Birmingham was founded in 1871 and quickly became a primary industrial centre in the post-Civil War south. Named after Birmingham in the United Kingdom, its major industries were iron and steel production and the manufacture of rails and railway cars.
Its unique advantage was that the valleys around it contained rich deposits of iron ore, coal and limestone – the three key ingredients for steel production. Cheap, non-unionised labour, mainly African Americans from rural Alabama, gave a further competitive edge over industrial cities in the North.
Towering over the city is a 17 metre tall statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of metalwork, commissioned for the 1904 World’s Fair in Saint Louis, Missouri. It symbolised the area’s mineral riches and the city’s manufacturing credentials.
After the Fair, it was dismantled and brought back to Birmingham but left in pieces by the railway tracks due to unpaid freight charges. By the time he was re-erected at the local fairgrounds a few years later, his spear had been lost. With nothing to hold, he suffered the indignity of being turned into an advertising tool. Over the years he held a Coca-Cola bottle, an ice cream cone and an ad for Heinz pickles.
In 1936, he was given a makeover, a new spear and a permanent home on a massive 36 metre pedestal on top of Red Mountain overlooking the city.
His bare behind has been the butt of jokes – pun intended – for years. There’s even a joke song called Moon Over Homewood referring to the fact that the statue ‘moons’ the adjacent suburb of Homewood. The chorus goes like this:
“Moon over Homewood; It’s so unrefined
We have to get mooned with the Vulcan’s behind
Moon over Homewood; We don’t think it’s fair
That we have to look at his big derriere“
It is still the world’s largest iron statue. And from his park you get a great view over Birmingham.
Between 1902 and 1912, four of the tallest buildings in the South were completed on the four corners of the intersection of 20th Street and 1st Avenue. This led to the intersection being branded ‘The Heaviest Corner on Earth’.
All four buildings remain and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The John Hand Building was, at the time, the tallest building in the ever-burgeoning city.
Birmingham grew so fast that by the 1920s it was nicknamed The Magic City.
But it wasn’t magic for everyone. Job opportunities for African Americans were essentially limited to manual work in the mines, steel mills and rail yards. And in those jobs, they were paid less and were usually the first to be let go during layoffs. Even by the 1960s, despite being 40% of the city’s population, Birmingham had no black police officers, firefighters, bus drivers, bank tellers or store cashiers. Racial segregation of public facilities and residential districts was rigidly enforced.
Between 1945 and 1962, fifty racially motivated bombings earned the city the moniker ‘Bombingham’. The targets were black businesses, the homes of African Americans seeking to move into white neighbourhoods, and church leaders and lawyers active in the Civil Rights movement. The perpetrators were almost all members of the Ku Klux Klan and not one of the bombings were ever ‘solved’.
In 1963, Martin Luther King Jnr described Birmingham as “probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States”.
With that background, it’s unsurprising that the city played a major role in the Civil Rights struggles. One of the most influential Alabama leaders was John Lewis, a champion of non-violent resistance who went on to become a US Congressman. He uttered those fantastic lines, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute provides an excellent walk through of events in the city through the era. How’s this as an effective depiction of the racial inequality that existed.
The displays covers a lot of history, but one campaign stands out.
After boycotts, sit-ins and marches failed to result in any real change, organiser James Bevel called for a Children’s Crusade. On 2 May 1963, hundreds of children from high schoolers down to first graders walked out of school and marched toward City Hall. More than 600 were arrested. The youngest was eight years old.
The next day, another thousand students marched. With the jail full, the Commissioner of Public Safety, arch-segregationist and white supremacist Eugene “Bull” O’Connor made the controversial decision to use fire hoses and police dogs to disperse the protestors. Graphic images of kids getting blasted with water and snapped at by savage dogs got national and international attention.
Perhaps it was a pre-cursor to the current trend of school kids boycotting school to attend marches on climate action or other causes, but today’s kids can do so in the knowledge they aren’t going to be arrested or physically attacked by the police.
Across the road from the Institute there’s a series of sculptures telling the story.
And next door is the 16th Street Baptist Church. Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth led much of the Civil Rights protest actions from this church, surviving two attempts on his life.
On 15 September 1963, the church was bombed. Four girls, one aged 11 and the others 14, were killed and 22 other people were injured. The girls are honoured with a statue in the park.
Sickeningly, the deaths were celebrated by many white supremacists at the time and investigations into who was responsible were derisory. Despite four suspects, all members of a KKK splinter group, being squarely identified, the FBI under J Edgar Hoover simply closed its file.
In the mid 1970s, a new Alabama Attorney General re-opened the case, resulting in the successful conviction of one of the four in 1977. The FBI finally re-opened its original files in the mid 1990s and ‘lost’ audio recordings of phone taps of the suspects surfaced. By then one of the others had already died but the remaining two were convicted after trials in 2000 and 2002 respectively.
In 2013, the girls were each posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom in recognition of the fact that their death served as a major catalyst for the Civil Rights movement.
They and the many others who suffered for the cause are honoured in this monument, unveiled by Mayor Richard Arrington in 1995. It took that long for Birmingham to elect a person of colour to that office.