In honor of this week’s 60th Anniversary of the US Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, which declared that segregation in United States public schools is unconstitutional, I am pleased to publish this guest post from writer Nancy Dorman-Hickson. The setting is Birmingham, Alabama.
People of conscience, especially those of color, once shivered at the images conjured by the city’s name. They cringed at television footage depicting police letting loose vicious hounds of hell on peaceful protesters. They watched in horror as water from powerful fire hoses mowed down innocent men, women and children, blasting them indiscriminately across Kelly Ingram Park like bits of wind-blown trash.
Birmingham. For most outsiders, the city represents the entire Deep South and all of Alabama, arguably the deepest of the Deep South states. For many years, having ties to Birmingham was a blood-red brush with which to be painted.
Called “Magic City” because it mushroomed overnight into an industrial metropolis, the central Alabama town earned a darker, second name—Bombingham–when Klu Klux Klan members bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four little girls whose only crime was attending Sunday school.
Martin Luther King, Jr., invited to Birmingham by local activist Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, was detained for trumped up charges when he crossed its borders. The city’s notoriety only grew when King penned his widely hailed “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
In short, a wealth of damnable history condemns the place I call home.
Yet, because of the city’s indefensible acts of bigotry, change was wrought. The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 occurred when Americans could no longer ignore the clear choice between right and wrong, good and evil, brought home so starkly by the bigotry in Birmingham.
Today, the same city sets its sights on transforming the world’s perception of it and its sins of the past. It’s embracing the pivotal role it played during those vile and violent times by honoring the movement’s local heroes and their acts of courage. Birmingham’s new tag line sums up its new direction: “The diverse city.”
Throughout 2013, Birmingham hosted a roster of events commemorating the 50th anniversary of America’s Civil Rights Movement. By embracing its heritage, good and bad, the city hoped to demonstrate how far it had come since those dark days. Indeed, the Birmingham Pledge, a written commitment to fight racism and prejudice, is now used in programs in all 50 states and more than 20 countries.
Through a plethora of year-round events–held in the city’s Civil Rights Institute, Kelly Ingram Park, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and other iconic sites–and involving music, theater, film, art exhibits, parades, and storytelling, Birmingham positioned itself as the place where freedom rang and where brave men and women were judged, as Martin Luther King prophesied, not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
It is a move forward that makes this Birminghamian hopeful my city and its sins are truly on the road to repentance.
Before freelancing, Nancy Dorman-Hickson was an editor with Time Inc.’s Progressive Farmer and Southern Living magazines where she earned praise from Harper Lee, Pat Conroy, Naomi Judd and Anne Rice. She co-authored a bestselling memoir, Diplomacy and Diamonds, with Joanne King Herring, portrayed by Julia Roberts in Charlie Wilson’s War. She’s served as a newspaper editor, a college instructor, and a public relations professional. She’s the wife of a professor and mother of twin son and daughter. A Mississippi native, she’s lived in Birmingham for more than two decades where she is on the Greater Birmingham Ministries board.