February 6, 2014

Birmingham, 50 Years Forward

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As we celebrate Black History Month, I remember when my beloved Birmingham was known as Bombingham.

From the 1890s to the early 1960s, almost half of Birmingham’s population was black. But only 15 percent of the city land was zoned for them. Most of the areas where they were forced to live were often located in undesirableareas: next to railroad tracks, heavy industrial complexes and flood-prone creeks. The rest and the best of Birmingham’s residential areas were zoned for whites.

In 1963, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the events of that year in Birmingham, Alabama, revealed the best and worst that humanity had to offer, as some of Birmingham’s most courageous citizens non-violently protested, were beaten, arrested and died to release their city from the terrible grip of hatred and discrimination.

Tired of being forced to live in slums and crowded neighborhoods, some middle-class Black families took matters into their own hands. Among its egregious acts to restrict Blacks, the Birmingham City Commission used its power to issue or revoke building permits to prevent “construction of Negro housing contiguous to White neighborhoods.” At least 50 bombings had been launched on Black Americans in Birmingham in less than 20 years. One neighborhood was targeted so many times it was nicknamed “Dynamite Hill.” The city itself became known nationally as “Bombingham.”

Birmingham’s commemoration of its Civil Rights Movement last year was part of the city’s 50 Years Forward campaign that served as remembrance of several milestone events that occurred in 1963.  50 Years Forward came together to memorialize “The Movement That Changed The World” and to celebrate those who sacrificed so much to make it happen, armed with nothing more than hope in their hearts, a prayer on their lips, and the winds of freedom at their backs.

Among the events, the U.S. Conference of Mayors hosted a panel discussion at the historic 16th Street Baptist Church, which was bombed during the Civil Rights Movement on what strides have been made since. Former Secretary of State and Birmingham native Condoleezza Rice led a discussion with world leaders on how the movement impacted their countries. Further events honored the movement leaders, foot soldiers and the four girls killed during the 16th Street Baptist Church blast. I was privileged to be among those community leaders recognized by the Birmingham National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP.

The 50 Years Forward campaign now moves into 2014 to commemorate how events here sparked the beginning of the end of a centuries-long struggle for freedom in the United States that led to the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Birmingham’s Civil Rights Heritage Trail Program will include more than 200 interpretive signs across 4 districts, including the Dynamite Hill District that focuses on the March for Fair Housing. This Trail Program marks the first in any American city where life-sized signs of the movement have been re-inserted into the spots where the original photos were taken more than fifty years ago.

Unfortunately discrimination, presented now in more subtle forms, is still around. We at HUD, along with our partners for the Civil Rights cause, are making strides for a more inclusive society here in Birmingham. From technical assistance to housing providers to help them understand the importance of accessibility and special accommodations, to investigations when a complaint is presented, we train, we seek remedies, and we educate the community.

The latest topics being discussed have been about new and updated federal regulations and policies regarding sexual orientation and gender identity, and national origin discrimination.  Since September of 2012, when for the first time a panel presented the LGBT initiatives of the federal agencies to an audience of affinity groups from the local LGTB community, information and trainings are pouring out to wider audiences. To address the issue of national origin discrimination, the HUD team participates in conferences with non-profit organizations, governmental agencies, the private sector and representatives from minority groups of different national origins. It is slow, it is almost quiet, but it is very powerful. And, it changes lives, for the better.

The greatness of a city is how it overcomes adversity and Birmingham is on the verge of becoming one of America’s Great Cities.

Michael German is HUD’s Field Office Director in Birmingham, Alabama

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