Sunday, January 11, 2009

Birmingham and a Revolution Frozen in Time

Los Angeles Times reporter Peter H. King recently visited Birmingham and wrote a poignant piece about the state of our city as the United States is poised to inaugurate its first black president.

The headline writer captured the mood of the city perfectly: "In Birmingham, Ala., revolution is frozen in time."

The article is part of a series about the national mindset as we approach the presidential inauguration. King has visited a number of cities, including New Orleans; Midland, Texas; Cairo, Illinois; and Birmingham.

As someone who grew up in the Midwest but has lived in Birmingham for 30-plus years, I find King's article both touching and insightful. And, in a way, it is troubling because progress truly is frozen in Birmingham as we enter 2009.

King focuses on Kelly Ingram Park, the epicenter of our nation's struggle with race in 1963. King rightly notes that it is like no other municipal green in America:

It is a place where children go to stare down sculptures of snarling police dogs, a place where older visitors who know the park's history go to remember and, more recently, to reflect on the distance traveled between what happened here 45 years ago and what will happen in Washington in less than three weeks.

"It all connects," Henry Biggs, a 55-year-old native of Birmingham was saying the other day as he stood at the edge of the park. "This point to that point, it all connects."

Named for a World War I hero, this 4-acre park was at the center of clashes in the spring of 1963 between police and protesters determined to roll back the city's Jim Crow laws -- a struggle that brought infamy to this Southern steel town and ignited the civil rights movement.

King hints at both Birmingham's progress and its promise. But those of us who live here, and pay attention to public events, know there are powerful forces still aligned against change.

Our African-American mayor and several associates have been indicted on federal charges involving an alleged pay-for-play scheme.

While the charges against Mayor Larry Langford are troubling, perhaps even more alarming are the actions of the federal prosecutor who brought the case. Republican appointee Alice Martin has a history of targeting people who have dark skin or are Democrats--or both. Some of her cases have been so weak and blatantly political that she is being investigated by multiple government agencies.

But still, the local daily newspaper cheers her on, even though a prominent expert on legal affairs has called her perhaps the most corrupt and crooked public official in the country.

Even at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), once the city's most shining example of forward thinking, ugly forces appear to target those who don't fit the white/male/monied/Republican profile that still holds sway over much of the state.

A writer for a national magazine labels UAB's recent behavior "Orwellian" and marvels at the university's willingness to tolerate bigoted and racist speech while apparently taking steps to silence progressive voices.

As one of those progressive voices targeted at UAB, I hope King will make a return visit to our city in the coming months. The forces for change and the forces for stasis will be clashing in the Age of Obama. It's a story with national implications.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Birmingham sounds like the same place I came to in 1968 and left in 1982... Where's the magic, anyway?

But there are other places just as stuck in time all over the country.