In Birmingham, Obama's run is more than just politics

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 3, 2008 

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — On the night before Tuesday's historic presidential election, city leaders here summoned voters to the scene of one of the most appalling events of the civil rights movement.

From the pulpit of the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four young girls were killed in a 1963 bombing, speakers Monday night urged the mostly black crowd to make sure they vote.

It was a familiar appeal from a familiar venue.

At the height of Birmingham's bloody civil rights struggle, 16th Street Baptist was a frequent meeting place for local black leaders, but Monday's rally drew its energy and urgency from an unprecedented development — the chance to elect the nation's first African-American president.

At this point, it's probably a cliche to call Barack Obama's campaign a "movement," but in Birmingham, where that word evokes painful racial memories, that's what people are calling it.

The Illinois senator's improbable bid routinely draws comparisons that haven't been spoken or heard since the era of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

"It really is a spiritual movement, and it's a movement of the spirit," said the Rev. Calvin Woods, the state president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the pastor of Birmingham's Shiloh Baptist Church. "People are being touched who've never been touched before. People are being moved who never been moved before."

"He's an activist," Gwen Webb said of Obama. "That's what Jesus was. He was an activist . . . and he sent another activist in the form of Martin Luther King Jr. to Birmingham to free us. And now, he's sending an activist in the form of Barack Obama to free all people. Not just black people. This is not just a political thing. It's a movement. And it carries me all the way back to 1963, to the movement."

Webb should know. As a high school student in 1963, she endured fire hoses, police attack dogs and nearly a week in jail for taking part in civil rights protest marches. Today, she's the vice chairman of the Civil Rights Activist Committee, a group of '60s-era activists who continue to agitate for change in Birmingham.

If Martin Luther King was the dreamer, Webb and others see Obama as the embodiment of King's dream, the late-blooming fruit of a civil rights struggle that met some of its most violent resistance in Birmingham.

Known as "Bombingham" for frequent dynamite blasts on the homes and offices of local black leaders, Birmingham, and much of Alabama, was the center of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Television images of Birmingham police attacking black protestors stunned the nation and helped turn national sentiment against old-school segregation and its most violent enforcer, Birmingham public safety commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor.

As blacks asserted their political influence and began electing African-Americans to public office, many whites left Birmingham to live in nearby Shelby County.

Unfortunately, local businesses left, too. The city's declining tax base and the loss of steel industry jobs have left Birmingham a shell of its former economic self. Retail commerce is largely non-existent in the downtown area, where large swaths of commercial real estate lie dormant.

Rather than sweep its history under the rug, however, Birmingham has embraced its past, creating a downtown civil rights district that includes the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, an interactive museum and research center.

Across the street, Kelly Ingram Park, the site of numerous violent clashes between police and protestors, is now a civil rights memorial with metal sculptures of police dogs in full attack, black children being pelted with high-power water hoses and a Birmingham police officer terrorizing a young black man.

The images assure that the city won't forget its past, but some see the memorials and the institute as constant reminders that keep it from moving forward.

"I know it was horrible, but they'll never let Birmingham live it down . . . . The black people won't allow it. They keep bringing up stuff," said William Ricker, a longtime city official who retired several weeks ago.

Like many older whites in the area, Ricker said that he thinks too much has been made of the civil rights struggle. He opposes the civil rights institute and thinks whites, in general, have made too many concessions to blacks.

As an example, he cites the Smithsonian Institution's plan for a museum about African-American history and culture.

"Are they going to have one for the Irish? Are they going to have one for the Germans? Are they going to have one for the English? No, they're not. Why should they have one for the blacks?"

As a local news photographer in the late 1950s and early 1960s, William Ricker captured some of the civil rights movement's most violent episodes.

He was the first photographer on the scene of the 16th Street church bombing. He shot the violent 1961 bus station attack on black "Freedom Riders" who'd just arrived in Birmingham to test a ban on segregation in interstate transportation. They were beaten nearly to death with bats, lead pipes and chains.

The police were nowhere in sight when the attacks occurred, and Ricker insists that they probably were in cahoots with the perpetrators, who were suspected Ku Klux Klansmen.

"That was a miserable day," Ricker recalled. "It was a bright shiny day, but still in all, it was miserable because of what I saw."

If Obama is elected, Ricker said, it would probably stir up racist sentiment and possibly more racial violence in Alabama because "the old thinking hasn't gone away."

Still, Ricker said, the mere prospect of electing a black president shows that the country has come a long way.

"Just remember he's half white," Ricker said. "He's not all black. That's what people want to forget."

While Ricker's views are shared by some, other local whites feel differently. Recently a white woman in her 30s came into the local Obama campaign office in tears, said Obama field organizer Kimberly Chatman.

"She came up to me just crying and she said, 'Miss Chatman, I'm sorry for what my people did to you.' She was carrying all that guilt from her father and her grandfather and she just wanted to be released from all that," Chatman said. "For many it's their first time ever crossing a racial line like this so they wear it like a badge of honor."

ON THE WEB

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

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