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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Birmingham: A Return to Environmental Racism

Updated: May 4, 2019

By Donald V. Watkins

©Copyrighted and Published on May 3, 2019

In May of 1933, Birmingham, Alabama City Engineer A.J. Hawkins released a city map that ranked its neighborhoods and communities as follows:

1. Best

2. Still Desirable

3. Definitely Declining

4. Hazardous

5. Negro Concentration

6. Commercial and Industrial

7. Undeveloped

Black neighborhoods were deemed less desirable than those areas that were contaminated with hazardous waste. All-white city, county, and state public officials ran the state of Alabama in 1933. Jim Crow laws and customs were rigidly enforced.

Black Birmingham residents could do very little to improve the quality of their neighborhoods. The delivery of basic city services to “Negro Concentration” neighborhoods was pretty much an afterthought. Yet, this did not stop these residents from trying to improve their communities and plight in life.

By the 1960s, blacks in Birmingham decided that they were willing to face fire hoses, police dogs, church bombings, home bombings, and death in order to end the sweltering heat of Jim Crow oppression. Martin Luther King wrote about the suffocating conditions of racial segregation in his infamous 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail."

Birmingham played a pivotal role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The Voting Rights Act made it possible for blacks in the South to register to vote and elect candidates of their choice to public office. Over time, the Voting Rights Act changed the color, face, and responsiveness of state and local governments throughout Alabama and across the South.

In 1979, Birmingham elected Dr. Richard Arrington, Jr. as its first black mayor. With his election, the civil rights movement that began in the streets had been ushered into City Hall. City government became inclusive, responsive, and progressive in all facets of municipal services, and in all neighborhoods.

During his 20 years as mayor, U.S. News and Report named Arrington as one of the nation’s five best mayors. In 1982, the Alabama Society of Public Administrators selected Arrington as “The Alabama Administrator of the Year”. In 1988, the National Urban Coalition named Arrington, “The Nation’s Most Distinguished Mayor”. The city was growing, thriving and moving toward equality under Arrington’s leadership.

Arrington’s election paved the way for more blacks to win elections in Jefferson County. For the first time ever, black neighborhoods and communities in Birmingham could see and feel the delivery of equitable city services. Politicians had to earn and respect the black vote.

Oliver Robinson Cracked the Door Open for Modern-Day Environmental Racism

In 1998, the residents of the House District 58 in the Alabama Legislature elected Oliver Robinson as their candidate of choice to advance and protect their political interests, including their right to live in safe and clean neighborhoods. Robinson wasted no time in selling them out to Birmingham’s corporate elite. He quickly gained a notorious reputation in the State House for selling out his constituents.

In 2016, Robinson abruptly resigned from office. He was later charged by federal prosecutors with conspiracy, bribery, fraud, and tax evasion. Robinson was sentenced to prison after pleading guilty in September 2017 to one count of conspiracy, one count of bribery, four counts of fraud, and one count of tax evasion.

During the course of Robinson’s criminal trial, the public learned that he accepted money from business interests associated with industrial polluters in exchange for his opposition to community and regulatory efforts to designate polluted black neighborhoods in North Birmingham as EPA Superfund sites. In effect, Oliver Robinson was paid by the polluters and their business cronies to keep the old “Negro Concentration” neighborhoods below the “Hazardous” neighborhoods.

Steven Hoyt Exposes a Resurgence in Environmental Racism

Last month, Birmingham City Councilor Steven Hoyt, a three-term council member who represents District 8, exposed a plan by Sherman Industries to relocate a concrete manufacturing facility from its downtown location to a stable black residential neighborhood in the Five Points West community. According to an April 26, 2019 letter written by Hoyt, the relocation plan has the support of Mayor Randall Woodfin and his administration.

Councilor Hoyt’s letter states:

“Because of the negative environmental impact stemming from this company’s line of work, they were asked to relocate from downtown in an effort to reduce the impact on residents in and around Railroad Park and Regions Field. It is no secret that the residents there are predominantly white. Now, this company is being urged to in what I’d consider to be the heart of the black community in Birmingham.”

Councilor Hoyt accused Woodfin and his administration of perpetuating the vestiges of “environmental racism” with Sherman Industries' relocation plan. He noted that the concrete facility would be located directly across the street from a daycare center that provides care for 35 to 40 children. He also pointed out that the facility would be located next to the Regions Bank building and one of the City’s major investments at the CrossPlex.

Finally, Councilor Hoyt informed Mayor Woodfin that the relocation plan is a “prime example of the zoning plague that still grips our city, one that is a direct result of Birmingham’s history of bad leadership and segregation.”

Steven Hoyt is absolutely right in opposing the relocation of the concrete facility to a stable residential neighborhood. It is well-documented that concrete manufacturing facilities release toxins in the air and soil that can be extremely dangerous to the health and safety of humans in surrounding communities.

Unfortunately, Mayor Woodfin’s support for relocating the Sherman Industries’ concrete facility to the Five Points West community perpetuates the kind of environmental racism that is reflected in A.J. Hawkins’ 1933 city map. Because blacks were viewed as sub-human in 1933, Birmingham city officials forced them to live in residential neighborhoods that were located between lands that were used to dump commercial volumes of hazardous waste and those that were zoned for heavy commercial and industrial use.

Eighty-six years after A.J. Hawkins diagramed the neighborhoods and depicted the zoning decisions of Birmingham’s all-white segregationist city commissioners in 1933, Birmingham’s neophyte black mayor and majority black city council seem ready to breathe new life into the racist zoning decisions of their eight-decades-old predecessors in office. Hoyt appears to be the lone fighter against the concrete facility relocation plan.

Why Won't They Fight for Us?

Steven Hoyt’s exposé raises hard questions that demand straight answers from Birmingham city officials. Here are a few:

Why would Mayor Woodfin and a majority of the city council repeat North Birmingham’s tragic experience with environmental racism in the Five Points West community?

Why would black city officials (and their white council colleagues) jeopardize the lives and safety of men, women and children in the Five Points West community to accommodate a known polluter that is seeking sanctuary in a black residential neighborhood?

When will the mayor and other city council members join Councilor Steven Hoyt and put an end to the modern-day environmental racism that slowly poisons black residential neighborhoods?

Finally, why won't they fight for us?

PHOTO: In May of 1933, Birmingham, Alabama City Engineer A.J. Hawkins released a city map that ranked its neighborhoods and communities. The map is depicted below.

PHOTO: The Legend for delineating environmental racism and redlining on A.J. Hawkins' 1933 city map appears below.

PHOTO: District 8 City Councilor Steve Hoyt's April 26, 2019 letter to Mayor Randall Woodfin.

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