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Birmingham +50

"Birmingham +50" Continued...

Issue: "50 years after the bomb," Sept. 21, 2013

“It’s been a long time, but we had to work through a lot,” Wesley said: “The old guard is passing on. The young, more educated minister is coming to the leadership ranks. … Even in the black church, some of the older pastors would not have been as ready to engage in interracial relationship because they had grown up in the bitterness of the struggle, and perhaps would have been less trusting and less willing.”

Wesley noted that African-American church leaders are now struggling with black-on-black violence and shattered families: “The enemy is not so much other people–the issue violence-wise is coming from people who know one another.” Wesley doesn’t support segregation—he calls it “a hiding place for bigotry”—but says the problems are in part a by-product of forced integration, because black neighborhoods in Birmingham before desegregation, were close-knit. 

Parents, Wesley said, kept their children close and avoided leaving neighborhoods because they feared Ku Klux Klan and police brutality. Kids spoke respectfully to adults and elders: “People would speak on the street, it was the manners you were taught. You approach someone and say, ‘Hello, ma’am, how are you?’” In the past 50 years those ways have eroded: “Now people take more of a hands-off approach. People live more isolated lives. It’s possible to live in a neighborhood and not know the people across the street.” 

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1963: An overflow crowd attends the funeral services at 16th Street Baptist Church for three of the four girls.
Associated Press
1963: An overflow crowd attends the funeral services at 16th Street Baptist Church for three of the four girls.
1963: Ambulance attendants load the body of one of the girls.
Associated Press
1963: Ambulance attendants load the body of one of the girls.
50 YEARS LATER: A third-grade class from Talladega, Ala., walks near 16th Street Baptist Church.
Walt Stricklin/Landov
50 YEARS LATER: A third-grade class from Talladega, Ala., walks near 16th Street Baptist Church.
50 YEARS LATER: The third-grade class on their way to Kelly Ingram Park to see sculptures depicting events from the 1963 Children’s Crusade marches.
Walt Stricklin/Landov
50 YEARS LATER: The third-grade class on their way to Kelly Ingram Park to see sculptures depicting events from the 1963 Children’s Crusade marches.

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But the black church’s integral role in the civil rights movement has born fruit 50 years later in improved relations between blacks and whites.

“Black people especially in the South have been incredibly forgiving. That to me is a miracle,” said Randy Nabors, a white pastor who grew up in the projects of Newark, N.J., and has long been involved in ministries that cross racial lines like New City Fellowship in Chattanooga, Tenn. 

Wesley emphasized the importance of “outward-focused theology” that strives to bring in unchurched people and apply the Bible to daily life: Greater Shiloh now hosts financial seminars, adopts school districts, has neighborhood youth programs, and is opening a health clinic and working on a job training program.

That list of activities indicates how attention has moved away from civil rights as such to issues of economics and education. In the first half of the 20th century, African-Americans fled north to find jobs and escape harsh Jim Crow laws. But now, as the South has become physically safer for blacks and offers better job prospects with a lower cost of living, that population shift (known as the Great Migration) has reversed. From 2000 to 2010, according to Census data, the percentage of the country’s black population living in the South grew and the population living in the Northeast and Midwest shrank. The black populations in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas grew by more than 20 percent. 

There’s a downside: In Alabama, only about half of black males graduate from high school in four years, and some graduates are poorly educated. Many African-Americans are well aware, as they see the success of Asian-Americans, that attributing economic disparities primarily to racism has grown old: Cultural attitudes toward family and education seem to be stronger forces, with kids growing up in two-parent families having big advantages. 

A good education is more closely related to a good job in Birmingham today than it was 50 years ago when Birmingham was a center of steel manufacturing, and people without much education could still get decent-paying jobs. Now, the steel industry is gone. The city’s economy is based on the healthcare industry, and the economic outlook is bleak for those without a high-school diploma. Almost every African-American I interviewed in Birmingham mentioned the racial divide in the public-education system, and how black children were stuck at the terrible city schools while whites attended better suburban schools. 

The economic divide between white and black communities is also wide. Today the median wealth of a white household is 20 times that of a black household, according to Pew Research Center analysis of government data from 2009. That gap is the largest since the government began gathering data. Median black wealth dropped about 50 percent from 2005 to 2009, largely due to the housing market crash. In Birmingham, “African-Americans control the city government–and 1 percent of the wealth,” said Ahmad Ward, a historian at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Some Christian community development organizations in Birmingham neighborhoods are working to alleviate the economic disparities. Christian Service Mission has its home in a warehouse in a rusted-out neighborhood near the train tracks. Its energetic director Tracy Hipps, a short white man with a drawl, is friends with just about every African-American pastor in town. He tried to explain the organization’s work as we walked through the warehouse, which that particular day had an excess of ice cream sandwiches. “You know what? Let’s real quick get in my truck,” he said.

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