When he boarded a Greyhound bus on his way to Princeton University, Glennon Threatt promised himself he’d never come back here. As a young black man, he saw no chance to fulfill his dreams in a city burdened by the ghosts of its segregated past.
Helen Shores Lee left Birmingham years earlier, making the same pledge not to return. A daughter of a prominent civil rights lawyer, she wanted to escape a city tarnished by Jim Crow laws – the “white” and “colored” fountains, the segregated bus seating, the daily indignities she rebelled against as a child.
Both changed their minds. They returned from their self-imposed exile and built successful careers – he as an assistant federal public defender, she as a judge – in a Birmingham transformed by a revolution a half century ago.
This week, as the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, there may be no better place than Birmingham to measure the progress that followed the civil rights leader’s historic call for racial and economic equality.
This city, after all, is hallowed ground in civil rights history. It was here where children marching for equal rights were jailed, where protesters were attacked by snarling police dogs and battered by high-pressure fire hoses. And it was here where four little girls in their Sunday finest were killed when dynamite planted by Ku Klux Klan members ripped through their church in an unspeakable act of evil.
That was the Birmingham of the past. The city that King condemned for its “ugly record of brutality.” The city where he wrote his impassioned “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” declaring the “moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” The city where the movement came together, found its voice and set the stage for landmark civil rights legislation.
The Birmingham of the present is a far different place. The airport is named after a fearless civil rights champion, the late Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. The city’s website features a ‘Fifty Years Forward’ campaign, forthrightly displaying photos of shameful events in 1963. There are black judges and professors in places where segregation once reigned. And black mayors have occupied City Hall since 1979, in part because many white residents migrated to the suburbs, a familiar pattern in urban America.
So has King’s dream of equality been realized here and has Birmingham moved beyond its troubled past?
For many, the answer is yes, the city has changed in ways that once seemed unthinkable – and yet, there’s also a sense Birmingham still has a long way to go.
The legal and social barriers that barred black people from schools and jobs fell long ago, but economic disparity persists.
Blacks and whites work together and dine side by side in restaurants during the day, but usually don’t mingle after 5 p.m.
Racial slurs are rare, but suspicions and tensions remain.
“I don’t think any of us would deny that there have been significant changes in Birmingham,” Shores Lee says. King would be proud, she adds, but “he would say there’s a lot more work to be done. I think he would tell us our task is not finished.”
“I have a dream that one day down in Alabama. … little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers …” – King, Aug. 28, 1963.
Amid the flowers and soothing fountain in Kelly Ingram Park, there are stark reminders of the ugly clashes. It was in this area, now known as the Civil Rights District, where the scenes of police brutality were captured in photos and TV footage that helped galvanize public opinion around the nation on behalf of demonstrators.
Today, the park has statues commemorating King and other leaders. There’s a sculpture of a young protester, his arms stretched back, as a policeman grabs him with one hand and holds a lunging German shepherd in the other. (An Associated Press photographer had captured a similar image.) There are other sculptures of water cannons, more dogs, and a boy and a girl standing impassively with the words “I Ain’t Afraid of your Jail” at the base.
To those who grew up here, these works are not just artistic renderings but reminders of the bravery of friends and neighbors.
“It’s kind of like being in the movie ‘The Sixth Sense’ – everywhere you go you see ghosts,” Threatt says of the statues. “It’s probably like a person who served in World War II going back to Normandy. It’s a place where something very, very real, very poignant happened to people that you knew.”
Threatt was just 7 when King announced his vision of a color-blind society before hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the Washington Mall. Not long afterward, Threatt was one of three black gifted students enrolled in a white elementary school. He was spat on, beat up, called the N-word.
The experience is etched in his memory. Now 57, Threatt occasionally runs into a 6th grade classmate – a bank vice president – who had been among his tormenters. They always have a pleasant chat. But he never forgets.
“I like him,” he says. “I don’t think he’s a racist. He was a kid caught up in a social situation like I was. …. You’ve got to get over that in order to survive in the South. … Otherwise you just wallow in self-pity and hatred and you don’t move forward.”
Threatt graduated from Princeton, then Howard University Law School, worked in Denver and Washington, D.C., but returned to Birmingham in 1997. Both he and the city had changed, he says, with Birmingham becoming more progressive. He joined an established law firm – something that would have been unimaginable 50 years earlier.
Threatt had been inspired, in part, to be a lawyer by Arthur Shores, a Sunday school teacher at his church and a pioneering civil rights attorney who fought to desegregate the University of Alabama. Shores’ home was bombed twice in 1963, two weeks apart. His neighborhood was nicknamed “Dynamite Hill” for the series of bombings intended to intimidate blacks.
Shores’ daughter, Helen, grew up resisting the segregation laws, once drinking from a “white” fountain – a defiant act that resulted in a whipping when she got home. At 12, she aimed a Colt .45 at some white men driving by her family’s house, spewing racial obscenities. Her father, she says, slapped her arm, the bullet discharged into the air and he quickly grabbed the gun.
She left Birmingham for 13 years, returned in 1971, later switched careers and in 2003 became a judge, only to confront lingering remnants of racism.
In her early years on the bench, she recalls, a few lawyers pointedly refused to stand as is custom when a judge enters a courtroom. And, she says, she occasionally sees lawyers who are disrespectful of their minority clients.
“Racism is still very much alive and well in the South,” Shores Lee says. “The actions of men here can be legislated but not their minds and their hearts in terms of how they think and feel about blacks and Hispanics.”
The judge says the same goals her father fought for remain at the center of court battles today. She points to the Supreme Court’s decision in June to throw out the most powerful part of the landmark Voting Rights Act that had provided federal oversight of elections in several Southern states. It was based on a challenge by Shelby County in suburban Birmingham.
The judge also says when she gives speeches about voting rights, she sometimes cites her father. “How far have we come if he talked about this 60 plus years ago and I’m still talking about it today?” she asks.
Donna Lidge didn’t speak for decades about her painful past. Every morning, she’d board a school bus, pass an elderly white woman standing on a corner, cursing and making an obscene gesture. Inside the predominantly white school, she and her younger sister were ostracized. “We despised that school,” she says.
Lidge said her mother would console them, saying: “‘I want you to get an education. That’s how you will fight back.'”
She now tells her daughter, Ashley, a teacher, about those days. “I talk to her about respect. I say no matter who it is, respect others.”
Fifty years ago, the struggle to end racism had white supporters. It still does.
James Rotch, a white lawyer, began addressing the issue in 1998 when he launched the Birmingham Pledge – a program to eliminate racism and prejudice.
The “pledge” has evolved into a foundation with conferences and a special week of events held around the September anniversary of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four girls in 1963. The program’s educational materials are used in every state and 21 countries.
The pledge itself – a mission statement – has popped up in places ranging from a public bulletin board outside the Taj Mahal in India to a job training center in Connecticut.
Rotch says the intent is to inspire beyond the city. “We knew that Birmingham was known all over the world and not necessarily in a particularly good way,” he says. “We thought we could show … that by Birmingham getting its act in order with regard to race, people might say, ‘If they can do it given their history, surely we can.'”
Not everyone shares his interest in emphasizing race.
“There are a lot of very good, very well-intentioned people who say, ‘Look if we stop talking about all this, it’ll all go away.’ I don’t believe that,” he says. “…If we pretend it’s not there, then we’ll never solve it.”
In the last 15 years, Rotch says the two races have become more comfortable with one another. And for those 30 and younger, “they really don’t understand why anyone would be prejudiced,” he says. “They intermingle easily and they just don’t see what the big deal is.”
Still, there are limits to the socializing.
King’s dream is “real during the day” in workplaces and restaurants, says Jim Reed, a white bookstore owner. “When people aren’t thinking about it, it’s coming true,” he says. Once home, however, they aren’t inclined to broaden their circles.
“People don’t know how to jump that divide,” even though some would like to, he says. “I see it as taking a long time to get there. Generations have to change.”
“…. the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. … the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.” – King.
Victor Beard juggles two jobs as a cook and earns slightly more than minimum wage in each. Despite 70-hour weeks, he barely scrapes by.
For Beard – who was born the same year King gave his speech – economic equality for black people is still elusive.
“It’s like after Dr. King died, they threw us a bone and we had to take whatever scraps were left on it,” says Beard, who co-chairs a city homeless coalition that meets at the Church of the Reconciler. “A lot of us did that. But some of us here still believe it can be better.”
The Rev. Matt Lacey, senior pastor at the church, sees people struggle every day. “If you’re born poor in the city, it’s tough to get on your feet and harder for blacks than whites.”
About 95 percent of his church’s homeless ministry is black. “I just don’t see that as coincidental,” says Lacey, who is white.
Nearly three-quarters of the city’s residents are black, and they’re disproportionately represented among the poor. In a period covering the Great Recession – 2007-2011 – nearly 31 percent of the black population in Birmingham lived in poverty, almost twice as high as the number of white residents, according to federal figures.
Even so, black entrepreneurs have made enormous gains over the decades. But they still face disadvantages starting businesses because they have less personal wealth, less access to capital and fewer social networks, says Bob Dickerson, director of the Birmingham Business Resource Center
King, he says, would understand these obstacles. “I don’t know that he thought 50 years would be enough time even in a perfect society to take a race of folks who had been slaves and had nothing and grow to have an economic base that would be equal,” Dickerson adds.
In the political arena, black people also have made huge strides but haven’t been able to convert ballot box muscle to economic power, says George Bowman, a Jefferson County commissioner with a special memory of King’s speech – he was a 15-year-old South Carolina kid in the crowd that day.
“We’ve learned how to get the vote out and we’ve found a way to elect our candidates to office but we do not have the wealth,” he says.
There are instances where both races “are trying their best to work together to effect some change to show the world that the Birmingham of 2013 is not the Birmingham of 1963,” Bowman says. Still, “there’s still a vast gap between the haves and the have-nots” with black residents far more likely to be poor, and wealth amassed by a handful of people, most of them white.
“That,” he said, “is why it hasn’t changed.”
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” – King.
From the altar at the More Than Conquerors Faith Church, Pastor Steve Green preaches to a congregation that couldn’t have existed in King’s day.
There are graduates of once-segregated universities. A generation of kids comfortable with mixed-race relationships. And political activists who worked to get out the vote for the nation’s first black president.
Yet there is one constant: Green’s congregation is about 90 percent black, a reminder of King’s frequently-quoted declaration that 11 a.m. on Sunday is “the most segregated hour of Christian America.”
King, the pastor says, would turn to the Bible to explain that 50 years isn’t all that long to transform an entire society.
“Being a preacher, I think he would use as the basis the scriptural principle of seedtime and harvest. I think a lot of the seeds have been planted,” he says. “They’re getting nurtured a little at a time. But I don’t think it’s harvest time yet.”
One member of Green’s congregation, Chastity McDavid, reflects the dramatic change.
Growing up poor in Florida, she says, “I expected prejudice and racism and if it didn’t happen, I was pleasantly surprised.”
Now she holds a doctoral degree and is a minority health disparity researcher at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.
When visiting community centers, sometimes addressing elderly, largely white audiences, McDavid says she’s approached those events, alert for signs of prejudice. “I’d go with an open mind and open heart but be prepared for whatever,” she says. What she’s generally found, she says, are people who’ve been “accepting, even welcoming.”
From childhood on, McDavid, now 35, always participated in celebrations for King’s birthday, often at school where someone would usually recite the dream speech.
“He was the greatest example of how one person could make a difference,” she says. “It wasn’t so much the speech itself. … It was what the speech ignited in the people who heard it. I felt I could be anything I want because of Dr. King. Had his dream not been shared, I don’t think I would be where I am today.”
“Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” – King.
One recent summer night, Steve Sills, a member of Green’s church, took his two daughters to a rally to motivate young people about the value of respect.
The setting was Kelly Ingram Park, ground zero for the turbulence 50 years ago.
Sill’s older daughter, Makiyah, 12, had studied King in school but she didn’t understand the sculptures of vicious dogs and water hoses.
As they drove home, Sills, a computer teacher at a middle school, explained the racial hostilities of that era. He noticed a tear forming in his daughter’s eye.
“She couldn’t relate,” he says. “Her best friends are white. She couldn’t imagine it being that way.”
Makiyah, he says, then wondered about the need to erect monuments of a painful chapter of America’s past.
“Why would they have this as a reminder?” she asked. “It’s sad.”
“Yes, baby, those were terrible days,” he replied, “but through the years we’ve put those things behind us. … This is a part of history. It’s good to revisit these times to show how far we’ve come.”