ABOVE PHOTO: In this Aug. 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, addresses marchers during his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. President Barack Obama’s presence at the ceremony, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, will embody the dreams of the 250,000 people who rallied there decades ago for racial equality — and the continuing struggle by others for that goal.
By Sharon Cohen
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — 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 in an unspeakable act of evil.
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.
The Birmingham of the present is a far different place. 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. There are black judges and professors in places where segregation once reigned. And 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?
For many, 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.
The legal and social barriers that barred black people from schools and jobs fell long ago, but economic disparity persists.
PHOTO: A young protester confronted by a police officer and a snarling police dog is depicted in a sculpture in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Ala. on Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013. 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.
(AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Blacks and whites work together and dine side by side in restaurants during the day, 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 think he would tell us our task is not finished.”
Amid the flowers and soothing fountain 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 around the nation on behalf of demonstrators.
Today, the park has statues commemorating King and other leaders. There’s a 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. (An Associated Press photographer had captured a similar image.) There are other sculptures of water cannons, more dogs, and 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 artistic renderings 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 of the statues. “It’s probably like a person who served in World War II going back to Normandy. It’s a place where something very, very real, very poignant happened to people that you knew.”
Threatt was just 7 when King announced his vision of a colorblind society before hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the Washington Mall. Not long afterward, Threatt was one of three black gifted students enrolled in a white elementary school. He was spat on, beat up, called the N-word.
The experience is etched in his memory. Now 57, Threatt occasionally runs into a 6th grade classmate — a bank vice president — who had 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.”
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