Between 1947 and 1965, white vigilantes dynamited fifty black homes and churches in Birmingham, Alabama. On one ghastly night in May 1963, assassins tried to kill Martin Luther King, Jr. by bombing his brother’s home and the Gaston Motel, touching off an all-night riot. On a Sunday morning four months later, a bomb at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church killed four girls. Later the same day, a policeman shot a black teenager, and two Eagle Scouts, on their way home from a segregationist rally, shot and killed a thirteen-year-old black boy who was riding a bicycle. Bombings were so common that a hill in the Smithfield area northwest of downtown was known as “Dynamite Hill.” Birmingham earned the nickname “Bombingham.”
The violence was baked into the system. Defying a 1917 SCOTUS decision that outlawed race-based zoning, Bombingham prohibited blacks from living in many areas of the city. Housing in black neighborhoods didn’t keep up with population growth, so upwardly mobile blacks were forced to seek homes near or in areas designated as “white.” Zoning squeezed black residents from black areas; vigilantes bombed them back. Slow to investigate, local police didn’t solve any of the cases, doubtless because many on the all-white police force tacitly cheered the vigilantes for enforcing zoning laws and Jim Crow customs.
During the same era, Birmingham boasted of being the “City of Churches.” This is one of the many painful contradictions of the city’s history. The church is a communion of people from all tribes, tongues, nations, and peoples. Black and white citizens of Birmingham read the same Bible and worshipped the same God, yet the City of Churches became Bombingham.
The church was everywhere, yet everywhere divided along racial lines. Few white leaders publicly condemned the violence. Why did Bombingham’s white churches fail so miserably?
One factor was fear. Joe David Brown, a Birmingham-born journalist and novelist, reported in the Saturday Evening Post that whites quietly admit that integration is inevitable but refuse to speak publicly because of “fear of being ostracized or called names, fear of losing status, jobs, customers, clients and advertising, and, more often than would seem possible among a hardy people, fear of chili parlor hoodlums who have wrapped themselves in Confederate flags although they are upholding no tradition but hate and no custom except violence.” Martin Luther King, Jr. agreed, charging that commissioner Bull Connor created an atmosphere where “the silent password was fear.” King lamented, “The ultimate tragedy of Birmingham was not the brutality of bad people, but the silence of good people.”
Blame-shifting was another reason. In Birmingham, King wrote, whites insist that blacks are content with segregation. They complain, “We only have trouble when outside agitators come in and stir things up.” Virtually everyone—Alabama state troopers, representatives of the Federal government, even suburban residents who lived outside Birmingham’s city limits—was dismissed as a troublesome “outside agitator.” Blame-shifting tainted white reactions to the mass demonstrations during the spring of 1963. Members of the Communist Party mingled with civil rights leaders, and some Birmingham whites used that as an excuse to dismiss the movement as a communist plot. Blame-shifting made white Christians deaf to the deeply Christian motivations, public rhetoric, and tactics of civil rights demonstrations.
King remarked on the irony of Christians complaining about outside agitators. In the early church, believers themselves were regarded as “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” In Birmingham, though, the church spoke with a “weak, ineffectual voice” or as “an arch-defender of the status quo.” Instead of being disturbed by the church’s presence, “the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.”
Behind this shift in the church’s relation to power King discerned a theological error. White ministers were committed to “a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.” Too many were content to retreat “behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.” King had to persuade black ministers too to throw off their “‘dry as dust’ religion [that] prompts a minister to extol the glories of heaven while ignoring the social conditions that cause men an earthly hell.”
On the day after the Sixteenth Street bombing, Charles Morgan, a young white lawyer, delivered a searing speech to the Birmingham Young Man’s Business Club. Morgan cut through the blame-shifting: “every person in this community who has in any way contributed during the past several years to the popularity of hatred, is at least as guilty, or more so, than the demented fool who threw that bomb.” He concluded with the haunting words, “Birmingham is not a dying city; it is dead.”
It’s not 1963 down here anymore. The city has come to life. The African-American middle class is growing. Neighborhoods are integrated, even in historically white suburbs. Recently, white flight has gone into reverse, as hipsters move into the city limits. Start-ups like Shipt, a Publix, condos, restaurants and micro-brew pubs testify to massive downtown investment. Still, many African-American neighborhoods are blighted, their residents stuck in intergenerational poverty. Since a policeman killed a young black man during a shoot-out at a mall last Thanksgiving, the prosperous suburb of Hoover has been on edge. The thirty-five separate municipalities that make up greater Birmingham are easily identifiable by race, and race still overshadows city politics.
Birmingham has been known as the “City of Perpetual Promise.” That sounds hopeful, but it’s actually mournful: The promise is perpetual because we never quite live up to it. The changes are real, but few think we’ve fulfilled King’s dream that Birmingham would become a “model in southern race relations.” Strolling through Sydney’s Circular Quay in 1993, I fell into conversation with a local. When he found out I was from Birmingham, he immediately said, “Oh yes. Police dogs and fire hoses.” We’ve not lived down Bombingham. I suspect we won’t until we live up to our other nickname, “City of Churches.”
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.