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A Heart of Steel

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George R. Leighton, “Birmingham, Alabama: The City of Perpetual Promise,” Harper’s Magazine, August 1937

A professor at Auburn University recently wrote me. “You’ve been chronicling developments in Birmingham quite a bit lately. But are you aware this is a Harper’s tradition? You should go read George R. Leighton’s biography of the city published in 1937. It’s the best portrait that’s ever been offered of Birmingham, and the best writing in that era about Alabama, generally.” Leighton’s name had a vague ring to it. He was a man who painted urban landscapes in prose and who had an obsession with fairs and expositions. He also wrote a significant account of the Mexican Revolution and a sardonic masterpiece in the form of a Thanksgiving Day proclamation for Herbert Hoover in 1931. He published twenty-two articles in Harper’s in the mid-twentieth century, and was also a regular contributor to The New Yorker. I have looked through the archives in the last couple of days, but haven’t been able to pull up too much biographical data about Leighton, though he seems to have been very widely traveled and to have had a fascination with America’s heartland. California State University at Fresno acquired the Leighton archives quite recently.

But my correspondent was right. Leighton’s piece on Birmingham is amazing reading. It’s not the sort of thing the Chamber of Commerce would want to reproduce or excerpt, but it’s not a slam piece either. If Leighton’s writing has one consistent theme it is concern about the place’s unrealized potential.

In a mountain wilderness, laid in a region
devastated by war and inhabited
by bankrupts, a group of speculators and
industrialists in 1871 founded a city and
peopled it with two races afraid of each
other. This town, without parallel anywhere,
was Birmingham, Alabama. Also
without parallel were its natural resources;
for here, lying side by side as they
do nowhere else in the world, are the
necessary constituents of steel-coal, iron,
and limestone. Birmingham is a Southern
city and now one of the most populous.
The word Southern implies a past,
a past going back to Calhoun and slavery
wealth. Birmingham has no such past;
when Sherman was marching from Atlanta
to the sea Birmingham did not exist.
Many of the frontier towns of the West
were booming before Birmingham was
born, and Denver, another mineral town,
had visions of grandeur while Birmingham
was still a cornfield and a swamp.

The story of this town, a stepchild of
the Civil War, is strange; it is a city of
perpetual promise. The promise lies in
the almost inexhaustible mineral deposits.
In 1872 Abram S. Hewitt, the iron
master, declared: “The fact is plain.
Alabama is to be the manufacturing center
of the habitable globe.” John W.
Bet-a-Million Gates thought in 1906 that
within twenty years Birmingham would
have a population of a million and be the
largest city in America not on navigable
waters. It did not happen so. In 1919
Henry Clay Frick said that by 1940 Birmingham
would be bigger than Pittsburgh.
There is now no prospect of it.
In January, 1937, an engineer told the assembled
Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions
Clubs of the city that Alabama was a State
to conjure with, that it was abundant in
potential wealth. Potential wealth!

Leighton sketches Birmingham’s birth and development. It sprang from an influx of Northern capital keen to exploit a fertile environment. Like Atlanta, Birmingham offered a significant railhead and junction, and the essential resources of the steel industry. And it had an abundant source of terribly cheap human material. North Alabama, where the majority of the state’s population sits, was dirt poor and economically depressed. And significantly, from the perspective of the industrialists, labor agitators were not likely to have an easy time of it there thanks to the political dominance of the Bourbon forces which were historically centered in the state’s south. So what attracted men like Gates and Frick was the potential for easily turned profit with a minimum of political complications. Let’s say the attitude these industrialists took towards Birmingham and its people was bluntly predatory. But that’s not to say that the black-and-white drawings of these entrepreneurs as sharks in human guise is accurate either. The American left in the early twentieth century vilified the Fricks and Carnegies, and people like Emma Goldman brought crowds to their feet with dramatic denunciations of their perfidy. But these industrialists of the Gilded Age had a sense of civic responsibility and were also models of philanthropy. Northern cities like New York and Pittsburg are filled with libraries, museums, universities, theaters and scientific institutions that their money endowed and enriched. But what about Birmingham? Alas, no more than a couple of crumbs for the table. Birmingham was neglected, and Birmingham neglected its own.

Birmingham, at the
time of the last census [1930], had 259,000 inhabitants.
But in the list of those ninety-four
towns [with a population of 100,000 and over], Birmingham, according to the
most recent figures, stood at the very bottom
in per capita public expenditures; it
was eighth from the bottom in the amount
spent on education, sixth from the bottom
in appropriations for public health.
It had one of the highest homicide rates in
the country–not long ago it was known as
the Murder Capital of the World. Its
venereal disease rate was similarly high–one
survey found more syphilis among
the Negroes than the Whites, more gonorrhea
among the Whites than among the
Negroes. In 1935 the venereal disease
rate, in proportion to population, was
higher than in any other city in the country
but one. It numbered more illiterates
among its inhabitants than any other
city in the country with a population between
two and three hundred thousand.
Among those same cities Birmingham had
in 1935 by a wide margin the lowest
spendable income; its housing condition
was about as bad.

Leighton furnishes a solid description of the economic and social history of the hinterland, Alabama’s hilly and largely white north. This belt had been settled by small-scale yeomen farmers. Slavery had been uncommon. As the civil war broke out, this area bitterly resented the secessionist slaveholding planters of the state’s south. “When Alabama seceded from the Union on January 11, 1861, Winston County seceded from Alabama.” Those are the words that Harper Lee wrote in chapter 2 of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I remember my grandfather quoting them to me as a way of making a point. The idea of the Solid South that rose for the Confederacy was a myth. In the north, animosity towards the planters who created the Confederacy was uniform and sympathy for the union was commonplace.

But Leighton chronicles the process of mythmaking and the anti-intellectualism of the area–as Leighton rather gently puts it, “Southern hospitality has never extended to ideas.” The Bourbon forces held political power, capital and most of the media in Alabama, and they wielded that power ruthlessly. They fully understood the lesson that George Orwell would teach at the end of World War II, namely, “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” So they set out to change the historical understanding of the place, and particularly of the impoverished whites of the state’s north. The area was still a breeding grounds for populism in the era of Reconstruction and in the early decade of the Twentieth Century. As Leighton records, the era of the New Deal was its last Hurrah. But the Bourbons played their cards very effectively. The trump card, and the bane of Alabama politics, was race.

Through manipulation
and intimidation most of the Negroes
since Reconstruction had voted as they
had been told, if they voted at all. But if
the farmers in their desperation should
reach out for this vote–as they were doing
in Texas–then the fat was in the fire. As
the cry of White supremacy was raised,
lynchings in Alabama mounted to their
high mark–twenty-four in ’91 and the
same number in ’92. Bourbon exhortation
took effect; in Birmingham Colonel
Milner contributed a pamphlet to the
cause: “White Men of Alabama Stand
Together.” The bewildered, harassed
farmers began to yield, the panic became
a rout. In ’95 at the Atlanta Cotton Exposition
Booker Washington of Alabama
announced the Negro’s surrender, and
in the next year, the Waterloo of agrarians
everywhere, the Bourbons determined to
rivet their control for good and all.

Race was used consistently to block populism in the state’s north, to fragment its voter base, to undermine any efforts that challenged Bourbon political control. And it evolved into the state’s Jim Crow laws and tradition of brutal racism, among the region’s worst.

The Southern people, black and white, are
poor and every influence has been to keep
them so, The concomitants of this poverty
have been illiteracy and bigotry, inheritances
from the slave system, consolidated
by the Civil War. Against terrific
handicaps some of this has been overcome,
but much remains. The evil done by
years of Jim Crow poison is incalculable;
the social cost of “keeping the nigger in
his place” is beyond computation. For
sixty years the Bourbons and the absentee
landlords have ruled the South and they
have all but wrung it dry.

These words would, in 1937, have been bitterly contested by the typical Bourbon apologist and indeed, they provoked an unusual level of hate mail, as reflected in the October edition. But today they pass pretty easily for an accepted history of the period. And even at the time, Victor Hanson, writing an editorial response to Harper’s in the Birmingham News grudgingly acknowledged this:

The article tells a great deal of the truth
about us, as another man sees it, and the truth, as he
sees it, sometimes hurts.

It strikes me that today’s Birmingham News is considerably less a force for positive change and less accepting of the painful truth than its proud predecessor.

In a sense, Birmingham was the crucible for the socio-political process that Leighton describes. It was the site where the risk of populism was greatest and where racism was wielded to greatest effect to obstruct the emergence of any political structures that genuinely reflected the interests of the population.

As is the wont of human history, some real flashes of brilliance emerged from this crucible. One was Hugo L. Black, whose own life’s story mirrors the process that Leighton recounts, and who may well be Birmingham’s greatest citizen of the last century. Black was born in a poor and remote town in Clay County, and was drawn very early on by the vibrancy and economic promise of Birmingham. He launched a legal practice, and he specialized in defending workers—notably including Blacks—against the predatory practices of industrialists. He served for a while as a prosecutor, and then went into elective politics where he was very successful and a tenacious adversary of the Bourbon forces. Black well reflects the conflicted nature of the rural north Alabama mindset. It’s commonplace among legal commentators today, looking at Black’s prodigious output as a jurist, to say that he can’t really be pigeonholed as a “liberal” or a “conservative.” He was in some respects one of the most aggressive civil libertarians in the Court’s history. But he was also the author of the infamous Korematsu case, in which some scholars have seen traces of a biography that included membership in the Ku Klux Klan and race-baiting.

Leighton is writing just as Birmingham’s most famous son is in the process of being appointed to the Supreme Court. I suspect that the rise of Hugo L. Black may have had something to do with the editor’s decision to publish this remarkable urban biography. And it may also have inspired the upbeat ending to Leighton’s piece:

That numbers
of Southern people, despite the odds
against them, have yet refused to lose
heart is evidence of a magnificent courage.
A resolute labor movement is at last under
way, some genuine co-operation between
blacks and whites has begun.
These are positive signs of social health
and if they succeed they may turn the region
toward a brighter future. And if
that does come about, if Birmingham, the
city of perpetual promise, at last comes
into its own, then so much the more must
we remember the brave men and women,
living and dead, who sometimes alone,
sometimes by twos and threes, refused to
give way before ignorance, fear, and rapacity;
who with all the shortcomings to
which human flesh is heir, yet wrought
with tireless hands through crowded days
and sometimes gave their lives that
“equal justice to all men of whatever
state or persuasion” might actually come
to pass in a region where democracy never
had a chance.

As we leap forward now, seven decades, the economic and social development of Birmingham is undeniable. The path forward was turbulent, especially through the civil rights era, when Birmingham got the name “Bombingham” because of the brutal attacks on its Black community. One young Black girl from Birmingham who remembers the terror and conflict of those days, Condoleezza Rice, is now the Secretary of State. It is both fitting and paradox that the best known figure to come out of the city after Hugo L. Black is a female academic from the city’s once repressed minority community, a conservative Republican better known for her interest in Eastern Europe than Alabama.

On the other hand, the dynamics of politics and society in Birmingham today continue to show strong ties to the past. The Bourbon political forces that once dominated the state’s Democratic Party have largely migrated to the Republican Party. They continue, as before, to reflect the interests of the state’s south while the state’s north, though more populous, never seems to muster quite the same level of political clout. Alabama’s difficult wrestling with basic ideas of the rule of law continues. There is no other place in the union in which political forces of both stripes run so quickly to prosecution as a political tool, something which points to a fundamental weakness in the state’s political culture. And the state’s dominant print media continues to be in the lethal grips of a Bourbon past, out of step with the state’s realities and its prospects, playing a largely destructive role in Alabama’s social and political development.

Tonight CBS 60 Minutes will be taking an important look deep into Alabama politics, and particularly into the sordid intersection between politics and the justice process which has been logged extensively in this space. It will be a rare and important glimpse at Alabama for the national stage. The portrait drawn will be very critical. But there are plenty of positive things to note. We will hear from a number of figures who highlight the way the system has been abused for political reasons. Keep in mind that almost all of the figures who are talking are Republicans who are criticizing misdeeds done in the interest of their own party. That’s a positive sign.

And recently news has come out of Alabama that would warm the heart of George Leighton and prove that his vision of an Alabama immune to the politics of race and hatred is drawing near, if it has not in fact arrived. It’s an astonishing story out of Cullman, the lily-White northern end of the Birmingham conurbation, and a spot historically linked to the Ku Klux Klan and vicious racism. I first heard about this in a phone conversation with a Republican lawyer in Montgomery. “I don’t like to see us lose a seat,” he said, “but I have to admit, I paused and felt very proud of those voters in Cullman. They were sending a message, and a page was turned in this state’s politics.” Here’s an account that Adam Nossiter offered in the New York Times two days back:

The racial breakthroughs have come gingerly in Alabama over the years: a black mayor there, an old Klansman put on trial here, a civil rights memorial there. And a few weeks ago, voters in a county that is more than 96 percent white chose a genial black man, James Fields, to represent them in the State House of Representatives. It is a historic first, but the moment is full of awkwardness. “Really, I never realize he’s black,” said a white woman in a restaurant, smiling.

“He’s black?” asked Lou Bradford, a white Cullman police officer, jokingly. “You know, I don’t even see him as black,” said another of Mr. Fields’s new white constituents, Perry Ray, the mayor of one of the county’s villages, Dodge City.

A woman congratulates Mr. Fields as he stops in traffic, and afterward, he shakes his head ruefully: “Sometimes, I have to pinch myself: ‘Am I really black?’ ” Yet in a state once synonymous with racial strife, there is no denying this milestone, for all its tentativeness. Everyone — the voter in Cullman, the Alabama politician, the local historian — is rubbing his or her eyes, a little.

A point Mr. Nossiter misses: Cullman is not only 96% White, it is also overwhelmingly Republican, and the G.O.P. had fielded a well-regarded candidate with a solid budget for the election. They had assumed that a Black Democrat was a non-starter. And they were delivered a rude shock.

And on Super Tuesday, a few days later, Alabama Democrats went to the polls and picked Barack Obama as their candidate for president. In fact, no one thought much of it.

Birmingham may indeed still be a city of perpetual promise. But some of those promises are now being realized.

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