Learning from Birmingham: A Journey Into History and Home

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A steel town daughter's search for truth and beauty in Birmingham, Alabama

"As Birmingham goes, so goes the nation," Fred Shuttlesworth observed when he invited Martin Luther King Jr. to the city for the transformative protests of 1963. From the height of the Civil Rights Movement through its long aftermath, images of police dogs, fire hoses and four girls murdered when Ku Klux Klan members bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church have served as an uncomfortable racial mirror for the nation. Like many white people who came of age in the Civil Rights Movement's wake, Julie Buckner Armstrong knew little about this history. Only after moving away and discovering writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker did she realize how her hometown and family were part of a larger, ongoing story of struggle and injustice.

When Armstrong returned to Birmingham decades later to care for her aging mother, Shuttlesworth's admonition rang in her mind. By then an accomplished scholar and civil rights educator, Armstrong found herself pondering the lessons Birmingham holds for a twenty-first century America. Those lessons extended far beyond what a 2014 Teaching Tolerance report describes as the common distillation of the Civil Rights Movement into "two names and four words: Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, and 'I have a dream.'" Seeking to better understand a more complex local history, its connection to broader stories of oppression and resistance, and her own place in relation to it, Armstrong embarked on a journey to unravel the standard Birmingham narrative to see what she would find.

Beginning at the center, with her family's 1947 arrival to a housing project near the color line, within earshot of what would become known as Dynamite Hill, Armstrong works her way over time and across the map. Weaving in stories of her white working-class family, classmates, and others not traditionally associated with Birmingham's civil rights history, including members of the city's LGBTQ community, she forges connections between the familiar and lesser-known. The result is a nuanced portrait of Birmingham--as seen in public housing, at old plantations, in segregated neighborhoods, across contested boundary lines, over mountains, along increasingly polluted waterways, beneath airport runways, on highways cutting through town, and under the gaze of the iconic statue of Vulcan.

In her search for truth and beauty in Birmingham, Armstrong draws on the powers of place and storytelling to dig into the cracks, complicating easy narratives of civil rights progress. Among the discoveries she finds in America's racial mirror is a nation that has failed to recognize itself in the horrific images from Birmingham's past and to acknowledge the continuing inequalities that make up the Civil Right's Movement's unfinished business. Learning from Birmingham reminds us that stories of civil rights, structural oppression, privilege, abuse, race and gender bias, and inequity are difficult and complicated, but their telling, especially from multiple stakeholder perspectives, is absolutely necessary.