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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

The Answer is, “Hell, No!”

By Donald V. Watkins ©Copyrighted and Published on April 20, 2019; Updated at 4:30 p.m. EST

After I published an April 18, 2019 article that was highly critical of Birmingham, Alabama’s mayor, city council, and park board members for fumbling a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to partner with Major League Baseball (MLB), I received a string of private messages from City Hall “insiders” asking me to refrain from publicly criticizing this predominantly black group of elected and appointed officials. The gist of the messages was that a black journalist should not portray black public officials in a negative light (even when they deserve it) because this criticism tends to fuel negative racial stereotyping of the officials in question.

The private and public answer to these requests for race-based protectionism from public criticism is, “Hell, No!”

For the record, I slammed The Boeing Company for manufacturing a defective 737 MAX airplane that killed 346 innocent passengers and crew members in two recent planes crashes. I exposed historical and embedded racism in America's immigration policies. I criticized Mayor Rahm Emmanuel for leading Chicago to the unenviable title of “Murder Capital of the World” while consuming himself with actor Jussie Smollett’s admission into a state-sanctioned pretrial diversion program for non-violent, non-drug-related, first time offenders.

I bashed former Montgomery federal judge Mark Fuller for severely beating his second wife, while other media outlets remained silent on this domestic abuse matter. I criticized former governor Robert Bentley for trading the executive powers of his office for sexual favors from Rebekah Mason, his married lover.

I also exposed the 2005 murder of Private LaVena Johnson, who was black, by a four-star general, who is white, on a military base in Balad, Iraq, which the Pentagon covered up by labeling the murder a "suicide."

This list goes on and on.

In light of this track record, why would I give Birmingham city officials a “pass” on the fumbled MLB opportunity just because the governing body is predominantly black? I will not.

Neither skin color, nor partisan politics, is not a factor in the articles I write. Leadership skills, job performance, and accountability are the factors that matter to me.

MLB’s Youth Foundation was set to fund a $10 million project at George Ward Park that would have converted the five softball fields into full-size baseball fields. MLB was also going to build an academy building on the site that would have provided low to no cost baseball and softball instruction and league play for young athletes. The Youth Academy would have also provided the attendees with academic and career training.

Residents in the predominantly white Glen Iris neighborhood objected to the MLB project because it was located close to their neighborhood. They believed MLB’s Youth Academy would attract too many black patrons and supporters to the adjacent park area.

Council President Valerie Abbot, who is white, lives in the Glen Iris neighborhood and represents the council district where George Ward Park is located. She was able to kill the MLB project because she controls the mayor and predominantly black city council with an iron grip. They basically serve as her “bellhops” within City Hall.

MLB was shocked and appalled that racism once again raised its ugly head in Birmingham. In light of the City’s foot-dragging on the project, its messy and petty politics, and the negative racial comments that were whispered during the City’s consideration of the project, MLB reconsidered the George Ward Park site and focused on a more welcoming site in Vero Beach, Florida.

It was an incredible exercise in stupidity for City leaders to lose an opportunity to partner with MLB on something as wholesome, important and influential as the Youth Baseball Academy. The project would have put Birmingham on the national and international map for something extremely positive. This kind of partnership usually leads to an endless series of positive experiences and projects with MLB, which is a $10 billion a year business enterprise.

Sadly, what passes for leadership at City Hall today are the following actions: (a) the never-ending searches by city officials for non-controversial photo opportunities, (b) their attendance at sports and entertainment events (for free), and (c) their symbolic participation in an endless series commemorative events that recognize the bravery of 1950s and 60s-era civil rights activists. These PR actions are “safe” and will not offend anybody.

Meanwhile, these city officials have squandered another big opportunity to improve the quality of life for young people in Birmingham. There is nothing they can do to restore the lost opportunity with MLB.

Finally, the takeaway for major business enterprises that want to partner with the City of Birmingham is this: Make your deal with Council President Valerie Abbott. She, alone, killed the MLB transaction, which had the support of the mayor and 8 of the 9 council members. Valerie Abbott is the real "powerbroker" who will determine whether your deal with the City lives or dies. The other officeholders in city government are nothing more than an ensemble of polished "seat-warmers" who look nice in a photogenic "window-dressing" portrait.

PHOTO: Mayor Randall Woodfin (from row, left), Council President Valeria Abbott (front row, right), and council members. Ms. Abbott runs the City of Birmingham. The other city officials serve as her "bellhops" in City Hall.

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