There’s No Place Like Birmingham


Written by Joey Kennedy

 When I moved from Louisiana to Alabama 41 years ago, I didn’t know much about Birmingham.

I was as curious then as I am now, but I was moving to Cullman, to work for the Cullman Times, so I focused my research on Cullman.

What I knew about Birmingham was that it was famous for college football and the Civil Rights Movement. That’s about it.

Oh, and one other item. This 1974 song by Randy Newman:

“Birmingham Birmingham

The greatest city in Alabam’

You can travel ’cross this entire land

But there’s no place like Birmingham.”

After four years, though, I’d moved from Cullman to Pell City to Anniston, and, finally, to the greatest city in Alabam’ in 1981 to work for The Birmingham News. I was thrilled to be here, the big city for me, and really began to learn the ‘Ham.

I was one of those reporters who spent time in the newspaper’s library reading old newspaper clips. I’d drive all over Jefferson County, getting to know the lay of the land.

I decided then, in my early years at The News, that there was no other city for me. Birmingham is big enough to find plenty to do, yet small enough to drive across town in 10 or 15 minutes, if one didn’t hit a rush hour.

Since coming to the city, my wife, Veronica, and I have never lived outside Birmingham proper. We’ve lived on the east side, the southwest side and, now, on the Southside, right behind UAB.

Like most young journalists who do their jobs well, I had other job offers, at bigger cities and bigger newspapers, but why? We were happy in Birmingham, and still are.

For the longest time, Birmingham simply would not positively acknowledge its history involving the Civil Rights Movement, the water cannons, the dogs. The News, in the early and mid-1960s, didn’t do a great job covering the movement. But the national media did, during the marches downtown led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth.

And then in September 1963, the terrible bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church left four little girls dead and others injured. The world was watching.

Joan Baez commemorated that tragedy a year later:

“Come round by my side and I’ll sing you

a song,

Sing it so softly, it’ll do no one wrong.

Birmingham Sunday, the blood ran like wine

And the choirs kept singing of freedom …

On Birmingham Sunday a noise shook

the ground,

And people all over the earth turned around.

For no one recalled a more cowardly sound,

And the choirs kept singing of freedom.”

Finally, in the early 1990s, led by Birmingham’s first African-American mayor Richard Arrington Jr., the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute opened. It draws visitors from all over the place, but if you live in Birmingham or nearby and haven’t been there, you are missing out. The Civil Rights Institute had plenty of opposition, but mainly from those who’d rather ignore the city’s vital history than be forced to acknowledge it.

Indeed, now the Birmingham Civil Rights District is a cultural tourism destination and a designated National Monument. Visitors and residents alike can follow the Civil Rights Trail throughout Birmingham to various important sites in the city.

For many of us, we’re proud of the role Birmingham played in the Civil Rights Movement, though much of that history is brutally painful.

Oh, there was another song I’d heard before coming here, but not one I’d really listened to until I arrived: “Sweet Home Alabama,” with one verse in particular:

“In Birmingham they love the Gov’nor,

boo-hoo-hoo.

Now we all did what we could do.

Now Watergate does not bother me

Does your conscience bother you, tell

the truth.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd, a Florida band, didn’t know the city’s history very well. Before living here, I thought maybe the people did love the governor, George C. Wallace. But after I got here, I learned that, indeed, not only did the people not like Wallace, but Wallace didn’t like Birmingham. It’s one reason Wallace made sure the city was the last place in Alabama where the Interstate Highway System was completed—and that, after I’d moved to the state.

Today, Birmingham has come a long way. Yes, we have challenges—rundown neighborhoods, crime, roads and bridges. But residents are moving back into the city, too. They’re living in condos and apartments downtown or on the edges. We’re one of the best foodie cities in the nation, known better now for our restaurants than football. We have some of the most outstanding green spaces of anywhere. Our museums and restored theatres are amazing.

Years ago, Birmingham moved away from the steel and other polluting industries it needed to survive, toward service industries, high tech, and education that are helping it grow. UAB  is one of the nation’s better research and medical centers. The city and area are attracting high-tech jobs and will soon have a large Amazon distribution facility. In 2021, we host the World Games.

Birmingham struggled for the longest time, trying to overcome poor leadership, a weak economy, a poor reputation.

While it is not always easy to recruit workers to the city, once people visit, they very often are surprised at what they find. Birmingham may not have arrived yet, but it’s arriving.

And Randy Newman’s 1974 song is more true than ever:

“Birmingham Birmingham

The greatest city in Alabam’

You can travel ‘cross this entire land

But there’s no place like

Birmingham.”

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