In April 2011, the International Writing Program launched " Writers in Motion", a study tour of the Mid-Atlantic and the American South, where eight international writers are exploring the theme of "Fall and Recovery." The writers are traveling to Gettysburg (April 3-5), Baltimore (April 5-6), New Orleans (April 6-8), the Gulf Coast (Morgan City, the Achafalaya Basin, Lafayette, April 8-11), Birmingham, AL (April 11-12) and Washington, D.C. (April 13-15) to examine some of the challenges presented by historical crises and upheavals, both natural and social.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Lights Out In Birmingham After The Civil Rights Movement

Of all the places we visited on tour, my mind still dwells most in Birmingham, our next to last stop. But not the Birmingham we saw but its black and white images from the 60s of the Civil Rights movement - the hoses, the dogs, the riots and marching crowds. Flying in from Louisiana, we had been moving in a somewhat clockwise geographical motion. But in Birmingham the clock hands quickly swiveled in anti-clockwise fashion.

Birmingham we were to discover is yet to recover from an infamous past; there is an old clock in the famous 16th Street Baptist Church, after the building was bombed by white supremacists at the height of the Civil Rights movement, which has arrested time. Its hands stand still stopped by the blast that killed 4 young girls, to record the incident for all time. T.R German, a veteran of those confrontations and our guide at the 16th Street Baptist Church, told us that the federal government had requested the community to turn the church into a museum but its administration felt that the church needed to keep the 60s memories alive in succeeding congregations. Keeping the church open to the community, the church felt, was the best way to do this. And indeed, inside its walls on the Monday we visited, like being on the streets of downtown Birmingham, one felt the church did not need an official declaration to become a museum. Such was the strength of that 60s Birmingham in collective memory, and even along the pews that virtual Birmingham overcame all.

Unlike Baltimore or New Orleans, where those cities’ maps were outlined for us by an urban developer and writer respectively, it was fitting that we saw Birmingham through the eyes of a historian, Pam King. Walking through the Kelly Ingram Park, statues peered at us from beautiful empty lawns. We passed through the American Civil Rights Institute, a modern museum that reenacts speeches, music and old film from the time and beyond in its dark corridors. And back in the bright sunlight it was hard to come back into the present. Maybe, because there were such few people in downtown Birmingham– one could jaywalk in the middle of the street without fear of being run over – one felt little life beyond images of the 60s. 

Before the Civil Rights movement, pig iron ore and an industrial economy had ruled, now the town’s new economy was the University of Alabama. Like many an American University, UAB attracts students from all over the world, is an international center of ideas. In its new diversity, a different universe in a space that has one of the poorest self-images in America, haunted by its images of yester-year’s brutality. The University library turned out to be the busiest place in Birmingham. There were more people crossing the University’s streets than in what was once a huge industrial hub. The next busiest place was Green Acres, a small fried chicken eatery where one could sample some of the best fried chicken in America. A few people, mostly black, hung out on the street. They watched our group with interest. One of them told a writer in our group that he was interested in what we were doing but could not get in touch to follow our work because he did not know how to use e-mail. Some local students at the University had told us that they felt too discomforted by its racial history to address it in their writing and had fallen back on personal memoir. And so those in Birmingham with the ability to challenge outside disapproval beyond black and white wouldn't do it, and those who possibly would with new narratives just can't.     

I’d asked T.R German, our guide at the famous 16th Street Church, how big the present congregation was. Such was my need for a present that I could see and touch. He’d answered in a cryptic parable that somewhat underscored that the multitude of disapproving followers of Birmingham’s history had overcome the City’s present and the contemporary congregation at the 16th Street Baptist Church. There was more life in the old photos and statues there. Like in the City, the lights had gone out in the 1960s. And though the city's new administration is black, even an old motel frequented by black people and owned by the city's only black millionaire back then remains shut after it was bombed.
I now hope that notorious segregationist, Mayor Bill O’Connor, stirs in his grave, possibly in belated recognition that he killed a city that he thought he was fighting for. Gettysburg, which we’d started with on the tour,  prospers from the revisionism of the American Civil War within popular culture with its delicately spun yarns of martyr hood and pride. Birmingham’s past even plagues the larger Alabama in contemporary America consciousness. Our taxi driver, a local, told us that he liked Alabama but Birmingham still discomforted him. He did not offer an explanation. T.R German was lost for words when he went back in time,  saying that relations between whites and blacks-- other than the ‘official’ --were interactive back in the 60s. Crazy, crazy, crazy he said, shaking his head, to think that black women cleaned white homes and children, that races shared desks at work, and in all other spaces other than a constructed segregated public space, races interacted normally. Even years later, he didn’t get it. Even more so because at the height of the bombings, white and black in Birmingham went on with their daily rituals behind the public maelstrom. 

The turn of the screw is that Birmingham was never part of the old plantation slave- economy of the South. Once known as the Magic City, Birmingham was founded on pig iron ore, and its economy took off after the Civil War to become the largest industrial city in the South. Like the North it had a large concentration of 'robber barons' who built its railroads and factories. It did not have the institutionalized segregationism of slavery but evolved a new one based on a rabid industrial capitalism. Part of me wants to feel that this might possibly be precisely the reason the white supremacists were so vehement about segregation of the races – a scenario in which capitalism became so unfeeling and had the guns and men to back it up, to retain its wealth within fewer hands. And that the hate became institutionalized because there was so much in the earth for an exclusive prosperity. That the then-new economy turned the Ku Klux Klan more poisonous than ever, that a semblance of modernity made them go crazy in the hills at the thought of a shared wealth. That it is not a coincidence that the ‘toughest’ town in the 60’s South was the one that was also the most prosperous. That the violence came from America’s economic culture – a capitalism and greed that goes back beyond the recent collapse of Wall Street.

But this economic aspect to all of it is, I suspect, a needy projection, a misdirected rationalism. I clutch at it as cushion to explain the madness that happened forty years ago. Hate need not be rational. Today, the only recovery in Birmingham is the one that keeps the Civil Rights memories alive,  the Christian love in Baptist, Methodist and Episcopalian churches that forgives the old hate. But that old booming economy is gone. Unfortunately one feels a connection between that and the city’s relative, uneasy, calm. 

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