Note: I took this trip during Thanksgiving break last year, but am just getting around to posting about it now.
My good friend Shane moved to Birmingham after getting fed up with the rising prices of the Bay Area. He grew up about an hour away and was ready for a new beginning.
Birmingham made its name from the production of iron. The geology of the surrounding area contains not only iron ore, but also coke (a type of coal), and limestone. This unique combination of locally sourced material, made it an ideal place for business. All three of these ingredients were put into a blast furnace and heated up to high temperatures. The melted iron would be directed into molds. Before they were broken apart, these molds shaped the iron into blocks looked like small piglets suckling the mother pig, which is how the name pig iron was derived.
One local company that produced that iron was Sloss Furnaces, which was open from 1882-1971. For years, Sloss used Black convict labor to undertake the backbreaking and exhausting work of feeding the blast furnace. Make no mistake, this was slavery under a different name. Local white cops worked in collusion with the company so that whenever workers were needed, the police would arrest people under the charge of “vagrancy.” They then had to work off their supposed violation at the furnaces where injuries were common.
Shane told me that back in the day, this place was used for raves and even now, a haunted house is held there every Halloween. The furnaces are now open to the public and visitors can wander into almost every part of the old industrial site.
Shane sent me out on a day of wandering on one of his favorite nature spots in the city, Ruffner Mountain. This was an old iron mine that was generating at its peak about 200 tons of iron ore for Sloss Furnaces. It was originally going to be developed into apartments, but a group of local activists got together and now it is a private nature reserve.
Civil Rights Movement
In addition, Birmingham is known for both the victories and tragedies that occured there during the Civil Rights movement. After being arrested during a protest in April 1963 and frustrated that other clergymen were not engaging or supporting direct action, Martin Luther King published his infamous Letter from a Birmingham Jail. One line in particular continues to echo forward in time: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The famous photo of a teenage boy being attacked by a police dog is from those 1963 Birmingham protests, as are numerous photos of fire hoses being turned on young people. After a solid month of filling the jails with protestors, sometimes with young kids like in the Children’s Crusade, the city eventually agreed to desegregate lunch counters, restrooms, drinking fountains and fitting rooms and to hire black people in stores.
Later that year, angry members of the KKK blew up the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair. I’d heard of this moment, but it wasn’t until I was in Birmingham in the Civil Rights Institute that I could feel the weight of that loss. People had fought so hard and had finally made change, only to watch these young members of their community be murdered in reactionary violence. The similarity to what’s happening today is eerie. The echoes of the past continue to resonate today.