A Birmingham gray history story–whites and blacks supporting one another

Liz Huntley & Kathryn McDonald
Liz Huntley & Kathryn McDonald

Today’s guest columnists are Liz Huntley and Kathryn McDonald.

The weather is warming up, and – admit it – you’re itching for a new dress, or tie, or pair of shoes.

You’ll probably head to the Summit.  Or maybe the Galleria.

But if this were 1962, you would be on your way to the bustling department stores of downtown Birmingham.

Loveman’s, Burger Phillips, Parisian, Pizitz, Blach’s, Kress, and the like.

In early 1962, shoppers from all parts of Birmingham chatted, browsed, and eagerly awaited the arrival of new spring styles in these grand, multi-level stores.  No one suspected that, within a few months, spring clothes and the stores that sold them would become the focal point of what we call a Gray History story.  Gray History is our term for historical moments when people of different races chose to work together.  And believe it or not, there was Gray History in Birmingham in 1962.

To be clear, in early 1962, not everyone in downtown Birmingham had the same shopping experience.

Black shoppers were welcome to spend money in the stores.  But they could not try anything on before buying. And could not return items that didn’t fit.

White shoppers could confer with helpful white store clerks and could enjoy a glass of iced tea or a sandwich on the mezzanine level.  Black shoppers were not able to eat, drink, or apply for a sales job in any store.

And of course all shoppers were expected to visit the appropriate restrooms and water fountains: White or Colored.

Needless to say, there were people in Birmingham, white and black, who felt this segregated system was unfair.

And in the spring of 1962, there were a few who decided to do something about it.

It started with a group of Miles College students. Led by SGA President Frank Dukes, they wrote a letter to white business owners “urgently requesting” changes to the downtown stores’ discriminatory practices.

The black students then took the important step of sitting down with white merchants face-to-face.  Miles President Dr. Lucius Pitts worked with white clergy to set up secret meetings (secret because integrated gatherings were illegal) that were an early example of interracial communication in Birmingham.

Some merchants were sympathetic to the students’ demands, but they couldn’t – or wouldn’t – break local ordinances to integrate their stores.

So the students began what they called the Selective Buying Campaign.  They knew that black shoppers spent a significant amount of money in the downtown shopping district. They also knew this dollar power could be an effective tool for creating change.

The students fired up the College’s mimeograph machines, recruited additional helpers, and for several weeks blanketed the city with tens of thousands of flyers encouraging people not to do any spring shopping in the downtown stores.  One flyer asked people to “wear overalls on Easter.”

Among their helpers were black women from the community who arrived before dawn to load their car trunks with flyers and then drove students to all corners of Birmingham to distribute the leaflets in churches, banks, and other public places.

Within a month, black shoppers had all but disappeared from downtown.  White store owners tried to reason with Birmingham’s notorious Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor about desegregating the stores, but they got nowhere.

The students continued their work with more flyers going out, more helpers joining in, more shoppers staying home, and more revenue disappearing for the merchants.  Before long, two stores – Parisian and Loveman’s – opened their restrooms and water fountains to all shoppers.  The students and the community could feel it; they were making a difference.

Not everyone was pleased with these small changes, however, including officials at City Hall. They found a way to retaliate against the students.

That spring, Miles College had been preparing a “Miles of Dimes” event to raise money for much-needed books for their library. They were required to get a routine permit from the city for the event.  It was just a formality.  They submitted the application, but their permit was denied.  The reason?  Because some students were involved in the Selective Buying Campaign.

The story about the City government depriving college students of library books spread.  The denied permit that was intended to punish the students and College instead galvanized fair-minded people and spurred them into action.

Miles received funds from civic and trade groups as well as individuals, black and white. College students, many of them white, began arriving from as far away as Rhode Island and Kentucky with truckloads of books for the Miles library.  Instead of collecting dimes from their friends and neighbors, Miles students received books and funds for their library and brought national attention to the endemic discrimination in Birmingham.

In the end, the 1962 Selective Buying Campaign did not reach all of its stated goals, but it is an example of Birmingham’s Gray History.  Miles College students invited the people of Birmingham to do something, to get involved, to take steps that would help shape their future. And both black and white people responded.  Their response set the stage for significant historical events to come.

Liz Huntley and Kathryn McDonald are collaborating on Gray History, a platform for collecting and telling true stories from American history about people of different races, backgrounds, and beliefs who have chosen to work together. You can learn more at grayhistorystories.org. Liz is also a Birmingham attorney, author & non-profit leader.  Kathryn is a businesswoman and community volunteer.

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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4 thoughts on “A Birmingham gray history story–whites and blacks supporting one another”

  1. As I see it, our drinking water must be the problem? Seems it is
    turning our minds into hazardous waste! Or, maybe it’s blinding us from seeing the difference between RIGHT and WRONG or LOVE and HATE? Men and Women of the Cloth, in every denomination, preach and beg us ,but, no one seems to LISTEN. Years ago, after the dust settled Downtown, after the economic and moral damages to a City that ,once, had the pride to be known as THE MAGIC CITY, a local radio show host asked a former Mayor of Atlanta: how did you jump ahead of us so fast ? He replied ” we were too busy to hate!”
    We, too, can get there with a lot of hard work and an attitude of CAN DO! Set higher goals, build more libraries and educational facilities, plant more trees, widen our roadways, connect Birmingham to the rest of the world and to each other! Devote ourselves to building a more beautiful and bountiful METRO AREA through COOPERATION and LOVE.

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