Two different times in 1991, I stood in a Birmingham, Alabama, concert arena and watched as Public Enemy acted out hanging a KKK member.
Think about that for a minute. Less than 30 years after four little girls lost their lives in ‘Bombingham,’ young people in Birmingham stood and cheered as members of Public Enemy lynched and hung a KKK member on stage.
Yet, one year later, HBO’s America Undercover documentary featuring Birmingham skinheads debuted. At best it revealed an honest threat to the area. At worst it was sensationalist trash that fed on the horrific history and reputation of our fair city. Created with no time stamp, and frequently replayed on cable channels over the next two decades, it would unfortunately help reinforce the nation’s view of Birmingham for years.
Black and white; love and hate; history and reputation. It’s no stretch to say that true legends walked the streets of Birmingham. Before Vietnam and before Iraq, a real war was fought here in our city. The weapons were unconventional, the generals were preachers and politicians and the soldiers were often young children … but it was a real war none the less. And real wars always leave scars.
As (almost) a lifetime Birmingham resident, sometimes it seems these scars will take forever to fade. Only decades of rain can hope to wash the blood from the streets where I grew up. Only lasting sunlight will fade the memories of those violent scenes. The actions that played out in our streets – the great words written and spoken by legends here – still have the power to transform this area, and further, our entire country.
That is, if we let them.
In 1991, as I stood starry-eyed watching Chuck and Flav tear ’em down, I truly believed the world had changed. My generation would be different. Like many people my age in Alabama, I had a couple of grandparents that were true racists. Even though their public behavior had changed between 1963 and my birth, their language and beliefs were still the same behind closed doors. Exposed to this behavior frequently as a young child, my parents thankfully took the time to teach me different.
We lived in poor neighborhoods, I had friends of almost every color and I eventually graduated from a Birmingham City School. Exposed to rap, heavy metal, punk and hardcore, I had fallen in love with all types revolutionary music. Music and lyrics not only challenged the beliefs of my family and friends, they pushed me to question my own prejudices, my own reality. As silly as it always sounds, these musicians forced me to search for my own truth.
But now, 20 years later, I sometimes feel more calloused, skeptical and brokenhearted than ever before. It’s hard to put the exact idea into words, but it feels like we have regressed as a culture. In the darkest times, it seems as if the struggles here were all pointless. As part of our society continues pushing forward, looking to the future, trying to make things better, there seems to be an equal force that is staunchly opposed to change.
I guess aging is one issue. Remembering the open and loving things my parents taught me as a child, it’s hard to hear some of my grandparents’ ideals now come from their mouths. A family member who told me the story of crying when JFK was killed now quotes inaccurate “news” reports with regularity and blames immigrants for our country’s problems. Further, classmates who seemed progressive, independent and open-minded 20 years ago now go out of their way to preach the opposite.
Honestly, I just can’t wrap my head around it. My thoughts and opinions on a million issues have changed, often more than once, but how can anyone turn back to hatred and prejudice and promote it as “family values?”
Another particularly disgusting Birmingham example, to me anyway, can be blamed on the Internet. I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but the comments section of al.com regularly fills me with real anger and rage … especially as a previous employee of The Birmingham News. I hate to think that my career in any way supported the filth and hatred being propagated daily on the area’s most prominent website. I’m not sure who these people are, where they come from or how they get access to the Internet, but I do have a message for them.
In a public venue, I want to clearly say: If you don’t like Birmingham, then get the fuck out.
No, seriously, leave. If you are a sniveling al.com poster that cheers after every violent crime, that searches for different ways to spout the same old racist bullshit 40 years after they put Bull in the ground … leave now and don’t come back. We don’t want you in our parks, in our sports venues, in our breweries or near our homes.
This isn’t your city anymore. That war ended decades ago, and you lost. Old George surrendered. You may not believe it, you may not be able to accept it, but this isn’t your home anymore. Things are changing. Things are different. Things are better.
Just know, those hateful, spiteful, disgusting words you post on al.com are real things. They have real consequences. They give real people real opinions about our evolving and growing city that just aren’t true.
When Birmingham’s supporters of all ages gather for public events, celebrations and concerts, we don’t think about you. You aren’t scaring us and you aren’t changing our love for this city.
New business are interested, new opportunities for this city are out there.
And as I look to the future and (dear God) think about where I want to retire, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather live than this city … the city that helped raise me … the city that broke my heart then helped mend it time and time again.
I guess I said all that to say this: I believe we can build a vibrant, successful city … even with small-minded people doing their best to hold us back. I just hope we can create a city that is equal parts compassion and commerce.
It was here, in Birmingham, that love won an actual war. I promise now to my child and my future grandchildren, I won’t forget that. None of us can afford to forget that. Though there will be frequent struggles and setbacks, though we are surrounded by painful, lasting scars, we owe it to ourselves, our families and the world to remember. We must remember the sacrifices, and we must try to create something better.
Now and forever, I love you Birmingham.