Saturday, October 29, 2005

Rosa Parks and Birmingham in 2005

From December 1, 1955, to the passing of Mrs. Rosa Parks this week, the struggle to eradicate racial divides in Alabama has remained at the forefront of the minds of many in the United States. When one thinks of the Civil Rights Movement, Alabama is naturally one of the places that comes to mind with the obvious contributions of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., only to mention two of many who have worked hard and sacrificed for what is right.

As a transplant to Birmingham only 1 1/2 years ago, I see two Birminghams. The downtown city of Birmingham is a run-down, exhausted city that shows glimpses of a time when the steel industry was booming and the city was thriving. There are efforts underway to revitalize the downtown area, and I hope they succeed, but one has only to drive through on I-65 to make a judgment that is basically true. While the UAB area of downtown is growing exponentially, the future of the center and northern parts of downtown are still up in the air. Downtown areas west of I-65 become increasingly dangerous. When murders are reported on the news, the Ensley area is usually assumed unless otherwise noted.

The other Birmingham is what is commonly called "Over the Mountain." Red Mountain serves as a geographical border between the city that thrived in the early and mid-20th Century and the areas to the south that are now thriving. Red Mountain also serves as the socio-economic divider for the area. Property investments have obviously moved away from the old into new for the metro area over the past 50 years.

Is there a racial divide present in Birmingham? Apparently, yes. Is there an economic divide? Obviously, yes.

While my personal observations are limited (and fallible), it appears that both divides are problematic and tend to fuel each other. Obviously the history of racial segregation has impacted the way that the area is settled. Regardless of skin color, the majority of those who live in middle and upper class income brackets live "Over the mountain," and the majority of those living in poverty live in Birmingham proper.

Life "Over the Mountain" seems to be fairly well adjusted racially. (I'm not saying things are perfect or that there is not progress to continue to seek.) People live and work in harmony, and there are many races represented in the work force. While life may fall short of the average beer commercial ratio of racial perfection, interaction and life seems to be close to arriving at the right place.

Not so in old Birmingham. There are plenty of reasons that could be discussed, but traveling around downtown and areas west of I-65 would lead one to ask whether anything has changed since 1955. I can only imagine what Booker T. Washington would write today, 104 years after his visionary book Up From Slavery if he were to take a walk through the streets of West Birmingham. The poverty is blatant. The crime is daunting. There is a feeling of hopelessness on these streets that calls for fresh thinking and something to be done in 2005.

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