MLK's dream a reality?

In Birmingham, yes and no
Associated Press
Aug 25, 2013

When he boarded a Greyhound bus on his way to Princeton University, Glennon Threatt promised himself he'd never come back here. As a young black man, he saw no chance to fulfill his dreams in a city burdened by the ghosts of its segregated past.

Helen Shores Lee left Birmingham years earlier, making the same pledge not to return. A daughter of a prominent civil rights lawyer, she wanted to escape a city tarnished by Jim Crow laws — the "white" and "colored" fountains, the segregated bus seating, the daily indignities she rebelled against as a child.

Both changed their minds. They returned from their self-imposed exile and built successful careers — he as an assistant federal public defender, she as a judge — in a Birmingham transformed by a revolution a half century ago.

This week, as the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" speech, there may be no better place than Birmingham to measure the progress that followed the civil rights leader's historic call for racial and economic equality.

This city, after all, is hallowed ground in civil rights history. It was here where children marching for equal rights were jailed, where protesters were attacked by snarling police dogs and battered by high-pressure fire hoses. And it was here where four little girls in their Sunday finest were killed when dynamite planted by Ku Klux Klan members ripped through their church.

That was the Birmingham of the past. The city that King condemned for its "ugly record of brutality." The city where he wrote his impassioned "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," declaring the "moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." The city where the movement came together, found its voice and set the stage for landmark civil rights legislation.

This is the Birmingham of the present: The airport is named after a fearless civil rights champion, the late Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. The city's website features a 'Fifty Years Forward' campaign, forthrightly displaying photos of shameful events in 1963. Black mayors have occupied City Hall since 1979, in part because many white residents migrated to the suburbs, a familiar pattern in urban America.

So has King's dream of equality been realized here and has Birmingham moved beyond its troubled past?

In many ways, the answer is yes, the city has changed in ways that once seemed unthinkable — and yet, there's also a sense Birmingham still has a long way to go.

Legal and social barriers that barred black people from schools and jobs fell long ago, but economic disparity persists.

Blacks and whites work together and dine side by side in restaurants, but usually don't mingle after 5 p.m.

Racial slurs are rare, but suspicions and tensions remain.

"I don't think any of us would deny that there have been significant changes in Birmingham," Shores Lee says. King would be proud, she adds, but "he would say there's a lot more work to be done."

____

"I have a dream that one day down in Alabama. ... little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers ..." — King, Aug. 28, 1963.

___

Amid the flowers in Kelly Ingram Park, there are stark reminders of the ugly clashes. It was in this area, now known as the Civil Rights District, where the scenes of police brutality were captured in photos and TV footage that helped galvanize public opinion on behalf of demonstrators.

Today, the park has a statue commemorating King. There's one sculpture of a young protester, his arms stretched back, as a policeman grabs him with one hand and holds a lunging German shepherd in the other. And another of a boy and a girl standing impassively with the words "I Ain't Afraid of your Jail" at the base.

To those who grew up here, these works are not just art, but reminders of the bravery of friends and neighbors.

"It's kind of like being in the movie 'The Sixth Sense' — everywhere you go you see ghosts," Threatt says.

Threatt was just 7 when King announced his vision of a color-blind society before hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the Washington Mall. Not long afterward, Threatt was among three black gifted students enrolled in a white elementary school. He was spat on, beat up, called the N-word.

Now 57, Threatt occasionally runs into a 6th grade classmate — a bank vice president — who'd been among his tormenters. They always have a pleasant chat. But he never forgets.

"I like him," he says. "I don't think he's a racist. He was a kid caught up in a social situation like I was. .... You've got to get over that in order to survive in the South. ... Otherwise you just wallow in self-pity and hatred and you don't move forward."

Threatt graduated from Princeton, then Howard University Law School, worked in Denver and Washington, D.C., but returned to Birmingham in 1997. Both he and the city had changed, he says. He joined an established law firm — something that would have been unimaginable 50 years earlier.

Threatt had been inspired, in part, to be a lawyer by Arthur Shores, a pioneering civil rights attorney who fought to desegregate the University of Alabama. Shores' home was bombed twice in 1963, two weeks apart.

Shores' daughter, Helen, grew up resisting segregation, once drinking from a "white" fountain — a defiant act that resulted in a whipping when she got home. At 12, she aimed a Colt .45 at some white men driving by her family's house, spewing racial obscenities. Her father, she says, hit her arm, the bullet discharged into the air and he quickly grabbed the gun.

She stayed away from Birmingham about 13 years, returned in 1971, later switched careers and in 2003 became a judge.

In her early years on the bench, she recalls, a few lawyers pointedly refused to stand as is custom when a judge enters a courtroom. And, she says, she's occasionally seen lawyers who are disrespectful of their minority clients.

"Racism is still very much alive and well in the South," Shores Lee says. "The actions of men here can be legislated but not their minds and their hearts in terms of how they think and feel about blacks and Hispanics."

The judge says when she gives speeches about voting rights, she sometimes cites her father. "How far have we come if he talked about this 60 plus years ago and I'm still talking about it today?" she asks.

Donna Lidge didn't speak for decades about the pain she endured as a girl. Every morning, her bus would pass an elderly white woman standing on a corner, cursing and making an obscene gesture. Then Lidge would arrive at her predominantly white school, where she and her younger sister were ostracized. "We despised that school," she says.

Lidge said her mother would console them, saying: "'I want you to get an education. That's how you will fight back.'"

That was an era of a white majority and enforced segregation in Birmingham. Today, nearly 75 percent of the population is black. While the overt racism of the 1960s has long disappeared, the issue has not.

James Rotch, a white lawyer, has been addressing it openly since 1998 when he launched the Birmingham Pledge — a program to eliminate racism and prejudice.

The "pledge" has evolved into a foundation with conferences, educational material used around the nation and a special week of events held around the September anniversary of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed the four girls.

Not everyone agrees with Rotch's emphasis on race.

"There are a lot of very good, very well-intentioned people who say, 'Look if we stop talking about all this, it'll all go away.' I don't believe that," he says. "...If we pretend it's not there, then we'll never solve it."

In the last 15 years, Rotch says the two races have become more comfortable with one another. And for those 30 and younger, "they really don't understand why anyone would be prejudiced," he says. "They intermingle easily and they just don't see what the big deal is."

Still, there are limits to the socializing.

King's dream is "real during the day" in workplaces and restaurants, says Jim Reed, a white bookstore owner. "When people aren't thinking about it, it's coming true," he says. Once home, however, they aren't inclined to broaden their circles.

"People don't know how to jump that divide," though some would like to, he says. "I see it as taking a long time to get there. Generations have to change."

___

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." — King.

___

At the More Than Conquerors Faith Church, Pastor Steve Green preaches to a congregation that couldn't have existed in King's day.

There are graduates of once-segregated universities. A generation of kids comfortable with mixed-race relationships. And people who worked to get out the vote for the nation's first black president.

But there is one constant: Green's congregation is about 90 percent black, a reminder of King's frequently-quoted declaration that 11 a.m. on Sunday is "the most segregated hour of Christian America."

King, the pastor says, would turn to the Bible to explain that 50 years isn't all that long to transform an entire society.

"Being a preacher, I think he would use as the basis the scriptural principle of seedtime and harvest. I think a lot of the seeds have been planted," he says. "They're getting nurtured a little at a time. But I don't think it's harvest time yet."

One congregation member, Chastity McDavid, reflects the change.

Growing up poor in Florida, she says, "I expected prejudice and racism and if it didn't happen, I was pleasantly surprised."

Now she holds a doctoral degree and is a minority health disparity researcher at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

Visiting community centers, sometimes addressing elderly, largely white audiences, as part of her job, McDavid has been on alert for signs of prejudice. What she's generally found, she says, are people who are "accepting, even welcoming."

From childhood on, McDavid, now 35, always participated in celebrations of King's birthday, often at school where someone would recite the dream speech.

"He was the greatest example of how one person could make a difference," she says. "It wasn't so much the speech itself. ... It was what the speech ignited in the people who heard it. I felt I could be anything I want because of Dr. King. Had his dream not been shared, I don't think I would be where I am today."

___

"Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" — King.

___

One recent summer night, Steve Sills, a member of Green's church, took his two daughters to a rally to motivate young people about the value of respect.

The setting was Kelly Ingram Park.

Sill's older daughter, Makiyah, 12, had studied King in school but she didn't understand the sculptures of vicious dogs and water hoses.

As they drove home, Sills, a computer teacher at a middle school, explained the racial hostilities of that era. He noticed a tear forming in his daughter's eye.

"She couldn't relate," he says. "Her best friends are white. She couldn't imagine it being that way."

Makiyah, he says, then wondered about the need to erect monuments of a painful chapter of America's past.

"Why would they have this as a reminder?" she asked. "It's sad."

"Yes, baby, those were terrible days," he replied, "but through the years we've put those things behind us. ... This is a part of history. It's good to revisit these times to show how far we've come."

___

Sharon Cohen is a Chicago-based national writer. She can be reached at scohen@ap.org

 

Comments

Contango

Re: "I want you to get an education. That's how you will fight back."

Not dissimilar from Booker T. Washington's message: Be the best at your trade as you can be and skin color won't make a difference.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Up_...

deertracker

If that were true blacks would have been paid equally! They weren't! Not even in the White House they built!

man4451

get rid of affirmative action, its not fair to other races. Being other race and they don't know they are being /disˈkriməˌnāt/ed against. Truely unfair.

2cents

"get rid of affirmative action"

I have said this for 30 years, only the federal government can eliminate racism by promoting "EQUAILTY" not set asides and other programs aimed to promote other races and genders.

deertracker

I am okay with getting rid of affirmative action as long as it is not forgotten why it was necessary in the first place. It was necessary. Some want to act as though we were all on an equal level but that was just not nor is the case. I blame racism on SOME white people. They thought they were superior and didn't allow others a fair shot. We all only have two cheeks people. Don't talk about fairness only when it affects you. The dream is coming into focus but it is not there yet!

man4451

and today, the blame for racism is all sides, not just white.
And the Federal government is the biggest racist, just look at the cenus when filling it out, What is your Race? it should only say, Are You American, YES or NO.

2cents

"They thought they were superior"

Yes deer as in past tense, let the generations after the 50's and 60's see things on a fair playing ground. There will always be racists within all races as well as genders.

This is America and all of us come from somewhere else. My grandfather left Russia before he was exterminated and settled in America, learned the language and worked a productive life. My mothers dad was a Cossack, not highly liked by the Communists because they liked freedom!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don...

The Big Dog's back

The big difference is your grandfather LEFT Russia. He wasn't kidnapped and sold into slavery. Ever wonder where the family instability came from? They were yanked away from their families early on, made to live in separate quarters, different plantations. Think about it. And no not much has changed from the 50's and 60's.

2cents

"And no not much has changed from the 50's and 60's."

WOW, I guess the discussion is over. Have to go anyway, lots to do while nice outside.

grandmasgirl

You have to remember that not only the whites kidnapped the people from Africa. There were lots of blacks who sold their own people into slavery. Why don't you put the blame on them also. Most of us alive today had nothing to do with "slavery". Is there racism in the world today. Absolutely. However, I truly believe that some blacks teach their children to hate whites just as some whites teach their children to hate others. Back in the 30's, my white grandfather's best friend was a black man. He and my grandmother had him to dinner many times. Our family still decorates his grave because he had no family and we learned from our grandfather what a good man he was. That is what equality is all about.

grumpy

Also back in the 20's, 30's, and 40's black families stayed together, had lower divorce rate, had lower out of wedlock births than did whites. Why did the instability stop for a generation or two?

And some things have changed from the 50's and 60's, such as divorce rates and out of wedlock births, high school drop out rates, felony convictions. That is after several decades where the blacks rates were lower than the whites. Why did that change after a generation or two of stable lives?

The Big Dog's back

Where did you get your stats from?

registerer

Doggie some of the first slave traders were black people. Slavery was just not caused by white people.

KnuckleDragger

Not a single black person living today, or in the past 50 years has evern been kidnapped and sold into slavery either. SO what's your point, Mr. racebaiter extraordinaire? Indians have been treated badly in America long before the slave era. Nobody seems to want to help them out.

santown419

We know you would like to change that right knucklehead

santown419

We know you would like to change that right knucklehead

Webster

Big pooch. my grandmother had to leave her family in Ireland at age 12 alone and come to this country where she was an house servant for 6 years to pay her passage,room and board. My other grandparents came from Germany, not speaking English, but worked multi jobs as laborers and learned English, yet all of their children and grandchildren made themselves successful professionals by hard work, not by blaming others. You are correct not much has changed since the 50's & 60's the far left and black leaders like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson,Barrack Obama and far left liberals keep race baiting at every opportunity to promote their agenda. The thugs, black on black crime, 72% of all black babies born to an unwed mother is not the dream Dr. King talked about. Thurgood Marshall, Condoleezza Rice, Clarence Thomas, and Collin Powell are a few examples of many that Dr. King's dream was about.

The Big Dog's back

You both don't get it.

Webster

Typical far left liberal response when they are confused with with facts and logic.

The Big Dog's back

By the way websta, why didn't you include Barack Obama with those you called MLK's dream lineup? Can't get much more successful than President of the US.

Webster

dog breath, Obama is not part of the dream with his constant race baiting to further his agenda, that's not Dr. King.

The Big Dog's back

Myth #1: King wanted only equal rights, not special privileges and would have opposed affirmative action, quotas, reparations, and the other policies pursued by today's civil rights leadership.

This is probably the most repeated myth about King. Writing on National Review Online, There Heritage Foundation's Matthew Spalding wrote a piece entitled "Martin Luther King's Conservative Mind," where he wrote, "An agenda that advocates quotas, counting by race and set-asides takes us away from King’s vision."

The problem with this view is that King openly advocated quotas and racial set-asides. He wrote that the "Negro today is not struggling for some abstract, vague rights, but for concrete improvement in his way of life." When equal opportunity laws failed to achieve this, King looked for other ways. In his book Where Do We Go From Here, he suggested that "A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis." To do this he expressed support for quotas. In a 1968 Playboy interview, he said, “If a city has a 30% Negro population, then it is logical to assume that Negroes should have at least 30% of the jobs in any particular company, and jobs in all categories rather than only in menial areas.” King was more than just talk in this regard. Working through his Operation Breadbasket, King threatened boycotts of businesses that did not hire blacks in proportion to their population.

King was even an early proponent of reparations. In his 1964 book, Why We Can't Wait, he wrote,

No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries…Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of a the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law.

Predicting that critics would note that many whites were equally disadvantaged, King claimed that his program, which he called the "Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged" would help poor whites as well. This is because once the blacks received reparations, the poor whites would realize that their real enemy was rich whites.

deertracker

They really don't. You can't fault black people for not working hard as you say if they were not given the opportunity. However, the work they performed as domestics was intense. Blacks and others cleaned your homes, cooked your food, served it to you, and raised your kids. I'd hardly call that lazy. Today, I think morality as well as personal responsibility is the key. Education is also very important!

Stop It

RE: "Blacks and others cleaned your homes, cooked your food, served it to you, and raised your kids"

Who is this "your" person? Where do they live?

KnuckleDragger

Webster, that agenda would be money. Race baiters like Sharpton and Jackson have become multi-millionaires by exploiting impoverished blacks and their plight. Let's face it, as long as their is money to be made, they will continue to fuel the fires of racism.

santown419

We will add you and the republican party to that list. And take some names off.

kURTje

All people leave this land - unless you are Red. ekoj

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