Birmingham: The Magic City
LEAH RAWLS ATKINS
Director Emerita, Auburn University
Center for the Arts & Humanities
Down in the valley
The valley so low,
Hear the train whistle
Hear the wind blow.
Write me a letter
Send it by mail,
Send it in care of
The Birmingham Jail.
This version of an old southern ballad is well known in the hill country
of northern Alabama, an area of ridges and valleys between the Piedmont
and the Appalachian Plateau. The city of Birmingham is located in Jones
Valley, below Red Mountain, surrounded by a mineral district rich in iron
ore, coal, and limestone. There are no navigable rivers in the foothills,
so raw materials could not be exploited until the trains came. Trains
are an important part of the history of Birmingham, and anyone growing
up in the city in the first half of the twentieth century would recall
the train whistles and the sounds of clacking wheels and hissing and chugging
steam engines. Birmingham was founded at a railroad crossing, and the
rail lines that zig-zagged through the valley and across the hills connected
mines, mills, and camps to the small core of the city and to the extensive
rail lines that joined the area to the rest of Alabama, to the South,
and to the world. This rowdy young city grew from the labor of entrepreneurs,
miners, men on the make, who occasionally found themselves sobering up
in the Birmingham Jail.
From the time when Alabama became a state in 1819 until the end of the
Civil War in 1865, the valley where the city of Birmingham now stands
was an area of small farms. The pioneers raised corn, and meat came from
hogs and wild animals. Cotton was grown mostly for home use. Every house
had a spinning wheel. Since little cotton could be transported to market
by wagon, there were few slaves in the Alabama hill country, and many
people living there did not support secession or the war against the Union.
But hostilities came, and men went into the Confederate armysome
volunteered, some were conscripted. The iron ore that gave Red Mountain
its name had long been used by county blacksmiths, but in 1861 it was
needed for war materials. With Confederate money men built stone and rock
furnaces to smelt the ore with a flux of limestone from the valley floor.
Fired by charcoal made from the forests of the hills, furnaces produced
pig iron. The iron was sent by wagons to the railhead at Montevallo and
shipped to Selma for the Confederate manufacturing plants and arsenal.
A month before the war's end, Union cavalry invaded the valley,
destroyed the furnaces, stole all the food they could eat or carry, and
passed on, riding south to Selma. The war was over, but men had learned
about the raw materials in the hills of "the mineral district"
of northern Alabama, and they knew railroads were needed to bring this
wealth to market.
And so the railroads were built. In 1871, Birmingham's square blocks
were surveyed in a old corn field where the rail lines crossed. East and
west, north and south, the trains ran, bringing people, mostly men, to
the "Magic City" that had appeared so quickly from vacant farm
land. In the beginning, Birmingham, which was named for the industrial
city of England, was much more like a wild west town of shootouts, bars,
and muddy streets than a southern city of grace and good manners. Immigrants
from Europe joined northern businessmen, freed slaves, ex-Confederates,
and county farmers to seek wealth, first from real estate speculation
and the businesses and jobs it spawned, then from the opening of mines,
the construction of mills, and the building of an industrial economy.
Birmingham was a working town, the only southern city with such a blue-collar-labor
Birmingham was always different from other southern cities. Its Old
South heritage was found only in the memories of its southerners. Birmingham
was proud to be a New South city built upon industry, not upon agriculture.
Its people were diversified long before anyone thought it politically
correct to be so. Catholic churches, which represented German, Irish,
and Italian immigrants, rose next to Jewish synagogues, and all were sprinkled
among the city's predominant Methodist, Southern Baptist, and Presbyterianand
AME Zion and African-American Baptistchurches.
Despite the openness of its opportunities, the city settled down to
a class structure that eventually had the wealthy living on the south
side of town; the white middle class merchants and workers scattered along
the street car lines, east and west; the black middle class occupying
homes that faced the streets in segregated neighborhoods, while black
laborers rented shotgun houses on alleys and white and black laborers
lived in segregated mill villages that dotted the valley or mining camps
in rural areas. By the 1920s, whites were moving farther south, over Red
Mountain into Shades Valley, out of the city.
Violence often punctuated the life of the cityrowdiness and drunks,
pistols fired into the air on Saturday nights. Company deputies or the
state militia put down strikes and labor disputes. City police arrested
violators of the peace, and the law filled the jail behind city hall.
In 1885, the Birmingham Weekly Iron Age reported that "everything
that ever got loose that was in the least wild flocked to Birmingham."
In the early twentieth century, when more space was needed, the city built
a jail several miles into the countryside, a white-washed, larger facility
where prisoners could work raising vegetables and chickens. Jimmy Tarlton
claims he wrote the words to "The Birmingham Jail" when he was
a prisoner there, probably in the 1920s. This was the decade when the
Klu Klux Klan, born again in 1914, was at the height of its power, dominating
the politics of the city. The Klan, whose members advertised themselves
as supporters of morality, paraded down streets in white robes and disciplined
those who violated their code, which included no drinking and no dancing.
Recruiters for labor unions, immigrants, and Catholics were more often
Klan targets in the 1920s than blacks, who, being segregated and denied
the right to vote under provisions of Alabama's Constitution of 1901,
were no real threat to white society.
The economy of the city moved to the rhythm of heavy industry. Iron,
later steel, coal, and related by-products plus manufactured items such
as rails and cast iron pipe brought money into Birmingham. Sounds of exploding
dynamite, used to break up iron ore or open coal shafts, often echoed
above the noises of the city. Smoke billowed into the air and smut and
smog hung so thick that visibility was low. But this meant that the mines
and mills were running, that people were working, so no one complained
that barefoot children had black feet and no one knew the danger of black
lung disease. Southern money, as well as some English capital, fueled
the districtthe Pratt Coal and Coke Company, the Sloss Furnaces,
and the Tennessee, Coal Iron and Railroad Company (TCI). Northern investment
capital came, too, especially after the Panic of 1907 when U.S. Steel
purchased TCI's $1 billion assets in the Birmingham district for
a little over $35 million.
Beneath this racially segregated, hard-labor, class-structured community
there was another world, one of the heart that helped humans, especially
the poor and the oppressed, survive. There was musicsacred harp,
jazz, and country. There was church on Sunday and picnics and all-day
singings, family reunions, and fishing at nearby lakes. And there was
baseball: every company had its teams, black and white, playing in their
segregated industrial leagues. Everyone could play baseball, and four
flour-sack bases and a crude pitcher's mound were in many vacant
lots and cow pastures. Willie Mays, who came out of Birmingham's
Black Barons to become Major League Rookie of the Year in 1951, grew up
playing in the city's industrial leagues.
The popularity of football came later. In the years following the University
of Alabama's 1926 Rose Bowl victory, Birmingham called itself the
Football Capitol of the South. High school football games filled Legion
Field. In 1948, when games were resumed between Auburn and Alabama, the
annual Iron Bowl drew thousands into the city.
In 1929 the Great Depression brought the city to its knees, iron furnaces
went cold, and relief lines were long, but New Deal programs helped bring
recovery. After the war began in Europe in 1939, orders for iron and steel
stimulated the economy of the city, and when the nation went to war in
1941, steel mills went to three shifts a day. After the war ended, TCI
with 35,000 people was the largest employer in the county. In the years
ahead, however, its mills became obsolete, and foreign competition too
tough; by 1980 little remained of the once vast industrial complex. The
passing of iron and steel brought a more diversified economy.
During the war, the Alabama legislature noted that the state had no accredited
medical school, and in 1943 it funded a University of Alabama medical
college that was located in Birmingham, attached to the large new Jefferson
Hospital and the city's old charity hospital, Hillman. The University
offered courses in a Birmingham extension center as early as 1936 and
in 1955 established a branch campus as the University of Alabama in Birmingham.
Within four decades UAB, including the medical and dental schools, was
the largest employer in the county, and medical services had become one
of the major businesses of the city. With the EPA and economic diversification
the smoke over the valley was gone.
In many ways, World War II cast the first blows against segregation, but
few noticed immediately. When Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her seat
on a Montgomery bus in 1955, Birmingham's black citizens watched,
talked, organized, and went to court. As a result so many African-American
homes were dynamited in one section of the city that the area was called
"Dynamite Hill." The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, among others,
formed the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights to spearhead the
civil rights struggle. The move to destroy segregation in the city reached
its height in 1963 with sit-ins and marches. City Police Commissioner
Eugene "Bull" Connor was determined to uphold the city's
segregation code despite the fact that he had lost in the recent election,
the results of which were being contested in the courts.
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. came to town, marched in defiance
of a court injunction, was arrested, and was sent to Birmingham's
white-washed jail where years before a ballad writer had penned his plaintive
song. Down at Kelly Ingram Park, Bull Connor met the marchers, many of
them children, and used water from fire hoses and police dogs to turn
From jail, King wrote a letter to the eight white religious leaders
who had called for the demonstrations to be delayed until a new city government
could be seated. His communication was smuggled out of the jail in bits
and pieces. In the weeks ahead the pieces were put together in one essay.
King's "Letter from the Birmingham Jail" became a significant
document of the civil rights movement and a classic in protest literature.
The jail known so well in song now was known in essay, too.
A few months later, in September 1963, a bomb was placed at the Sixteenth
Street Baptist Church and four little girls were killed in the explosion.
This was the beginning of the end to segregation in the city. The city's
new leadership made a commitment to build a New Birmingham. In 1968, civil
rights attorney Arthur Shores was appointed to a vacancy on the city council,
and in 1979, Miles College professor Dr. Richard Arrington was sworn in
as Birmingham's first black mayor.
In 2002 Birmingham is 131 years old, but what most people remember about
Birmingham is what happened in 1963. For decades the Magic City was chafed
by its segregationist reputation and haunted by its past. In Robert Penn
Warren's novel All the King's Men, the narrator tells
his lost love who is facing a new life:
I tried to tell her how if you could not accept the past and
its burden, there was no future, for without one there cannot be the other,
and how if you could accept the past you might hope for the future, for
only out of the past can you make the future.
It has taken a while, but white and black citizens have finally come
to terms with Birmingham's past. The new Civil Rights Institute is
a memorial and a reminder of shared history. Southern historian Wayne
Flynt once wrote that "we can mythologize and distort the past, we
can fight with it and denounce it, or we can lie down with it easily,
wrap it around us as comfortably as a shawl before a roaring winter fire.
The one thing we cannot do is to escape its tenacious grasp." That
is something Birmingham understands.