by Will Schreiber

Birmingham’s Original Sin

Last Monday, I wrote down a bunch of potential blog topics:

Deleting Twitter off my phone. How meritocracy is like free will: better to believe it isn’t an illusion. Taking noon-2pm off each day. Remote culture. Perception of time. The cult of Ayn Rand. “I want to know where I’m going to die, so I never go there.”

Each morning, I sat down to write. Even with a dozen prompts, I couldn’t type. I was thinking about the videos of unarmed protestors getting sprayed with tear gas, and worse.

Dave Chappelle has a bit in Killin’ Them Softly about the difference in black people’s and white people’s experiences with cops.1 Textbook “it’s funny because it’s true.” The painful part is how, twenty years and four Presidents later, nothing has changed.

I grew up in Birmingham. I went to an all-white high school. We took field trips to the 16th Street Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Museum. I thought my physical proximity to LBJ’s chapter in history meant I had a special view of race relations. It’s amazing what we justify.

Birmingham is a comparatively new city. When Lee surrendered to Grant, only 2,000 people lived in all of Jefferson County.

After the civil war, a geologist discovered limestone beneath Red Mountain. He called it “by far the most deeply interesting material fact on the American continent.” Jefferson County became the only known place in the world where you could find coal, limestone, and iron ore. Combine all three and you get steel.

By 1920, just two generations after the discovery, 300,000 people lived in Birmingham. It was the fastest-growing city in the country. “Magic City.”

Most of those 300,000 migrants came from northern industrial hubs. Birmingham’s steel industry had worked hard at recruiting both white and black laborers to fill their fiery furnaces.

It hadn’t been easy. White people in 1870 viewed factory workers as “wage slaves.” To them, America was still Jefferson’s agrarian dreamscape. A steel executive summed it up in an 1889 essay: “Skilled workers would not work for long in a society where labor was looked upon as the connecting link between blacks and whites.”2

So how did Birmingham’s boosters convince 300,000 people to move south?

They promised a rigid social order,3 one where only white people could be promoted into management. A flyer for the Avondale Iron Works explicitly read, “[We] do no consider black people reliable for higher grades of employment.”

“[Birmingham is] a place where labor and capital has an opportunity to build a social order in which the free labor ideology will be realized,” the boosters promised young white steel workers in ad after ad.4

Either I was sick for the “Steel Industry And Its Labor Market Day” in 4th grade Alabama History, or we skipped it completely.

At the time, I thought the worst of racism was behind us. After all, the Civil Rights Act was signed 40 years ago! I was wrong.

When I learned more about Birmingham’s birth, it made sense to me why 80 years later MLK’s famous letter came from Birmingham’s jail.

This isn’t a criticism of Birmingham in particular. I like Birmingham. As an export, it’s depressing how Nashville and Chicago and Seattle and Boston and SF are equally blind.

De facto segregation across our country proves foundations are hard to fix.

There’s a quote from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo that I love, when Lisbeth is asked who deserves to be punished for the plight of women who are raped:

“There are no innocents. There are, however, different degrees of responsibility.”

I am responsible.

  1. Iron and Steel: Class, Race, and Community in Birmingham, Alabama

  2. The built-in caste system had the dual advantage of pitting black and white people against each other in order to prevent labor unions from forming.

  3. John Witherspoon Dubose, one of Birmingham’s early steel executivess, commented about the racial divide: “[it] excites a sentiment of sympathy and equality on their [white workers’] part with the classes above them, and in this way becomes a wholesome social leven [sic].”