The Black community in Birmingham, Alabama plans to join the protests over the two Grand Juries’ refusal to indict for murder the police officers in Ferguson, MO and New York City whose actions led to the deaths of two Black men. Their plans include blocking traffic to the two busiest shopping areas in the Greater Birmingham area—The Summit, which is an open-air mall at the intersection of I-459 and Highway 280, and the Galleria, which is a traditional enclosed mall off I-65 in Hoover. Both could be considered suburban malls, and are located in majority white areas. The city of Birmingham is majority Black—about 2/3rds are Black in the city proper, while in the greater metropolitan area the numbers are reversed—2/3rds White and 1/3 Black or other minorities. There are several small towns west of the city that are almost exclusively Black (Fairfield, Bessemer, Midfield, etc.). But the rest of the cities comprising the suburbs surroundingBirmingham and its smaller sisters are majority White or practically all white, white flight having begun well before the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 meant that the happy little segregationist equilibrium in Birmingham was about to be upset. The Whites, like everyone else, got out of the nasty, stinking coal-mining, blast-furnacing, steel milling city as soon as they were able. The Whites were able the soonest, so they fled first, but Brown accelerated the trend.
Things got real ugly during the implementation of Brown. There were outrages galore, from firehoses being turned on Black protesters to police dogs being sicced on them. And of course, there was the infamous bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on a Sunday morning that killed four little black girls dressed so daintily in their Sunday finest. White people around Birmingham would like to forget that past, and the vile mistreatment Blacks suffered at the hands of their ancestors during the Civil Rights movement and before. The Blacks wish to never let the memory die.
But memory is a funny thing. Most people, even most people in Birmingham, probably believe that turmoil during the Civil Rights era arose from Birmingham’s Antebellum past; that it was the descendants of White slave-holding plantation owners seeking to keep the freed Blacks in the place where they’d been put after Jim Crow upended Reconstruction. Nothing could be further from the truth. Birmingham has no Antebellum past. It wasn’t even incorporated as a city until 1871. It was nothing more than a crossroads before the Civil War. People all around knew about its rich seams of iron ore, so rich that the hills were literally covered in red dirt, but didn’t know how to separate out the silica, which gave it the red tint that Native Americans used for dye and face paint (most iron ore is brown) until after the War. Once that problem was solved by shoving some locally abundant limestone into the furnaces with the ore, and then the problem of fuel for the furnaces was solved by the discovery of coal seams richer even than the iron ore, the steel industry, and the city boomed.
Most of the city founders and leaders were from the North, from Pittsburgh and West Virginia and Ohio, where iron smelting and coal mining were already well established industries. The former plantations in Alabama were way down around Montgomery and points south. The only one of the city founders who had an antebellum past was Colonel Ensley, who arrived in Birmingham from Memphis with a million dollars left from his slave-owning days who put it to use building the Ensley steel works, out in what became the West End section of Birmingham.
The fin de siecle was Birmingham’s coming out party. People during the era talked of Birmingham becoming the industrial and manufacturing hub of the South. But by then, the Federal government had abandoned the South’s Blacks, and their re-subjugation (or subjugation, in the Magic City, as Birmingham came to be known), was well under way. It was Northern ‘mules’ as they were called, that ran Birmingham, locking up Blacks for petty offenses so they could be put to work in Pratt’s coal mines (Pratt was from New Hampshire, by way of Georgia and Prattville, which was named after him, like Pratt City, where his coal mines were). It was slavery by another name, but it was the Jones Valley area’s first taste of it (Birmingham’s city streets were laid out on a grid in the relatively flat Jones Valley situated just north of the Red Mountain range from where the iron ore was excavated and smelted). Things got so nasty in Birmingham during the Civil Rights era because Jim Crow had flowered quite grotesquely under the tutelage of the Northern mules, while the Whites and Blacks who worked the coal mines and blast furnaces and steel mills knew that they were doing the same jobs and that their disparate treatment was therefore illegitimate. The Whites were concerned that losing their privileged, if undeserved, status might render them uncompetitive in the marketplace, while the Blacks were determined to make sure they did. So the Whites fought desperately to retain the vestiges of slavery that were embodied in Jim Crow while the Blacks fought just as hard to overthrow it.
But all that stuff is past Birmingham now. To be sure, the overthrow of Jim Crow is commemorated in parades and even a Civil Rights Museum, but people in Birmingham don’t live that stuff anymore. No cop working today would believe he could get away with oppressing Blacks because they were Black. Besides, the majority of officers on the Birmingham Police force are themselves Black.
The Summit is an upscale mall catering to the rich (mostly White) women in rich, mostly white, Over the Mountain suburbs (i.e., over Red Mountain to the South, where Whites originally fled to get away from the smog and grime of Jones Valley once the smelters and furnaces started belching black coal soot into the air and discharging metallic waste into the water). Getting to the Summit very nearly requires navigating the traffic on Highway 280 (there is a back entrance that can be accessed without using Highway 280, but few people know about it). And Highway 280 is practically a parking lot this time of the year, especially in the vicinity of the Summit, what with all the holiday shoppers spreading cheer. If the Black community in Birmingham shuts down 280, as they are threatening to do, the first question people might ask is ‘how can you tell’? But only jokingly. Because if they significantly impede traffic flow so that rich suburban White women in their hulking SUV’s can’t barrel in to the mall and park in the handicapped spot out front of whatever store is their destination, which they assume is their God-given right as the anointed upper crust of the American empire (there is no welfare queen quite like a rich White suburban American soccer mom), then the Black community is playing with fire.
The last thing the Black community wants to do is attract the ire of rich White suburban American soccer moms of the sort that shop at the Summit. Because all those soccer moms have to do is look at their rich White wolfish husbands with despair in their eyes at not being able to shop to unite a whole class of people against their cause. Rich White guys already believe that Blacks have nothing to complain about now, what with one of their own as President. And they never felt much of the White guilt thing, mainly because they never feel much guilt over anything. But their feelings about these Black agitators nowadays is roughly that they should just shut up and be thankful their ancestors were brought here as slaves so that they might now share in the bounty that their ancestors (the White guys) built. There is very little sympathy for Black protesters in the White community in Birmingham in most times, though there were pockets of sympathetic understanding during the Civil Rights years. Without the understanding and sympathy of those years to tamp down visceral hatred, the Whites will, at the very least, harden their hearts over the plight of the Black community if it carries through with its threat to make already bad traffic on Highway 280 even worse.
The Blacks in Birmingham, and elsewhere, but especially in Birmingham, are very obviously hoping to provoke the Whites into violence. In that regard, their protests are the rough equivalent of the Palestinians lobbing missiles into Israel from the Gaza Strip. Blacks know that open and official displays of violence against them of the sort that could be even roughly analogized to that which was inflicted upon them during the Civil Rights movement is taboo, and would provoke a backlash of support for them, and a forceful denouncement by the public of those who engaged in it. But the Blacks are likely miscalculating if they think Whites are as stupid as they were during the Civil Rights struggle. Whites get that they can’t lash out in violence, not even if the protests turn violent. They understand they can defend their lives in the face of violence, but little else, and any defensive action undertaken must be carefully calibrated to the level of actual peril they face.
But it is not clear, other than provoking some violence on the part of the White establishment, what the Black protesters are attempting to accomplish. Grand juries can’t be assumed to be inherently biased against Blacks. They are perhaps biased in favor of police, which by default means they are often biased against Blacks, as Blacks commit crimes way out of proportion to their numbers, but is bias in favor of cops so undesirable in the grand scheme of justice? Cops almost have to be given the benefit of the doubt if they are to do their jobs.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. But he was wrong. There is no arc of the moral universe, or at least there isn’t so far as group identity and justice is concerned. Group identity and justice, the game the Blacks are trying to replay from the sixties, swings on a pendulum of power. The Civil War and Reconstruction represented the first swing of the power pendulum towards Blacks. Jim Crow saw it swing back towards Whites. With the Civil Rights movement, which can be argued ended with the election of Barack Obama, it swung as far as it possibly could back to Blacks. The next swing will be towards Whites, and the contrived outrage and pointless protests that Blacks are now engaging over isolated incidents in Ferguson and New York might well catalyze its next move. The arc of the moral universe will only reveal itself when the pendulum of power based on group identity dissipates its energy. Perhaps this next swing away from awarding Blacks power on the basis of their group identity will be a small one, and like a clock winding down shows on its slowing face the evidence of its dissipating energy, this swing will be visibly smaller and less violent than the rest.
In any event, throwing Birmingham’s Highway 280 traffic during the holiday season into further disarray is probably not the best strategy for protesting events that each happened over seven hundred miles away. The Black community in Birmingham might well discover as much if they follow through with their plans on Friday.