Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Preserving a Piece of Nation's History?

New Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford has proposed demolishing Boutwell Auditorium and using the space for an expansion of the adjacent Birmingham Museum of Art.

The plan generally has met with approval in the community. The art museum needs the space, and Boutwell is an old facility that long has been surpassed by the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex.

But Glenn T. Eskew, a Birmingham native and an associate professor of history at Georgia State University, says "not so fast."

In a highly informative piece in Sunday's Birmingham News, Eskew calls Boutwell "the most important building in the history of the South in the 20th century."

And that's not all. "For years called Boutwell, Birmingham's Municipal Auditorium saw more key events determining the South's relationship to the country at large in the previous century than any other structure in the United States."

Those are big words. But Eskew provides facts to back them up. He mentions the 1956 attack on singer Nat King Cole by a small group of white vigilantes, perhaps the most famous event ever to take place at Boutwell.

But Eskew cites two other events that took place at the auditorium--and he says they are important enough that the structure should be preserved.

The first was the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in 1938. Black and white progressives from across the South met to discuss ways industrial democracy could create a more equitable and just society. More than 3,000 delegates gathered at Birmingham's Municipal Auditorium to discuss ways out of the Great Depression, with a goal of making a better life for all people, regardless of race. Among the delegates was First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

A biracial crowd of 5,000 packed the auditorium and about 2,000 more people spilled out onto Eighth Avenue and Woodrow Wilson Park, now known as Linn Park.

The hope built up that evening would not last. Ten years later, Municipal Auditorium played host to another event. Numerous Southern politicians and industrialists opposed New Deal reforms that had been endorsed by the Southern Conference. They saw a civil-rights plank adopted by delegates to the 1948 Democratic Party Convention as the last straw.

They gathered in Birmingham to form the States' Rights Party (also known as Dixiecrats) in defense of white supremacy, nominating South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond for president and Mississippi Governor Fielding Wright for vice president. Journalists dubbed the event the Dixiecrat Revolt.

"Although the third party lost in the national election, it set the stage for the massive resistance movement against desegregation that followed the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision."

Fallout from the Dixiecrat Revolt continues today. Many Dixiecrats, no longer feeling welcome in the Democratic Party, found a home in the Republican party. Republicans began to make inroads in the South with Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign. And that picked up major steam when Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign with a speech in Philadelphia, MS, highlighting the theme of "states' rights."

In fact, that speech was the subject of a recent intramural debate among columnists at The New York Times. Paul Krugman has argued that Republicans continue to use racially tinged language to their electoral advantage today.

Eskew says Boutwell Auditorium should be renovated for ongoing public use. If it is given to the art museum, he suggests that the auditorium be adapted into exhibit space, following the example of the Tate Museum in England.

I've lived in Birmingham for almost 30 years, and Eskew certainly educated me on Boutwell's history. I've been to the auditorium for many events (Jackson Browne, 1986, two thumbs up!), but had no idea about the building's role in shaping events in the South--and the nation--over the past 70-plus years.

1 comment:

James Greek said...

Amazing you saw one of my favorite singers in the year of my birth at the bout well.