Saturday, January 16, 2016

MLK's Legacy in Rear View Mirror

Monday we will celebrate anew the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr, which always provides us a fresh opportunity to look at race relations. I write today in anticipation of the federal holiday to avoid the pile-on of blog posts and columns set to be submitted in a couple of days. It's a struggle to come up with original content in the forty-eight years since MLK's tragic assassination in Memphis. As I often do, I'll write about my personal experiences close to the source.

I'd like to pursue a different angle, that being the city of my birth and primary upbringing. The demographics of Birmingham, Alabama, have changed considerably since the days of Civil Rights. Though the city has recently showed a few tentative beginning stages of gentrification, that development is currently isolated to a few blocks in downtown. On a drive back from the airport over the holidays, I observed how much of the city is still blighted by years of poverty and gloom. Birmingham proper grows poorer and blacker by the day.

Shortly before the merging of several highways ignobly referred to by natives as malfunction junction lies the heart of downtown. The multi-purpose arena known as the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center is showing its age. Built in 1976, four years before my birth, a look from the interstate shows what forty years of wear and tear will do. In my childhood, I was taken there on field trips to see the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. This was at the dawn of the suburbs, where white wealth and population continued to stream over Red Mountain in a torrent.

Dr. King spoke quite a bit about a very real War on Poverty towards the end of his life. If he had lived, what would he have said about white flight? In his time, white liberals were beginning to flood out of the District of Columbia into Northern Virginia. That retreat would only continue over the decades. Census data shows that the population of the District sharply declined until very recently. Washington, DC, is not Birmingham (nor can the two be fairly compared), but there are observable trends in place between them.

Though we may be uniform in our belief that integration and Civil Rights was a success, dissenting voices did exist. It may be instructive to know what Malcolm X said about King's Birmingham Campaign, fifty-three years in our past. In his 1963 message to the Grassroots, the Nation of Islam leader goes aggressively after King and King's strategy.

As soon as King failed in Birmingham, Negroes took to the streets. King got out and went out to California to a big rally and raised about -- I don't know how many thousands of dollars.
And as Negroes of national stature began to attack each other, they began to lose their control of the Negro masses. And Negroes was [sic] out there in the streets. They was [sic] talking about [how] we was [sic] going to march on Washington. By the way, right at that time Birmingham had exploded, and the Negroes in Birmingham -- remember, they also exploded. They began to stab the crackers in the back and bust them up 'side their head -- yes, they did. 
The critique here is harsh and unrepentant. King is showed to be counterfeit, a mere fundraiser. Malcolm's "Negroes of national stature" continued the lamentable trend. Birmingham's history post Civil Rights is a Greek tragedy of the highest stature. Corruption, wasteful spending, and mutual race baiting have left the city paralyzed. It has only been in the past several years that something akin to a revitalization has broken ground and kept moving forward. In building a new stadium, the city has attracted the return of the local minor league baseball team and has modernized the airport after years of neglect.

This is real progress, but arrives too late. The southern suburbs now hold most of the revenue and the power. African-American families are now the ones leaving Birmingham for whiter pastures. If only this sad story were relegated to one city with a troubled past, but it is woefully commonplace. This is the story of America in the late 20th and early 21st Century. We should rightly pause to reflect the flurry of organization and activity designed to establish equality among the races.

Dr. King told us that the hard work isn't done. Here's the rub. It likely never will be.

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