Donald V. Watkins
Open Letter to Birmingham’s Black Community
Updated: May 9, 2019
By Donald V. Watkins ©Copyrighted and Published on May 1, 2019
It’s time for me to engage in some straight talk with Birmingham, Alabama’s black community. I am not going to sugarcoat the messages in this Open Letter. After all, the sincerest form of loyalty is constructive criticism.
Today, Birmingham’s mayor is black. Six of the nine members on the city council and city school board are black. All five park board members are black.
For the reasons explained in this Open Letter, these black public officials are failing their constituents. I know my Open Letter will upset some people in City Hall, but I must be truthful about where things stand in Birmingham today and why.
During the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, African-Americans in Birmingham could legitimately blame their precarious socio-economic conditions on more than a century of suffocating and strictly enforced racial segregation and discrimination in Alabama. Today, I am laying the blame for the deteriorating socio-economic conditions in Birmingham's African-American community squarely at the feet of the city’s majority black public officials.
Privately, these city officials complain that “white racism” is keeping them from improving the socio-economic plight of blacks in Birmingham. That’s “bullshit.”
A School System that Fails Black Students
When the Birmingham public schools were racially segregated (by law) and chronically underfunded (by custom) in the 1950s and early 1960s, Parker High School, Ullman High School, George Washington Carver High School, and Wenonah High School consistently produced thousands of gifted students each year who perform successfully in the most competitive collegiate settings and who went on to positively impacted every aspect of American society. The student bodies at these schools were all-black. The faculty and staffs were all-black.
Yet, the sheer grit, perseverance, intellectual acumen, and determination of these overachieving students, teachers, and administrators lifted the quality of life for all Americans. To their credit, they never offered a lame excuse as a substitute for rock-solid performance inside and outside the classroom.
Today, Birmingham’s school system is in the hands of a black controlled board of education that spends $378 million a year on educational programs in 42 public schools (and 11 charter schools). The school system’s superintendent is black.
Currently, the Birmingham public schools serve 25,693 students, 92% of whom are black. Birmingham operates the fourth largest school system in Alabama.
The school system consistently ranks in the bottom half of all public school systems in the state. Overall, Birmingham school students lag behind their peers in reading and math skills, as well as graduation rates.
The quality of instruction in the city’s school system as a whole is poor and cannot be blamed on “white racism.” Whites are not stopping school teachers from teaching and students from learning. The quality of instruction today is the direct result of failed leadership from a majority black school board and administration over a period of many years.
A Mayor and City Council that Focuses on Symbolic Gestures
Today’s black elected officials in City Hall are an embarrassment to themselves, their constituents, and the entire city. Charitably speaking, they are “custodial” leaders, as opposed to the “visionary” leaders we deserve. Furthermore, they seem oblivious to the fact that the many substantive and well-documented quality of life enhancements Mayor Richard Arrington, Jr. achieved for the city's residents from 1979 to 1999 have dissipated with the passage of time.
In 1987, U.S. News and World Report listed Mayor Arrington as one of America's top five mayors. No Birmingham mayor since Dr. Arrington has attained this status. No successor in office has outworked or outperformed Dr. Arrington as the city’s mayor.
Today’s city officials have no new or bold plan of action to move Birmingham forward. They typically spend valuable time during council meetings “majoring in minors.”
Even though all council members are elected from single-member districts, one council member -- District 3 Councilor Valerie Abbott -- controls them all. She is the only council member who aggressively fights for and delivers solid results for her district constituents.
In 1989, I won the Alabama Supreme Court case in City of Birmingham v. Mike Graffeo. This case paved the way for single-member council districts in Birmingham. The city moved from at-large council elections to district elections in order to give voters in each district an equal opportunity to elect strong advocates for their neighborhood and community interests.
When I was fighting for single-member council districts thirty years ago, I never thought that one council member could make the other eight councilors get on their knees and crawl towards her in a subservient and ingratiating manner. As discussed below, this unimaginable event is exactly what happened earlier this year when Major League Baseball (MLB) tried to invest $10 million in a capital project at George Ward Park.
Birmingham’s mayor is a nice guy, but he lacks the stature that is necessary to govern the city in a robust, progressive, and effective way. He’s a great motivational speaker and outstanding campaigner. However, he is too afraid of the power structure that funded his mayoral campaign to deliver life enhancing programs to the constituents who need them the most. His policy initiatives sound good in front of a microphone, but they are mostly symbolic in nature. Finally, he abdicates a lot of his executive powers and authority to Council President Abbott, who outthinks, outworks, and outmaneuvers her council colleagues on issues of importance to her.
Neither the mayor, nor city council, has amassed a track record of economic empowerment opportunities for minority businesses that comes close to the record achieved by a minority enterprise small business investment company (MESBIC) that Doyal Reed, Harold Gilchrist, and Myrtis Myles operated during the Arrington administration. Working closely with Mayor Arrington, this MESBIC qualified hundreds of minority business owners to compete for and win an estimated $500 to $600 million in city, county, and private sector contracts for goods and services during a five-year period.
Birmingham’s Park Board Blew the Major League Baseball Project
As mentioned earlier, Birmingham’s park board blew a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to partner with MLB. The League had planned to invest $10 million in the construction of four full-size baseball fields and a world-class Youth Baseball Academy at George Ward Park.
Interestingly, MLB approached Birmingham about hosting this project and was committed to funding the entire project costs. The League wanted to showcase this project to the world.
MLB is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise that can deliver tangible economic benefits to neighborhood schools, non-profit organizations, local businesses, and civic organizations.
Right now, the city has no partnership with any major league professional sports organization.
Like the mayor and council, park board members dropped to their knees and crawled to Valerie Abbott to kiss her ring on the MLB project. Abbott, who opposed the project, dismissed the park board and its support of the MLB proposal, like a reigning queen dismisses her unfaithful servants.
Today, the MLB project at George Ward Park is dead. Valerie Abbott single-handedly killed it. As expected, MLB has moved on to a more enlightened and inviting host city.
Birmingham’s Future is Bleak
Things will not get better for Birmingham residents and voters until they demand that the mayor, council, school board, and park board stop whining privately about “white racism” and start working harder to improve the quality of life for their constituents. Their job is to produce positive results, not excuses for a failure of leadership.
Traveling to exotic locations on taxpayer-sponsored out-of-state junkets, appearing in staged photo ops for Instagram and Facebook, attending concerts and sporting events (for free), and hustling dinner meetings from companies seeking to do business with the city are not the actions that can move a city forward. While these perks satisfy the passions of the city officials involved, they do nothing to enhance the quality of life for their constituents.
Birmingham city officials should study successful examples of where local governments achieved outstanding growth and significant improvements in the quality of life factors. Then, they should work their butts off to match or exceed these success stories.
Until this happens, Birmingham’s future is bleak.
PHOTO: Birmingham Council President Valerie Abbott addresses a gathering while Mayor Randall Woodfin (far right) and two council members look on. The body language in this picture speaks volumes.