After all the years they echo still, the boom of dynamite and the rain of glass through the autumn leaves--just as some of the leading citizens of Birmingham, Ala., feared when, in the aftermath of the calamitous summer of 1963, they seriously debated changing the name of their city. Since then there have been deadlier crimes, but few conceived and carried out with such a purity of malice as the Sunday-morning bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls. And few had such far-reaching, if unintended, consequences. The church bombing was meant to intimidate demonstrations by people then politely called "Negroes," and usually something else, where the beatings, dogs and fire hoses deployed by Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor had failed. Instead, it galvanized the demonstrators, and the rest of the country as well, helping to set the stage for the great Civil Rights Act the following year that set the nation on the tumultuous and still unfinished course of racial reconciliation.
Birmingham long ago lost the distinction of being "the most segregated city in America," in the words of no less an authority than Martin Luther King Jr. The lunch crowd at the Fish Market downtown is a mix of black and white students, blue-collar workers, white businessmen and immigrant nurses from the nearby medical complex--an ordinary scene, except in its stark contrast to Section 369 of the city's original segregation rules ("It shall be unlawful to conduct a restaurant... at which white and colored are served in the same room"). There is little to set Birmingham apart, in its demographics and its problems, from other cities its size (population about 255,000): a clutch of downtown office buildings fed by highways, surrounded by a patchwork of mostly black working-class neighborhoods and enveloped by mostly white upper-middle-class suburbs. There is a small but growing population of Latino immigrants, who are being eagerly courted with social services and language classes by both the Roman Catholic diocese and some of the area's Protestant churches. Blacks make up about two thirds of the city's population--and 96 percent of the public-school students.
But race relations are an inescapable preoccupation for the people of Birmingham, a burden they carry with them even when they leave the South. "When I tell people I'm from Birmingham, I get responses like, 'You can walk down the street?' " says Karima Wilson, a sophomore at Swarthmore College outside Philadelphia. Birmingham has a prodigious infrastructure of groups dedicated to improving race relations--Leadership Birmingham and Peace Birmingham and Operation New Birmingham and the Community Affairs Committee, whose Unity Breakfast on Martin Luther King Day attracts as many as 2,000 participants. Three years ago, while returning from an interracial conference in Mobile, a white lawyer named James Rotch composed a renunciation of prejudice that has become known as the Birmingham Pledge ("... I will strive daily to eliminate racial prejudice from my thoughts and actions..."). It's been signed by 70,000 people, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, although Mayor Bernard Kincaid has so far demurred. Kincaid, Birmingham's second black mayor, says he would be happy to sign a pledge that specified some concrete actions, such as mentoring a black child or inviting a member of another race over to your house for dinner. His stance is an embarrassment to some white civic leaders and the harmony-minded editorial board of The Birmingham News. But in how many other cities would interracial dinner parties become a political issue? "Race is on our minds all the time here," says Cathy O. Friedman, a businesswoman who serves on the Birmingham Pledge Advisory Board.
Having been born long after the end of legal segregation doesn't excuse you from having to think about it, either. Civil-rights history is a central part of Alabama's ninth-grade curriculum, and every school for miles around makes an obligatory trip to the Civil Rights Institute, a museum and study center in a Civil Rights Historic District that embraces the restored 16th Street church and the nearby park where demonstrators memorably clashed with Connor's thugs. Teenagers have their own network of interracial clubs, at the summit of which is Camp Anytown, a weeklong retreat sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice. It brings together people like Caleigh Rathmell, a high-school senior from the affluent suburb of Mountain Brook, and Richard Winchester, a senior at A.H. Parker, Birmingham's original, century-old Negro high school--long "desegregated," except for the near-entire absence of white students. The distance between them was demonstrated by an exercise at Camp Anytown in June. The participants formed a line and stepped forward or back to indicate agreement with statements such as "I go to a good school in a wealthy neighborhood" or "There were days when my family didn't have enough money for food." "Eventually it came to the point where everyone was spread out and I was in the front, feeling ashamed, and I turned around and Richard was in the back, standing tall and proud," Rathmell recalled. The two have stayed friends. But "we keep in touch mainly through the telephone because he has a difficult time getting here without a car, and the area where he lives is not very comfortable for me, unfortunately," Rathmell says.
What the two youngsters have discovered is that all the good will in the world can't bridge the gaps of income, class and power that still separate whites and blacks (and, increasingly, Hispanics). "Birmingham is still almost two communities," says the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a leader in the civil-rights movement who survived two bombings at his old church. The city first elected a black mayor, Richard Arrington, in 1979, but Shuttlesworth points out that after the first of his five elections Arrington never got more than 12 percent of the white vote. And many blacks suspect that when the white power structure couldn't dislodge Arrington in an election, they tried other means--such as a federal investigation into allegations of corruption. Arrington was not indicted and never defeated, although whites voted in large numbers against his chosen successor last year, helping to elect Kincaid. But it was partly to smooth relations with the black community that federal officials reopened the long-dormant investigation into the church bombing. Former Ku Klux Klansman Robert (Dynamite Bob) Chambliss had been convicted in 1977, but it was widely believed that he didn't act alone. Earlier this year the evidence gathered by the FBI was presented to a state grand jury, and two alleged accomplices, Thomas Blanton Jr., 62, and Bobby Frank Cherry, 70, were indicted on murder charges. U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, under a special appointment by Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor, will try the case personally.
The same themes, of power and class, are played out every day on the streets, patrolled by a police force that hired its first black officer in 1966. Police Chief Mike Coppage remembers how, as a rookie in the mid-'70s, he was corrected by a veteran officer after he failed to correctly address an elderly black man on the street. "Don't call him sir!" the older cop barked, rapping Coppage on the knuckles with his club. "You tell him, Get over here right now!" Coppage, who succeeded a black chief and commands a force that is more than half black, can enforce a code of respect and civility on his troops. But he also must enforce the law in a city where demographics alone dictate that the majority of perpetrators, as well as victims, will be black. The Rev. Abraham Woods, a longtime civil-rights activist, believes blacks are the victims of racial profiling in traffic stops, but after several nights spent riding with cops on patrol, it's apparent to an outsider that at least part of the problem has to do with the economics of car maintenance. Being poor is actually against the law, if it means you can't afford to fix a broken taillight. "If I pull you over, I've got to have a reason," says Field Training Officer Erick Hall. "A broken taillight is a reason." The issue is so sensitive that when the state authorized cops to ticket drivers without seat belts last year, it required them to keep track of recipients by race. Figures show that blacks are getting seat-belt tickets roughly in proportion to their population--but that doesn't satisfy Woods, who thinks the tickets should reflect the ratio of white to black drivers, which includes suburbanites who drive downtown to their jobs. But even he agrees that if blacks and the police are arguing over how to interpret statistics on traffic stops, they've come a very, very long way from Bull Connor's dogs.
And so has someone like Robert Holmes, who remembers how as a teenager he and his brother once had to physically restrain their father from rushing downtown to shoot the dogs. Robert Holmes Sr., who dug ditches for the Alabama Gas Co., saw on the news the demonstrators fleeing German shepherds and bolted for the door. "We held him because we didn't want him to be killed," says his son, who now has his own job in the utilities industry, as vice president for ethics and business practices of Alabama Power Co. Holmes has an engineering degree from the University of Alabama-Birmingham, which didn't even exist in the 1960s but enrolled a freshman class last year that was roughly 30 percent black, making it by far the most successful campus among major state schools in achieving diversity. The university's rise as a medical-technology center has helped drive the city's transformation, economically and socially. Birmingham is "light-years from where we were" back in the early '60s, says Holmes. That assessment is shared by another prominent black citizen, Shelley Stewart, 70, who parlayed a job as a radio announcer into ownership of the station, as well of as an advertising agency and other businesses--but remembers well how the richest black man in Alabama in the 1950s, A. G. Gaston, had to go to the kitchen door of a Chinese restaurant to get an order of chop suey, because he couldn't be seated in front. Today, says Stewart, "a black man can go to any restaurant, he can check into any hotel he wants to, and that's a big change. But he can't afford to check out. And that's a big change that's still to come."