Are the ghosts of George and Bull keeping Alabama poor?

Billy Field

Today’s guest columnist is Billy Field.

I first learned about reputation, at least the reputation of a state, in the summer following my 7th grade year, the summer of 1963.

My mother loaded up my sister, my half-blind grandfather (meaning he couldn’t help with the driving), me and my good friend Reid, and we set out across America in a 1961 straight-shift Rambler with a canvas cargo carrier on top, packed with a five-person tent, sleeping bags and fishing rods.

We were headed for Seattle to see the World’s Fair and to be amongst the first to climb the brand-new Space Needle. We planned to camp out along the way, visiting places like Old Faithful, Mount Rushmore and Glacier National Park.

She wanted us to see the world.

When we reached downtown Seattle, with our Alabama license plates that proudly proclaimed Alabama, Heart of Dixie, we were going up a hill when the light turned red, and we stopped. Suddenly our car was surrounded by White people shouting, “Get outta here,” spitting, screaming, “Take George Wallace and Bull Connor and go back where you came from.”

I had no idea what was happening. Like many adolescents, I thought it was something we had done wrong. When the light finally turned green and we pulled away, my mother was gripping the steering wheel so hard that her fingers turned red and I — genuinely not knowing — asked, “Why’d they do that?” And she, continuing to look straight ahead, humiliated said, “It’s because we have such a terrible reputation.”

And in that instant, I learned a lesson in reputation.

These people didn’t know that Mama would be among the first White teachers to volunteer to teach at the Black high school when integration finally arrived. They didn’t know that she insisted that Black adults ride in the front seat while children rode in the back seat, “showing respect for our elders,” she would say.

A woman stopped me on the sidewalk when I was nine years old and threatened, “Little boy, your mother’s going to get into trouble for letting colored people ride in the front seat.” And I knew from previous experiences that word “trouble” meant Klan. When I told Mama, she didn’t miss a beat, she said, “Don’t worry, they’re not gonna do anything to me.” And she said it in a way that she seemed to know for sure that it was true.

When I was growing up, there was a sign on the city limits of Sylacauga, along with welcoming signs from the Rotary Club and the Lion’s Club, that read “Welcome to Sylacauga, Home of the Ku Klux Klan,” But those spitting at our car and shouting for us to leave, didn’t know that three years earlier a friend of mine’s (White) mother painted that Klan sign yellow, for coward, and faced down the Klan when they came to her house and threatened her and her children.

But on this day in downtown Seattle, in 1963, the city hosting America’s World’s Fair, they did know the story of George Wallace and Bull Connor and firehoses and the church bombs and because of that story they did attack us, not about something we had done, but because of a reputation, a story these people had come to believe was true.

But I’m not here to talk politics. I’m here to talk about money, your money, our children’s money for better schools and better teachers and better places to live.

And I’m here to say that when an Alabama politician screams dog whistle gibberish about race in America — that politician is seeking to promote himself and his party and that’s okay. It’s called freedom of speech. But what he’s also doing is…

… he’s costing you money.

How many large corporations with nice payrolls saw George Wallace stand in the schoolhouse door and saw Bull Connor turn fire hoses and attack dogs on children and said, “Well, we just narrowed our list of places to move from 3 down to 2.”

George Wallace wanted power and if he was going to trash the reputation of our state to get it, he would. And when new businesses did not come here because of that, then neither did that new school we might have had, or that addition to the hospital, or the new customers to whom you would have sold insurance, hardware, and tires — they  would not be here either, because George Wallace had the national stage and he was going to use it to vault himself into a  run for president of the United States and, in doing so…

…. he cost you money.

But you may say that was a long time ago, why bring it up now? And the answer is because Wallace and Bull and the State Troopers on the bridge in Selma joined forces with this invention called television and seared a story into the hearts and minds of Americans that that is who we are. And you and I both know that’s not true. That’s not all we are, but myths die hard. A myth is something people have come to believe is true, often because it’s to their advantage to believe it’s true. The truth is racism is just as bad in Los Angeles, Chicago and a thousand other places, but that’s not the myth of those places. But attack dogs and fire hoses is our myth and so now when an Alabama politician gets on the national stage, blaming crime, poverty and poor education on Black folks, that ignites an old myth.

And the ghosts of George and Bull come back to haunt us. And when they do…

They cost you money.

After that day in Seattle, I put mud on our Alabama license plates, and conjured up a convincing midwestern accent so those we met in the parks would not give us a hard time about being from Alabama.

Mama wanted us to learn how other people lived and we did. And we also learned a lesson about reputation — and about how self-seeking politicians can damage the place we live.

Lyndon Johnson said, “If you tell a poor White man that he’s better than a Black man, he’ll let you pick his pocket all day and won’t say a word.”  When you see an Alabama politician, from any party, spewing lies designed to tell the White man that he’s better than the Black man, call that politician’s office and say, “Either prove what you say to be true, backing it up with facts, or stop saying it because…

…you’re costing me money.

You might enjoy Billy Field’s article: Alabama, it’s time for our children to be taught the truth.

 Billy Field is one of the last people on earth to see the meteor shoot across the sky on November 30, 1954, crash through Ann Hodges’ roof, bounce off her floor radio and hit her on her buttocks, making her famous. Billy sold that story to 20th Century Fox. He has written for 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers and the TV series FAME for MGM. He taught screenwriting and documentary film production at The University of Alabama. His student’s films, dealing with Alabama history and Alabama biography, are on their website at LightsCameraAlabama.com.  Billy is launching a new website designed to teach students to gather oral history from their own communities and work with others across the state to tell those stories through poems, fiction, art, music and podcasts. TheStoryAcorn.com, “Carrying Our Stories to the Next Generation.”

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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36 thoughts on “Are the ghosts of George and Bull keeping Alabama poor?”

    1. being born in Birmingham in59 moving away in 77 after graduation moving to California I can tell you California was just ass Racsit and Birmingham an Alabama reputation is still the same as 63 people actually think Black still in slavery an these politicians don’t help How many Black parents homes did tuberville sit in an would have never said
      what he been saying about Black people but he. needed them total Hypocrites!!!!

      1. Tuberville is not fit to hold the office of US Senator, but that doesn’t mean he’s actually a racist, in my opinion. I favor a narrower definition of racist. A racist is not someone who supports policies that happen to disadvantage blacks. He is a person who cannot live and work with blacks. There is racism in America, but I think it’s mainly in small towns. It’s hard to be a racist, in my understanding, in big cities because you have to rub elbows with people of color all the time. I think whites sometimes move to small towns to get away from people of color. Harrison, Arkansas is said to the most racist town in America.
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ltmlvk9GAto

        I don’t think racism could be as high in California as it is in Alabama. I am from Washington, and notice what Billy says about the reception he got in Washington when he went there in 1962. Disgust with the racism of Alabama!

        1. Ted, I respectfully disagree with your statement, “A racist is not someone who supports policies that happen to disadvantage blacks.”

          Racist systems are pervasive in this country and the people who built/build them were/are totally racist. I could give you a very long list of policies and systems that have kept people of color on the outside of our society and our economy.

          Have you read Diane McWhorter’s “Carry Me Home”? Check it out for racists who built racist systems. As a matter of fact, the Jim Crow system was built and maintained by racists.

          1. However accurate those histories are, that is a concept that will not help us move forward. People will rebel against being called racist if they are not conscious of having racist feelings. The new racism today is something like libertarianism. It says you shouldn’t help people much because that only turns them into moochers. That is where the real discussion needs to be: does that libertarianism really work? I don’t think so. For example, Birmingham would be in better shape if we had a $15 an hour minimum wage. People would have money to take care of their properties, and investors would put money in their neighborhoods.

  1. Fine piece, Billy! And, sadly, right on point. The inertia of the past is overwhelming—& we’ve never mounted the much needed counterattack to overcome that. Too many rich, powerful locals have a vested interest in guarding their turf and their giant nest eggs by maintaining the status quo.

    I appreciate your perspective on this. Thanks!

    1. Yes I’m assuming it isn’t necessarily racism. But some people do definitely benefit from the racism of the past. They think, “they probably made bad choices. I made good choices.” But if you are poor, the consequences of making the wrong choices are a lot higher.

  2. So much truth in this article, and that invention called television is able to keep showing it. So, while the Alabama of today is not (at least to some degree) the Alabama of the 1960’s, those images of the sixties keep being shown, and thus negatively impacting the reputation, again to some degree.

      1. Wed., 5/10/23

        Billy Field

        …No Billy. It’s not a simple matter of the right GOPer religious morons, flapping their wings that fuel the fires of history.

        I wish I could blame the right-wing morons, but I could not do so without laying much (if not most) of the responsibility for “Trumpism” in the hands of the Dummy Dems, who may just as well laid out a welcome carpet for Trump, when all they offered was obfuscating Billary, after dumping Bernie Sanders into the side bleachers.

        It was outrageous what they did to Bernie, a very humble man.

        1. James, there is a danger in saying that. People will say, “oh he’s a socialist. We can ignore everything he says.”

          1. Sunday, May 14, 2023

            Ted…Happy Mothers’ Day…

            There’s far more danger in worrying about what uther plebs will say…I’m hoping Germany learned that lesson long ago.

            It’s a very bad habit I seem to recall having at Lee High, waay back in 1963-67… here in Huntspatch (it was a “patch” back then, and there was a radio station with the call letters “WAAY” !! LOL !!)…

            I dropped that nasty, self-erroding, passive-aggressive habit soon as I left Lee, and I should’a been quicker at it; I would’a been a happier kid, and I could’a had a better understanding of the Human Beast early on…

            (Should’a/Would’a/Could’a …Worst words in the English language).

            …Back to the point :

            I can’t count the number of times Bernie freely and PUBLICLY admitted that that he IS as “Socialist”…A “Democratic Socialist”…Those Americans who can’t read, or lack serious comprehension skills, and are too ignorant to distinguish the difference, I give not a nanosecond thought to.

            Most of Europe has done relatively well with “Socialist Democrat” governments, and have looked after their most vulnerable citizens (children, adults with chronic ill health, and senior citizens) for decades. And Europe, including Mother England, laughs at us on a daily basis, if you are worried what (other people think of us)…I suspect you already know this; who doesn’t ?

            Furthermore, I’m not running for President (for which you should be very grateful, because you wouldn’t recognize this corrupted country by the time I got through with it…)

            First order of business would be that I wouldn’t allow ignoramuses to vote, and I would house them government sponsored housing (if they were lucky, that is)…My calculations is that it would amount to, by conservative estimate, three quarters of the American voting adults…That’s a lot of expenditures on public housing, but no problem. Where do we get the money ? It’s easy…

            Second order of business would be taxing billionaires (and most millionaires) out of business, and place a similar cap on capital acquisition comparable to Japans’.

            That’s a good beginning, and for purposes of brevity, I won’t horrify you with details of additional “orders of business” in my…uh…”administration”.

            I would, however, demand that Texas secede from the Union, as one of its idiot boy legislators once “threatened” to do just that…LOL !!…

            You kind’a get the idea. Yes ?…

            ~ Ballard from Huntsville

          2. James, I basically agree with you. I don’t understand why conservatives are so resistent to looking at what works in other countries. I think a big part of it is that for them, the highlight of recent American history was the Reagan administration of the 80’s. That was the last time they felt really proud of America. And of course Reagan said, “government is the problem.” They also interpret him as being the person who defeated communism. The reality is that communism was going to fall soon, anyway. It could not compete with the West. As one person said, “the Soviets were ready to create a suitcase nuclear bomb. They knew how to make the nuclear bomb. The problem was the suitcase.”

            But the only problem is if you criticize the Democrats for being ineffectual, there is no other party at present that can actually tackle the problems. Our constitution makes third parties almost impossible.

    1. Those images of the sixties are not the problem.
      The problem are the headlines about shootings and killings almost every week.
      We spend the summer in my home town in Germany and as of today I will stop reading the news from Alabama because it’s sickening.
      Today’s headline:
      Four people were wounded when gunfire erupted in a bar parking lot in Birmingham’s popular Lakeview District early Sunday.

  3. In 1975, I was told I wasn’t the right color to get a job in a major business in downtown Birmingham. I am Caucasian …….

    1. One thing to realize is there is an element of the tragic in history. There is no way to guarantee that only the fairest things happen. I’m sorry you didn’t get the job. But I hope you thought, “I’ll get one somewhere else It will be good if a black gets this job because blacks are needy.”

      Now, when I say needy I don’t mean there aren’t lots of needy whites, too. You might have been one of them. But look at the plight of African Americans in some parts of Birmingham today. I am from the West, and in the West though property can be undervalued, it always has some value. In some parts of Birmingham mainly populated by blacks you could not give property away for free. A major part of what Birmingham city government does is demolish abandoned buildings that no one wants.

  4. It is what it is! For those of us yearning to see the MAGIC put back into Birmingham’s welcome mat, it’s a BIG ORDER! I have witnessed our city’s economic disappointments for years –
    in real estate business since 1952. Still, today, as Billy says, our BAD REPUTATION lives on! HOWEVER, IT CAN BE RE-WRITTEN …by the actions and deeds of our public and statewide governmental leaders!
    WHERE ARE THEY?

    1. My eyes were opened, everywhere I’ve travel, Alabama has a backward reputation.
      Moving back to Alabama in 2019, l could actually see this backward ness. The backward mindset is alive and well in 2023.
      It’s the mindset of the people who in their little minds are superior, when all the while it’s ignorant, backward thinking. Even the horses are backward, because the owners are backward, this I’ve actually experienced.
      Now, when l travel, I’ve learned not to mention Bombingham as my home to town.

  5. Tuesday, May 9, 2023

    …Today it would be foolish to assume that racism has geographic boundaries.

    But I distinctly recall an Alabama day in the 50s when I was about 10, I thought I’d experiment with the local water coolers in a Five Points grocery store. (Huntsville)

    One large sign said “Colored Only”, an other sign said ” Whites Only”…

    I drank out of both. Of course, there was no difference. But my father grabbed me away anyhow, fearing the wrath of a bigoted manager.

    My father was an engineer who worked with Von Braun; he was a dyed-in-the-wool scientist alright, but he didn’t want his son testing the waters (pun intended) with the local color (pun intended).

    My family were displaced “Yankees”, hailing from Michigan.

    One of my third grade Southern buddies once said to me :

    “Yer OK Rickey, but yer shur tawlk funnee !”

    But even as late as 1977, when I worked as a photojournalist on the Montgomery Advertiser, one of the staff photographers asked me :

    “Ballard…Why do you hate the word ‘nigger’ ?

    1977.

    I ignored him and walked away. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I was just too disgusted.

    No one ever asked me that up North, nor were there ever any “White/Colored” drinking fountains around that I ever saw.

    I and my family both lived in Huntsville as we watched in horror the TV showing Bull Connor and his Dogs from Hell, and his Fire Hoses from Hell, wreak havoc and assault blacks on the streets of Birmingham… pushing them up against the wall…We watched Governor George Wallace blocking two young black students trying to get past the front door at the University of Alabama…It took armed/uniformed soldiers to move the Governor out of the way so black students could get an education.

    These kind of memories are indelible, mental markers that cannot be removed.

    We knew the permanence of the moment at the time we watched it. And now Birmingham citizens whine because they have to live with it.

    Well folks…American history is riddled with long nasty memories that can never be forgotten. I mean all of American history.

    And it’s not just Birmingham that is still paying the Piper.

    ~ Ballard from Huntsville

  6. Tuesday, May 9, 2023

    Ben Collier, who lives in the UK, dropped in this response when “Quora” printed this question :

    “What do Brits think of America?”

    Ben answered :

    “Awful beer, ghastly food, massive everything, bad politics, worse foreign policy, obnoxiously loud, gun-mad, poorly educated, religiously fanatical, irresponsibly consumerist, blindly patriotic and absolutely obsessed with race and racial identity.

    That said, when it comes down to it, most of us are actually rather fond of you.

    And we still like you more than we do the French.”

    That said, I’ll leave you, fearless reader, to guess what the rest of Europe thinks of us.

    ~ Ballard from Huntsville

  7. Billy, I hope you’ll pardon my focus, but May 14th is Mother’s Day and for a minute I wondered if honoring your mother was the purpose of your article. Reading on, I saw my error but, then I thought, was it?
    For without your mother’s example and that of the like minded company she kept, would you have been able to make such a strong argument against Alabama’s poor reputation? Your voice now, and her voice then, are intertwined in defence of people in Alabama who are still fighting against the Georges and Bulls of our state.
    But, unfortunately people will listen to the loudest voices irrespective of their moral or ethical standing.
    And although your article was not fully about your mother, it was a tribute to her nonetheless. One could not help but think “what a courageous woman guided by a strong moral compass.”

    She is Alabama’s reputation too, her voice is just not loud enough.

  8. Each time coming back visiting family and we stop at the rest area and I see the sign with Alabama,’s motto: We dare to defend our rights, I want to shout, Whose rights? Black people,’s rights? Trans people’s rights? Women’s rights? Keep telling the truth, my friend.

  9. You don’t need to look back on Alabama’s past racists such as George Wallace and Bull Connor to see how they cost the state money. They’re still at in 2023. Just take a peek at what Senator Tuberville may cost with his idiotic racist behavior in Washington. Not content with holding up critical confirmations of key military leaders because of his opposition to service women’s reproductive rights, Tubs has openly voiced support for white nationalists in the ranks. In reaction to the Senator’s actions and comments the Biden administration may prevent the movement of Space Force headquarters from Colorado Springs to Huntsville. That’s a big money loser right there. FAFO, Tubby.

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