Some American towns have an irresistible attraction. Their very names have a colorful magnetism and electric excitement that draws tourists from around the globe. It might be because we’ve seen them in the movies - New York, Los Angeles, Miami - or could be their charm or musical heritage as with New Orleans, Memphis and Nashville, or simply their importance like Washington DC. Birmingham, Alabama has none of this. From afar, it looks like many other American cities, with its cluster of banking skyscrapers reaching into the blue Alabama sky.
Signs of an old vibrant age live on.
Elegant old rubs shoulders with the functional new.
Named after Britain’s second largest city, it was hewn out of the industrial revolution, with all the romance of a blast furnace. That’s because that’s what it was. A giant steel production city that supplied the US with the vital commodity it needed for the new age of cars, railroads and ships. It was founded after the Civil War, ruthlessly merging three small existing towns and designed on a drawing board, being on the junction of two major railroad lines and having deposits of iron ore, coal and limestone nearby, vital raw materials for steel production. Here in the South, cheap labor provided the work force. Irish and Italian immigrants and African-Americans, whose jobs in the fields had been lost during the War, flocked to find work in the red-hot, toxic air of the iron and steel foundries.
It’s fortunes came and went. World War I, the depression, World War II and a post-War building boom impacting the city’s prosperity. But it was the social history that dominates Birmingham’s heritage. With segregation stitched into Southern life, the whites and blacks lived parallel but glaringly unequal lives. The prejudiced, iniquitous master-servant mentality could not be broken down and it was here that some of the greatest atrocities, events that shamed and shook America, took place. If I say three words, I need add nothing more. Ku Klux Klan. National legislation set in motion a pathway to Civil Rights but some in the South, especially Birmingham and neighboring Montgomery would have none of it. Barbaric lynching and heartless oppression created justifiable anger and frustration erupting into a series of demonstrations and clashes in 1963. There is a quite excellent Civil Rights museum here. As you walk through a labarynth of stage sets, from old barbers shops and school rooms to segregated buses and photos of beatings, you cannot fail to be shaken by the injustice and immorality of the time. The word museum evokes an image of a layer of dust sitting over ancient exhibits, but not here. It presents a modern, moving and surprisingly calm reflection of an historic travesty. We were expecting anger and resentment but found gentle appraisal and a sense of forgiveness.
Birmingham reminded us of Charlotte, North Carolina but at an earlier stage of regeneration. Here, the old black areas still retain their identity but the locals whose lives were shaped by the troubles keep it’s character with pride. We noticed barber’s shop with a sign in the window - ‘Black Owned. Help Keep It Black Operated’. We had to go in and see for ourselves. We were greeted by the black owner. His black assistant, shaving a black customer, smiled as he told us his boss had marched with Martin Luther King. All around the shop, the walls were adorned with framed photos - all of scenes from the Civil Rights movement in the early Sixties. This recorded history better than any museum.
The Barbers Shop is the true living museum
The ‘Boss’ who marched with MLK
He’s never seen Sweeney Todd...
We wish Birmingham well. Hope is manifest and broad smiles on the peoples’ faces, black and white, show a human willingness to forgive the past and unite for the future. We hope an optimistic vision can win over old bigoted division. Sadly, the modern American plague of drugs and guns threatens its resurgence. Let’s hope the indomitable spirit of the people will let nothing get in its way.