to replace those who left. Not good enough to attract airlines that offer competitive fares/service. Does anybody care but the Mayor and a few others? If not, I wonder if there is an answer to Donald Watkins’ rantings of gloom and doom. Maybe that ‘ol mule will show up?

  3. If I were the mayor of Birmingham or on the Birmingham City Council, I would advocate abolishing the Birmingham city school system. Then Birmingham city schoolchildren would go to Jefferson County schools which are not much better but are still better. This is something the City of Birmingham has the power to do.

  4. Birmingham is not “dying”…That town’s been dead for decades.

    Now, in the wake of the 2020 census, its depressed citizens are desperately trying to save face with these verbose, silly protests on this “Comeback” site…”Comeback” ?… Comeback to what ? Birmingham’s history ?…Get real !

    ~ Ballard from Huntsville

  5. This is the same Donald Watkins who was indicted on federal fraud charges himself along with his son, Donald Watkins Jr. and charged with using money investors gave to his biofuel company for personal use, including paying off taxes, loans, alimony and buying clothing…leading up to a trial worthy of its own Netflix treatment, found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison on March 2019, and who legally represented “King” Richard Scrushy, the notorious founder of HealthSouth?*

    Just checking…

    *public information from

  6. Birmingham is dying is the biggest click bait headline ever. I hope no one takes Mr. Watkins seriously. Do we have issues? What city doesn’t? Most of all, Birmingham is a lovely town and anyone who says differently obviously either has an axe to grind or hasn’t spent time here recently.

    I recently moved here and find Birmingham a wonderful respite from “big city living” and for sure a wonderful respite from big city taxes and big city cost of living. Sure, I heard “the city government is black.” With the exception of the Birmingham Water Works Board, SO WHAT?

    I don’t know the mayor, and I don’t have kids in the schools here but he did something with the recent financial literacy program that every school district in America should do. Kudos to the Mayor. It looks like he is trying very hard to turn things around. As a PR professional, I gotta hand it to the guy – he and his communications team get an A+.

    My B’ham neighborhood, admittedly in an upscale area, experienced a criminal break-in about 2 weeks ago – Birmingham police were here in minutes. Coming out of The Alabama Theatre, a young (black) security guard was monitoring the parking lot where we left our car – it was cold and he was cold. I want to say thank you to him and to our police officers.

    It’s time to stop with the racist comments. If you want Birmingham to be the best place it can be, work on making it the best place it can be and stop making inane comments about the race of those hustling to make it happen. The last time I checked, economic development doesn’t ask what race you are.

  7. I agree and yes Birmingham is dying because the last time I looked at the population it was way more the 198,000 residents. The mayor can’t do everything by himself his leaders got to do there part as well then hopefully Birmingham will do better but it’s gonna take time and patience since the city is way over due in Education, health care and ext

  8. I well might be in the minority here, but from what I recall of Donald Watkins and Richard Arrington is they never missed a chance to sow discord, stress, and make it abundantly known they and their cronies we’re above the law. Because of Arrington and Watkins’ petty childish spats with Jimmy Blake only served to almost ruin District 3. In the few interactions I had with the City Council, I literally had to dare Blake to open his mouth, that he and his stupid feud with the mayor was what led us to Where we were. No matter what the proposal was, Blake had to be opposite of the mayor and Watkins. Don’t take this to mean that Arrington and Watkins didn’t have their well earned share of the blame, for they did far too much too and the people of Birmingham were ones hurt. People moved away in droves, companies left, not to be replaced, especially after Arrington and Watkins and others marched down 5th Avenue North in Chains protesting Arrington having been found in Contempt of Court. I’m sure many might have had better interactions with Arrington and Watkins than I did. But from what I encountered with them is neither had an honest bone in their bodies. Birmingham is blessed to be rid of them both.

    1. Mark, would you tell us more about this? Is this the Jimmy Blake you referred to?

      It looks like it is, because it says he served on the Birmingham City Council for 8 years. You said the spats between them “nearly ruined District Three.” Is that the district he served? What kinds of things did they argue about? I’ve only been in Birmingham about 18 years, so I’d like to learn more.

      One thing it mentions is that he worked to abolish the occupational tax. I have to say I think that is terrible. Birmingham deserved to get a tax from people who earned their livings here and lived somewhere else. What was his argument against it? I see he is a Libertarian.

      You seem to think of Watkins, Arrington and Blake as equally at fault. I will say I think it seems self-serving and questionable for Watkins to criticize contemporary black leaders of Birmingham when he seems to think leadership was fine when he was involved.

  9. Sorry about all your statistics, Mr. Watkins. I have observed Birmingham for nearly 40 years. Far from dying, the last decade has been one of innovation and renovation. You can feel it in the air. Thank you for pointing out the largest problems. I disagree with your conclusion.

  10. Donald Watkins is a bitter convicted felon who no longe has influence he once had with the city of Birmingham political machine. Donald Watkins is smart , but also a con artist. Based on his past, why would any one give him the time of day….much less pay any attention to what he says or writes? He broke the law and got caught.

  11. I’ve lived in my neighborhood for over 40 years and witnessed the steady decline of city services as Whites fled the area. Whether a person thinks Birmingham is dead or not depends on where they live. Like many other cities, Birmingham is making an effort to attract prosperous Whites back into the center city at the expense of predominately or totally Black neighborhoods. Building expensive townhouses and apartments and driving up rental rates, guarantees the continued exodus of the people who were once the foundation of “The New Birmingham”.

    1. If Birmingham had a $15 an hour minimum wage those depressed neighborhoods would be doing better. It’s not a matter of trying to attract whites. It’s simply a matter of getting people who can afford the new buildings you are putting up. Yes, they are more likely to be white, but that is not intentional. With the $15 minimum wage more would be black.

  12. Birmingham is dying and rapidly. The inner city is failing because of lack of attention. It would be interesting to note where the rebuttals live! Taxpayers in the inner city are being drained to death! Speculators and investors are profiting from destroying/gentrification of neighborhoods! Drive-thru and check out the so called “Birmingham not dying neighborhoods” and u might change your statements. The city must be enhanced 360 degrees in order to claim “we aren’t dying statement! I have been around here a long time and the optics of success are just in certain areas. Transparency and accountability to the citizens of bhsm are null and void! Go away unrealistic bull crappers!!!!

  13. Having lived my whole life in Birmingham, I’ve witnessed it’s ups and downs firsthand, but to say it’s dying is a dishonest stretch. Consider the path of a city with almost 100 years of entrenched racism, poverty, segregation, and Jim Crow laws, capped off by white flight. Perhaps parents and grandparents are still traumatized by the constant bombings and injustices meted out by the former majority? So what happened? When those forces were beaten back, the losers simply took their ball (capital), dropped a match, and gleefully watched from the suburbs. Wouldn’t any reasonable or truly concerned person expect Birmingham to stumble as it struggles to rise from the ashes. Unfortunately, adding logs to the fire is always much easier and much more comfortable than doing the hard work necessary to help overcome this tortured legacy. Perhaps investing in some of these neighborhood and businesses or volunteering to read at some of these failing schools, might make you part of the solution.

  14. Despite Mr. Watkins claim, a strong case can be made that Birmingham is NOT dying – neither the City nor the Metro area. However, as I write this there are real concerns that Birmingham-Southern College may be, which has prompted an appeal from the President to the Alabama Legislature for emergency funding. B-S C is a crown jewel in Birmingham’s higher education landscape, notwithstanding UAB. Although I no longer live in Birmingham, nor am I a B-S C alumnus, I have followed the college closely due to my career and association with many of its alumni. I would urge David Sher or another reader of this blog to write an essay about the college and its importance to the City. As a selective distinguished liberal arts college located in the West End, it symbolizes several connections between the City and the suburbs. Its history and present fate is as worthy a subject for “Comeback Town” as any I can think of.

  15. Most people who claim Birmingham is NOT dying are older/retired or Bham lifers. From their standpoint, it is a lovely city with minimal stress to live in. But, it’s not attractive to the crowd you’re looking for that makes a city vibrant in the comming decades. We’re moving away to plant roots in more fertile soil where our kids can flourish and we can find higher paying jobs and more things to do. People of Birmingham are satisfied but you HAVE to compare to other cities, and when you do, you’ll see that Birmingham is in fact falling behind more and more aka “dying”.

    Birmingham simply doesn’t offer the things that make people want to move there.

    Sure, Woodfin is doing some good things but those will only help the city in 20 years. We’re not waiting around, we’ve left and are leaving.

  16. Having read Watkins’ article, I do not perceive it as a ‘hit piece’ but rather as a wake up call to the precipitous decline of Birmingham over several decades. There are people that are doing good things and mean well, but it’s nowhere near enough to stem the tide. He [Watkins] realizes how his message will be perceived but he thinks progress is from the top down, and the city’s leadership has been lackadaisical and are figureheads from his perspective. Birmingham does have to do much, much more to be comparably attractive to a Nashville or Charlotte. The article should not be offensive but embarrassing, because it’s true.

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