How Birmingham came within one vote of becoming a major U.S. city

Richard Pizitz
Dick Pizitz

Today’s guest columnist is Dick Pizitz.

In 1969, a future mayor of Birmingham, David Vann, recruited a few people to initiate a quiet campaign to consolidate all of the municipalities and unincorporated areas of Jefferson County into a single combined metropolitan government.

He said that the proposal was “an effort to express as a political reality the true city that we have become, consolidating all of our human, leadership and revenue resources.”

The following year, the campaign went public entitled One Great City. That small advocacy group included Jim White, Norman Pless, Arthur Shores, Don Brabston, Bill (William E.) Smith, Thad Long, David Herring and yours truly among others, and met weekly to strategize, write a bill, conduct polling, and meet with Jefferson County legislators. There were numerous others involved, but memories dim over fifty years.

At the time, there were about twenty-four municipalities in Jefferson County, each with their own mayor and council or commissioners. Many had their own police and fire departments, libraries, street departments, school systems, purchasing departments, and other entities of municipal government.

The duplication and waste were unbelievable. Each of the various cities also went their own way in trying to bring business to their communities while a concerted effort would have been so much more effective.

The One Great City campaign included strong promotion and advertising, numerous speeches at civic clubs and continuous banter on call-in radio shows.

Our advocacy group met for many months to plan and strategize with most meetings chaired by Jim White and David Vann. Thad Long devoted untold hours to writing a most complex bill. Arthur Shores and Jim White went to Washington and met with administrators to receive assurance that One Great City would not violate the Civil Rights Act..

The Mayors Association, eager to protect their little fiefdoms, were strong opponents of losing control of their governments. There was even a public debate at the Birmingham City Auditorium before a packed house. I debated for One Great City and my opposition was the mayor of Bessemer, Jess Lanier. Jess was a fine and likeable man, but we certainly had different viewpoints on One Great City. The Mayors Association really turned out their constituents for the debate, and to me, I felt I was playing an away game.

The bill which was written and eventually sent to the state legislature in Montgomery was considered a local bill since it only applied to a single county. Under legislature courtesy practices, the bill would pass if a majority of Jefferson County representatives and a majority of Jefferson County senators voted in favor.

The One Great City bill called for a single vote of all voters in Jefferson County. If a majority voted in favor, all Jefferson County residents would be in the single metropolitan government of Birmingham. No city or county area could opt out.

The bill provided a framework and a reasonable period of time for the election of a mayor and council for the new consolidated government and for the consolidation of police, fire, and other departments. There was a special workout which provided that some school systems could remain in place.

Polling indicated that the vote of all voters in the county would comfortably pass. The problem and the solution were in the hands of the Jefferson House and Senate delegations.

After many months of lobbying and discussions, our group felt the House representatives would definitely approve the bill. As I recall, Jefferson County had seven senators. Three were sure `yes’ votes and three sure `no’ votes, so the fate of metro government lay with a single senator. He made no public announcements, but over the months, he confidentially assured us that he would be a `yes’ vote.

When the bill got to committee, metropolitan government had the votes in the Jefferson County House delegation, but, at the last minute, this senator, who will remain nameless, since he is long departed, announced his opposition. Whether he changed his mind or was sandbagging us the entire time was never certain, but we felt we had been sandbagged. One Great City died in committee.

How different this city would be today had metropolitan government been achieved. Three southern cities with consolidated metropolitan governments, Nashville, Charlotte, and Jacksonville, have grown rapidly as all citizens are represented in the metropolitan government. Businesses have flocked to these three cities. Companies leaving such states as New York, California, Connecticut, and Illinois are relocating to these cities. Young people are remaining as there are wonderful opportunities.

Each city has strong business recruiting teams which have seen much success. Jacksonville, Nashville, and Charlotte all have professional sports teams and outstanding cultural institutions. Single police and fire departments work well and efficiently, and metropolitan purchasing saves untold millions of dollars.

Sadly, Birmingham and Jefferson County growth has been stagnant. Recruiting new business has had lackluster results compared to the three aforementioned cities.

We still have numbers of fiefdoms with little concerted efforts and wasteful duplication. Looking out of my office window today on the downtown horizon, I see exactly three building booms. In the aforementioned cities, they are everywhere.

I was born in Birmingham, raised my family and operated businesses here, and have enjoyed living here, but when I think back to 1970 and the One Great City campaign, it hurts so much to realize what more Birmingham could be today if a single vote had been different.

When I think of this, and I do frequently, I am reminded of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: `It might have been.”

Editor’s note: In 1950, Birmingham was the 34th largest city in the U.S. Today it is 133rd. It may soon be Alabama’s 4th  largest city behind Huntsville, Mobile, and Montgomery.

Dick Pizitz is currently the Vice President of Pizitz Management Group which operates 60 Great American Cookie stores in 14 states and Gus Mayer fashion specialty stores in Birmingham and Nashville. Previously he was President of Pizitz, Inc., a department store chain founded  in 1895 by his grandfather, Louis Pizitz. In February he celebrated his 93rd birthday.

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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30 thoughts on “How Birmingham came within one vote of becoming a major U.S. city”

  1. Dick, thank you for sharing this story. I pride myself on knowing Birmingham history–but this bit of history is something that I did not know. And, I’ve never seen this in writing before.

    We often say that one man or woman can make a difference. This one vote certainly did.

    Looking back is instructive to understanding the present. We can’t change history. We can use the lessons of the past to create a brighter future. Here’s hoping that we will…

  2. I remember David Vann and the effort, and knew it was the right thing to do. He was the kind of mayor who was ‘a breath of fresh air.’
    It has been good to be reminded of the details.
    This campaign should be going on now, again. I think it is unfortunate that it did not continue. Who is it that might pick up the banner and carry it forward now? At this time it would be more complex and it would be best to be multi-county, at least Jefferson and Shelby Counties.

    1. Roy, I thought it was interesting to hear that the voters of the county supported it at the time. So sad that the one senator blocked it. I actually wonder if the voters would support it now. It seems there has been an effort to sow distrust in the region. This is not always the fault of people Over the Mountain. I understand there was a possibility of getting a regional public transit system about 25 (?) years ago, and it failed because one state legislator thought it would take power away from Birmingham. Currently Birmingham dominates the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority, and I understand this legislator thought the city would lose in a more regional system.

      1. Thank you for your response Ted. I do fear that the seeds of discontent and fear of neighbors actions still exist. Also, why fear a regional transit system when it can be a backbone for further growth for all. I think it was more than 25 tears ago that Gov. Hunt (who had to leave office due to fraudulent use of taxpayer money, yet another black spot on Alabama’s record!) He had proposed two major transportation changes that really could have been a very bright spark for the state and Birmingham; 1. a statewide excellent (not yet high speed, although then high speed line from Atlanta to New Orleans was proposed, accepted by Alabama, but not my Mississippi, I my memory is correct) and 2; relocating Birmingham’s airport on the way south to Montgomery. George Wallace, by taxing airplane fuel really was effective in minimizing the future of the airport stopping it becoming a hub and making it simply a branch of Atlanta’s airport. The relocation and change in airplane fuel tax, just imagine that! That so many good proposals cancelled for so many reason is most unfortunate.

        As for a new vote, it would require a major very effective education filled campaign to get that occur. I do not consider that impossible if strong leadership could be found.

        Unfortunately it does seem that every little place that has elected officials wants to preserve the power of the elected for their strong sense of need for self protection. The elected preserve their own little power, partly selfish and partly dutiful. In a way I view that as pitiful, not much of a sign of either great intelligence or good education.

        I most worry about the City of Birmingham itself, in that it increasingly appears more like a doughnut is being made. We need not think long about why, sadly.

        We will get nowhere if nothing is tried! Something really needs to inspire and catch hold.

        Warren Manning in one of the earliest city plans pointed to an expansion that he named ‘The Great City of the Future!

  3. We even vote for county commissioners by district. This tends to insure they protect their district first and the county as a whole second. No wonder it’s so hard to get anything done here.

    At the very least we should have the head of the County Commission voted on by the entire county so that he or she will have to represent the entire county and not just a district.

  4. Will never happen…… move on, we have addressed this issue for 30 years or more.

    Maybe Birmingham should focus on making the city more efficient and implementing strategies that benefit the citizens ?

    1. I agree and the first step should be in Birmingham and Jefferson County, they need to stop lowering the standard in each school. You cannot attract families and businesses to an area when you do not educate your children to achieve great heights in this community. Some of the areas you are trying to reach have a much higher standard of teaching. Fix that problem and you just might be able to put a package in place in a few years. First of all you have to convince these other communities you are serious about making the whole area excel.

      1. I would like to see your evidence that the standards of teaching are lower in different systems. Student achievement is certainly different between school systems in the county but so are levels of poverty. We have solid statistics on the levels of poverty in each area and evidence that higher poverty correlates with so many negative outcomes, including student achievement. We cannot say that “poor teaching” is the blame without evidence around the effectiveness of teachers in each district. Let’s talk about economic and racial segregation in the region and how that might affect schools and students.

      2. Robert:

        Such a blanket statement about teaching standards is irresponsible. Have you considered that many teachers in Birmingham work harder to survive and thrive in order to serve their students and those families? Teaching is teaching, but the challenges for inner-city teachers nationwide are exponentially more difficult than for their suburban counterparts.

    2. I feel you are missing the point. The reality and future of Bham is not separate from that of the entire region and vice-versa. The city or any of the cities focusing only on themselves is inherently inefficient and harmful to the collective compared to what could be achieved by working together.

  5. Very informative slice of history written by someone who was in the room. We can still have “One Great County”‘as I have said for decades. Noticed how the House and Senate delegation moved the Birmingham Southern College very low interest loan bill into law against the Governor threatening a veto. We owe so much to those men in 1969 who had vision!’ Having 33 cities and 13 schools systems can be a plus as we do have “One Great County “ if we would stop trying to out city each other!

  6. I could certainly understand why in 1969 suburbs would be reluctant to join One Great City. Birmingham was in the midst of a decade of major violence and protests. Most of the violence came at the behest of Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety. It would have been a helluva sales job to convince the Over the Mountain suburbs to freely join up with Bombingham.

    Today is a different day and some folks still call for One Great City. Let’s be honest with why suburbs are reluctant to join up with Birmingham. The two largest reasons I hear is education and public safety. If the city of Birmingham would address these issues then I don’t think you’d have as much push back from the suburbs.

    An alternative idea could be for some suburbs to join together and form a large city. Image Hoover, Homewood, Vestavia, and Mountain Brook combing to create one city and eliminating much duplication. Combined city services like purchasing, water, sewage, trash, police, and fire. These quality of these services are largely the same in each of these ares but combined would be more efficient. It is difficult to imagine Vestavia combing with Birmingham because the quality of the services are not comparable.

    Even another thought is why not Birmingham consider joining with other successful suburbs like Hoover. Birmingham as a city would no longer exist and come under the authority of Hoover. Imagine all the inefficient departments of Birmingham city gone but now functioning under Hoover city. I could easily see Hoover police, fire, and trash being much more productive within the Birmingham boundaries than the current city administration.

    1. The distaste and negative judgement of Birmingham on the part of many in the southern suburbs is quite ironic. These same suburbs owe their very existence and wealth to to the city of Birmingham, which contained all the mill and mines that were the economic engine of the area. The suburbs conveniently took that wealth and exported it to these new municipalities without all of that bothersome smoke and the workers (many black and poor) who produced all of that wealth. Furthermore, because of the racist fear of sending their children to school with black children, most of the other white folk left in the city high-tailed it to the suburbs in the space of 15 years, gutting the tax base and the economic diversity of the city. And now these same people and their descendants have the nerve to look over the mountain and wag their fingers and shake their heads in judgement of Birmingham from their verdant cul de sacs. How convenient to paint themselves as “above it all” and absent of any culpability or responsibility for anything negative happening mere miles away over a mountain, but definitely happy to claim “Birmingham” as home when any positive development hits the press. And Im not even going to address this idea of Bham joining Hoover (huh?).

      This narrative of the “dysfunctional, inept Birmingham” and the “functional, competent Over the Mtn Burbs” is a false one and rooted in racism. THIS is a principal reason why consolidation has been and continues to be elusive.

      1. James, I have to endorse what you say completely! I don’t understand how people can show so little empathy. As you said, these people or their parents pulled much of the wealth out of Birmingham, and then they blame it for not doing better. The schools aren’t good enough. Well, it takes money to have good schools.

        I remember having a conversation with a retired Birmingham schoolteacher. She said Birmingham had enough money to have better schools. She said the leadership of the School Board wasn’t good. But even leadership is affected by poverty. When an entity like Birmingham is in decline, there is often a kind of death spiral. People begin to believe things won’t improve, and often they have opportunities elsewhere. Many of the most talented people go somewhere else. It takes character to want to stay under those conditions.

        It isn’t always just whites who are guilty of pulling resources. I remember reading the story of how Barry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, moved it from Detroit to Hollywood when he got enough money. This was a major blow to the African American community of Detroit. Motown was part of their pride as Detroiters. I consider the move a real disgrace.

        A few years ago the state refused to let Birmingham raise its minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. You can’t make it in a large city today on $7.25 an hour. Undoubtedly many of the depressed neighborhoods in the city would be doing better if the minimum wage were higher. But I suppose people in the legislature thought “if it’s $10.10 in Birmingham, it will have to be $10.10 in Jasper, too.” Not really. There should be a higher minimum wage in large cities and their suburbs. It should be $15 in large cities and suburbs. In some cities like San Francisco and New York it should be $20.

        There appears to be a disagreement between John Black and Mr. Pizitz. Mr. Pizitz seemed to say that polling indicated voters in Jefferson County would support the union in 1969.

        1. I greatly admire what happened in 1969 but this is 2023. You cannot change the real estate in Jefferson County so why not One Great County going forward?

          1. George, you made an interesting point about our legislative delegation coming together to support the Birmingham-Southern bill. That shows some level of cooperation can happen. The bill was sponsored by Republican Jabbo Waggoner and supported by Democrat Juandalynn Givan. As Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, said, “What we have done … is to set up a vehicle, a program for institutions that are important to our state.” So people can come together to recognize that Birmingham-Southern is important. Think about that. Birmingham-Southern’s administrators made some irresponsible choices maybe 10 years ago, yet they’re willing to give the school and other struggling schools a chance. Why not the same treatment for Birmingham?

          2. It is not about Birmingham Southern College which indeed had a college president that went rogue on spending! The delegation moves when they want to move. I do not want to say to much but the key is Jefferson County not these 33 cities and 14 schools systems. One Great County is the operative word I have used for decades. There is a reason we have 67 counties in Alabama !
            Jefferson is the big dog and barks when it chooses to bark!!

        2. I completely agree with all that you have said. Given this history, how can we begin the process of true reconciliation of this history and a discussion of how affects the region today, and begin anew this process of creating One Great City ( or County)?

          1. Work with the House and Senate delegation and the five County Commissioners. Reconciliation and reparations are great concepts but in the meantime just do what you can to help those who truly need our help ‘

  7. As with so many things in “Greater” Birmingham, it seems this was largely due to racism, and I’m afraid nothing much has changed in suburbia. The entire reason those tiny cities were formed in the first place was white flight from integration.

    Today, all you have to do is listen to those on a national stage rail about “Democrat cities” (that means “Black” if you weren’t sure), or locally, jump into a community Facebook forum sometime, and see just how ugly it is.

    It would be nice to think we could someday realize how much more of our common interests could be served if were working together. But I don’t see that happening in my lifetime.

    1. Thank you. Racism is the subtext of any comment or conversation involving Birmingham and the suburbs, though always in code and never explicit.

      You are exactly right and until we in this county began earnestly discussion this little elephant in the room, we will remain static while other cities advance.

  8. Let us not replace ‘what was’ with
    ‘what could have been’.
    The cancer of Birmingham political corruption ended at the city limits;
    save that of the Birmingham Water Works.

  9. I didn’t grow up here; moved here in 2004 to start a business.

    Thanks for your service to the community. Is there anything we can volunteer for to help try to get a metro government established? Any organization? Or are the forces against it too strong now?

  10. Steve I did not grow up here either but have adopted this city and county and state as home now warts and all ! I even interact with a few Confederates .!Hard core white supremacy types .
    They say they are now Republicans? I pay no attention to labels ask them about their children and grandchildren interacting with Black children and grandchildren? They go silent. Ha ha ha

  11. Mr. Pizitz:

    Thank you for such a concise, personal account of this pivotal time in our history. Sadly, it’s a huge example of barriers erected by the authors of the 1901 constitution—the absolute worst in the country.

    Also, thanks for your long record of serving this community. I grew up here in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and the Pizitz name remains iconic for me!

  12. Hello Mr. Pizitz,

    Glad to see you are still active in the community. I enjoyed this article and I am always amazed how better for all gets stopped by the very few with mass power by position in politics or in business. I hope Birmingham’s leaders are aware that together all things for all people is the right thing to do for a great society.

    Thanks,

    William H.

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