Birmingham, Alabama, served as the center of black industrial employment for nearly a century, and the major site of black labor struggles and civil rights protests.
Nestled in the Jones Valley of north central Alabama, the rocky, mineral-rich land of Jefferson County has sustained a city known in its youth for rapid industrialization and later for its hard-fought battles to overcome social, political, and economic inequality. Since its founding in 1871, Birmingham, Alabama, pursued the economic development of a southern Magic City.
By the 1960s, the efforts of the local government to maintain racial segregation had earned Birmingham a new name, the Tragic City. Efforts to remedy a history of pervasive racial inequality continue today throughout Birmingham, through alliances among citizens that were once thought impossible.
Birmingham’s founders aspired to create the industrial center of the New South. The Elyton Land Company, eager to build a locus of business at the intersection of two main Southern railroads, bought the city land in the midst of Reconstruction. African Americans venturing to the new town sought relief from sharecropping on white-owned farms, but faced instead an industrial system quite similar to the cycle of dependence and harsh working conditions in rural areas. By 1880, African Americans comprised more than half of the industrial workers employed by firms like the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company and Sloss Furnaces. After a long day of dangerous work under sweltering conditions, workers returned to shotgun shack-style homes adjacent to the fuming plants. Although some firms provided recreational activities, few workers found relief at home; instead, they confronted the debt from loans of company-owned housing, food, and supplies.
With the discovery of techniques to produce steel from basic pig iron in 1895, feverish industrialization gripped the city. The steel industry boomed during the early decades of the 20th century, earning Birmingham the title Pittsburgh of the South. This prosperity collapsed in the wake of the Great Depression, which saw Birmingham’s industrial output plummet by nearly 70 percent. New Deal policies and World War II renewed life in the plants and mines, but did little to alter relations between labor and management.
As African American and white workers struggled against owners for higher wages and better working conditions, various forces limited the miners’ ability to organize. In general, segregation and wage inequality precluded interracial unions. Firms also hired convicts from the city to work in the mills and blast furnaces, at rates far below what they paid for free labor. Ninety percent of the convict labor supply was composed of African Americans, many of whom had been arrested for vagrancy or other empty charges. Contracts for prison labor continued until 1928, when the state abolished the system, but the fight for workers’ rights continued well into the 1940s.
One African American leader in this effort, Birmingham native Hosea Hudson, helped form the Southern Organizing Drive. A former sharecropper turned steel worker, Hudson was president of Steel Local 2815 and a delegate to the Birmingham Industrial Union Council from 1942 to 1947. His fight to ease the plight of African American laborers slowed when he was blackballed as a communist, but he and his contemporaries continued the uphill battle: in the 1950s, 73 percent of laborers were African American men; 77 percent of domestics were African American women. African Americans were also more likely to be poor: in 1950, 49 percent of Birmingham’s whites and 82 percent of the city’s African Americans earned less than $5000 per year.
However, as with many of the African American business districts that survived on the edges of U.S. cities, Fourth Avenue institutions and resources were vastly inferior to those available to whites. In Birmingham, the system of segregation strangled access to public transportation, education, decent medical care, and adequate housing. Lines of race divided buses, taxicabs, even ambulances. Before 1940 schools for African American children had shorter terms and often focused on courses in industrial training for boys and domestic work for girls. In 1950 the average class size in these schools was 48 students, compared to 35 in white schools. Until 1947, when the state ordered equal salaries, African American teachers earned 60 percent of the income of a white teacher. Birmingham’s African American residents also faced substandard medical care. The city excluded African American physicians from its hospitals until 1954 and blocked the African American community from access to its own hospital until 1964. Housing segregation, historically established during the industrial era, aggravated the absence of educational opportunities and social services. The color line trapped African Americans in the poorest and most poorly equipped neighborhoods in Birmingham. Only after World War II, in response to pressure from African American veterans, did the city allow African American families to establish middle class neighborhoods like Honeysuckle Hill and Titusville.
Advancements like equal pay for teachers and new neighborhoods for wealthy African Americans did little to assuage those who demanded full integration and equal rights in Birmingham. With the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 and 1956, Alabama entered the national spotlight in the struggle for civil rights. Birmingham was often at center stage in the Civil Rights Movement, not only for its citizens’ courageous efforts, but also for its local government’s staunch resistance. When groups like the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) filed petitions for integrated public facilities and an integrated downtown business community, city officials refused their demands.
Early in the 1960s, the ACMHR, led by the charismatic Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth, invited Martin Luther King Jr., to participate in Project C, or Project Confrontation. The initiative organized selective buying campaigns to protest segregation of downtown businesses; planned demonstrations to protest the city’s refusal to fully integrate; and followed the legal tactics of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). When thousands of children participated in a march for integration, Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor ordered the use of fire hoses and dogs to drive back the youthful demonstrators. Across the country, television stations fanned images of firefighters attacking citizens with powerful hoses and police carting children away in paddy wagons. This police riot in Birmingham drew national attention to the harsh realities of racial segregation in the South, and sparked more than a hundred black protests in cities and communities throughout the nation.
After being arrested during the demonstrations, King wrote his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," responding to the city’s white ministers who called for an end to the protests. Finally, following several weeks of demonstrations, civil rights and business leaders agreed on a settlement that broke down some of segregation’s barriers. But a climate of white defiance and lawlessness prevailed, with the active encouragement of Gov. George Wallace and other public officials. On September 15, 1963, terrorists bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, claiming the lives of four young girls — Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. The tragedies and triumphs of the Birmingham movement accelerated the move toward the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed racial segregation.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended decades of unequal access to civic participation in Birmingham. Without federal support, Birmingham’s African Americans had barely voted since the state constitution of 1901 barred them from the voting booth. More than 60 years later, as the city registered more African American voters than perhaps had ever cast a ballot there, the promise of political opportunity loomed over the city’s changing social and economic landscape. However, such change would come slowly in Alabama. In 1968 it took a Supreme Court ruling to stop the "free choice" system in the public schools that had effectively maintained segregation in education.
But 1968 also brought with it signs of Birmingham’s new faith in a bright future. That year, Birmingham elected the first African American to city council, attorney Arthur Shores. In 1973 a countywide vote placed Chris McNair, an African American, in the Alabama House of Representatives. At the close of the 1960s, new coalitions demonstrated the city’s commitment to the goal of racial equality. One group, the Community Affairs Committee, part of Operation New Birmingham, convened in 1969 to discuss the city’s race relations. By 1974 a Citizen Participation Program, another city-sponsored group, advised the local government on their progress. In 1979 Richard Arrington, an educator and city council member, became the first African American mayor of Birmingham. His leadership through the next decades was crucial to the realization of many programs aimed at equal representation and economic opportunity. By 1990 the Birmingham Plan was in place, an initiative that sought to ensure equal access to capital, loans, mortgages, and employment for the city’s women and African Americans. Arrington retired in 1999.
Since 1971, when Look magazine named Birmingham an All-Star City for its improved racial climate, African Americans have weathered high unemployment, tense relations with the city’s police department, and perhaps most significantly, the rapid decline of the steel industry. However, as the iron and steel base receded, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a university and medical complex, has rejuvenated the city’s economy. African Americans have also benefited from the city’s efforts to diversify and strengthen various industries, including health care, publishing, and manufacturing. In 1992 the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute opened its doors. Dedicated to the legacy of social change and the fight for civil rights at both national and international levels, the research facility and museum symbolize a commitment to the past and the future. On its doors, the words of Martin Luther King Jr. invite visitors to consider the story of this American city: "I like to believe the negative extremes of Birmingham’s past will resolve into the positive and utopian extremes of her future; that the sins of a dark yesterday will be redeemed in the achievements of a bright tomo