Magazine Feature

A Commitment to Change

A city seeks to heal its history of racial violence.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s thrust Birmingham, Ala., into the national spotlight as a scene of bitter racial conflict. Photographs of Dr. King behind bars, of the bombed-out Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, and of firehoses and police dogs set upon peaceful marchers remain icons of the period, indelibly linking Birmingham with hate.

The image -- and the reality -- of racist violence on their city streets confronted Birmingham residents with a complicated crisis. For Black citizens, the dream of participating in democracy was on the line. In the view of many Whites, including most city officials, an old and cherished concentration of power was in jeopardy. Some Whites actively supported the African American community's appeal for justice. But for one group -- downtown merchants -- the moral and political tensions presented an economic emergency, as well: Shoppers' fears had left the city's commercial district a ghost town.

Early efforts at renewing downtown Birmingham played primarily on this economic angle, but a few business leaders recognized the need to heal old wounds that recent events had opened. After years of working behind the scenes, and with the strong urging of Black leaders, the group "went public" in 1969 to establish the biracial Community Affairs Committee (CAC), under the sponsorship of an older organization called Operation New Birmingham.

Now in its 30th year, the CAC -- comprising business, civic and religious leaders -- meets every Monday morning at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to discuss community concerns and to develop concrete ways of bringing the races together. The group's latest project is the Birmingham Pledge.

Since its introduction at the city's annual Martin Luther King Unity Breakfast in January 1998, the Pledge has gathered thousands of signatures in Birmingham, as well as across the U.S. and around the world. President and Mrs. Clinton and numerous other dignitaries are among the signers. The participation of young people is especially critical in the effort to stamp out racial prejudice and discord, and the Pledge sponsors have been impressed with the commitment exhibited by students who choose to add their name.

By signing the Birmingham Pledge, keeping a copy for yourself and mailing the original to the CAC, you can join a national campaign that began as a simple vision of hope for one community. CAC encourages teachers, students, parents and others to make copies of the Pledge and distribute it wherever they deem appropriate. Signed Pledges returned to the CAC will appear in a registry at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Should you have questions about the Birmingham Pledge or would like to sponsor your own Pledge drive, call (205) 324-8797 for more information.

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