The global significance of Birmingham

itsnicelogoThose of us who live here are apt to forget it, but Birmingham is a powerful symbol to people around the world. We tend to be ashamed of the ’60s legacy of “Bombingham,” but for people behind the Birmingham Charter — Karan Grover, from India, and James Smith, from South Africa — the city represents a triumph. It was in Birmingham that ordinary people, even children, united to defeat an unjust order with love.

We locals often think that our white predecessors had to be shocked out of their complacency by the 1963 bombing deaths of children at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and (what was worse, supposedly) the international attention that this brought. The cynical implication is that it was a concern for appearances that forced white Birmingham to change, or to appear to change.

Grover and Smith don’t see it that way. They give more credence to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” one of the classic statements of the principles of nonviolent struggle. The letter, written in response to liberal clergy who opposed further demonstrations, sets out the process by which nonviolence seeks to win the day: fact-finding, negotiation with power (a necessary step even when fruitless), self-purification, and direct action. The church bombing did not change Birmingham.* It was the disciplined, nonviolent conflict in the streets, and the crowding of the jails with peaceful people, that changed Birmingham.

King also wrote from his Birmingham cell, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” The words seem to anticipate our still-dawning awareness of the interdependence of the local with the global, of human society with the natural environment.

Refusing to acknowledge this interdependence — for example, because of one’s own relatively privileged position — is an injustice not only to one’s neighbors but to future generations. “Injustice anywhere,” King insisted, “is a threat to justice everywhere.” We can prattle endlessly about the definition of “justice” and “injustice.” But the fact is, we all knew what those words mean the moment we first read them.

The expiring world order teaches that separation is the key to stability, prosperity, and peace. We see the fruits of this well-intentioned thinking in jobless urban neighborhoods and blighted school districts with carefully monitored boundaries. (No, ma’am, you may not enroll your child from Ensley in our Mountain Brook schools.) We find it in Bosnia’s and Kosovo’s tense “ethnic enclaves,” which bring no peace. We easily recognize its excesses in pictures of the old Berlin Wall, but less easily in Israel’s new concrete “security fence,” the “Green Zone” of Baghdad, or our own country’s fencing of the border with Mexico.

Good fences make good neighbors, as the poet said, but only when the two neighbors walk the fence together, talking as equals while they replace the fallen stones. Security fences, patrolled with deadly force, are a caving in to fear and a desperate faith in managed violence. Each of these modern fences represents a failure.

Birmingham represents a triumph. In Birmingham, plain, “unqualified” people defied their shepherds and refused the prudent advice of fearful experts counseling “law and order and common sense.”2 They placed their faith in the disciplined application of love and courage. They acted out of faith, when everyone else insisted that they were being naïve, dangerous, counter-productive.

It’s true that we celebrate the legacy of the civil rights movement. We’ve raised statues and built a museum. We hold commemorative anniversary marches, which are received with formal speeches of welcome at City Hall. The former critics of nonviolent conflict, especially among the black clergy, have all recast themselves as enthusiastic supporters of Dr. King.

So there’s no question of which side was favored by history.

It was not a panacea. Birmingham is as wounded and scarred as any other modern city, and corruption is routine in both business and politics. Local leaders honor the “legacy of civil rights” as if they were carving the tombstone of nonviolent conflict. Our cynicism, which we confuse with sophistication, encourages us to give in to all this.

So the danger, for those of us who live here, is in making “the movement” tame and commonplace, even inconsequential. It was not inevitable. It did not have to turn out well. Outside forces did not shape the outcome for us. It was the faith and courage of ordinary people that won a victory in Birmingham where others have failed.

Jerusalem, the world’s most idolized city, is riven by self-righteous oppression, lies, and hatred. What if Birmingham were to step up and become the world’s spiritual capital? Seriously, does any city have a better claim?

Active spiritual truth is our city’s greatest untapped resource. Gandhi called it satyagraha. Our “foot soldiers” called it many things or nothing, they just acted on it. And MLK, while in Birmingham, added a twist to his critics’ label of “extremism.”

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? . . . Perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.3

Whatever you call it, we have enough of it to share with the world. Let’s do this.

* We tend to forget that the bombers were not “brought to justice,” as we say, until the late 1990s, when they had all either died or become sick, powerless old men. The father of one of the four martyred girls started a career in local politics, and is now in jail for corruption. So no, the church bombing, while it changed the lives of individuals, is not what changed Birmingham. It is better understood as a sign of what persisted unchanged.
2 The phrase “law and order and common sense” was the slogan of liberal clergy urging MLK and local African Americans to stop taking part in demonstrations, and to place their faith instead in the courts and “local leaders.” MLK responded with the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” See: “Public Statement by Eight Alabama Clergymen” and King’s reply here.
3 King, “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

3 thoughts on “The global significance of Birmingham

  1. Rob,

    I am contemplating a dissertation on pre/post attittudes of Blacks after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Any suggestions are appreciated.



    1. That sounds to me like an oral history project in part. You’ll probably want the archives of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute ( You might also consider the institutional history of the BCRI itself, which has had to handle issues of memory and attitudes toward the past, including various still-living people‘s roles in the struggle. Dr. Horace Huntley of the UAB History Dept. would be someone to contact; he has been involved in assembling the BCRI archives.

      I’m no expert, but I think Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: The Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Its Legacy by Kenneth T. Andrews is a model archival study of the civil rights era.

      The Watsons Go to Birmingham, a work of fiction, might be a good resource for current popular memory of the 16th Street Church bombing. This is probably the No. 1 book people give to children to teach them about the episode and its meaning.

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