MIchael Ochs Archive
Photo: Getty Image
America's Blackest CityFor Black History Month, we asked writers to explain why they think their hometown, current residence or notable place deserves the title of America’s Blackest City by defining a city’s history, music, cuisine, notable figures, and cultural touchstone/unique black fact.  

Look at those beautiful faces. Those are the children who lived in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. Because this picture was taken only 55 years ago, many of those people are still around today. They were and are still angels. But don’t let those sweet faces fool you...

Those negroes will fight.

When I chose to move to Birmingham, Ala., more than a decade ago, people asked me why Birmingham of all places. In most people’s minds, Birmingham evokes images of racist Commissioner Bull Connor siccing dogs on protesters and spraying civil rights activists with water hoses. But I remind people that, during those times, segregation and racism were everywhere.

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“The only reason you remember Birmingham,” I explain, “is that they were the ones who fought back. You remember Birmingham because these Birmingham niggas ain’t scared of nothing.”

On April 16, 1963, at 425 S. Sixth Street, Birmingham Ala., Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sat in a jail cell and penned what might have been the most defiant, insubmissive piece of writing of his career:

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”...

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King wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail after he was arrested for defying a court injunction forbidding protests. A few weeks later, on May 2, more than 1,000 children from the city flooded the streets in protest. Cops sprayed the students with fire hoses, attacked them with dogs and beat them with batons. So many of Birmingham’s children were jailed during the Children’s Crusade that the city had to erect pens on the state fairgrounds to hold them all.

Then, the kids came back the next day.

And the next.

Until, on May 10th, under pressure from business owners who were losing money, the city agreed to remove “Whites Only” signs from public places, integrate lunch counters, desegregate restrooms and begin a program “upgrading negro employment.” They wouldn’t agree to integrate schools and other places but it was a start. All the black people of Birmingham had to do in exchange was to agree to stop protesting.

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And together, the people of Birmingham said: “Nah.”

Birmingham niggas will fight.

You can’t have a discussion of America’s blackest city without Birmingham. First of all, it is quite literally one of America’s blackest cities. Only Jackson, Miss. and Detroit have a larger percentage of black people than the Magic City. Or maybe I should call it “Iron City.” Or “Steel City” (It’s the only city in the entire world that has all the ingredients necessary for making iron and steel—limestone, iron ore and coal). Or “The ‘Ham.” Or “Bombingham.”

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That’s how black Birmingham is—it has multiple nicknames.

I’d wager that the average Birminghamian knows more black history than any other city’s residents. That’s because Birmingham’s residents don’t remember the civil rights movement, they lived it. The people in the civil rights stories weren’t abstract historical figures, they were their mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles. I haven’t taken an actual survey, but 83 percent of the senior citizens in Birmingham have a story about their mothers making a bologna sandwich for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. They show the scars from the dog bites. They remember fighting.

Blackest person from Birmingham

Most people would say the blackest person from Birmingham is Angela Davis. The civil rights icon and former Black Panther was only the third woman in history black woman ever to be put on the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list and the only one on the list who was ever acquitted. She still fights for human rights to this day.

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But the blackest person in the history of Birmingham is unquestionably Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) that organized the Birmingham Campaign, the March on Washington, the Selma to Montgomery March, the Children’s Crusade and the Poor People’s March.

When white supremacists bombed Fred Shuttlesworth’s church, he didn’t stop fighting for freedom. He refused to give up when they bombed his house. When Klansmen beat him within inches of his life with baseball bats and bicycle chains for trying to enroll his children in an all-white school, he wouldn’t quit. When racists attacked the Freedom Riders, Shuttlesworth rescued them. He was in Selma for Bloody Sunday.

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During the Children’s Crusade, Fred Shuttlesworth was hospitalized after being hit with the full force of a fire hose. While he was incapacitated, Dr. King negotiated a truce with Birmingham’s white business leaders. Furious, Shuttlesworth wrote King, telling him:

“Go ahead and call it off … When I see it on TV, that you have called it off, I will get up out of this, my sickbed, with what little ounce of strength I have, and lead them back into the street. And your name’ll be Mud”

Martin Luther King called him “the most courageous civil rights fighter in the South.” When King wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Shuttlesworth was sitting beside him. CBS News called him “the man most feared by Southern racists.”

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They knew: Birmingham niggas will fight.

Music

Eddie Levert and jazz great Lionel Hampton are both from Birmingham. Damn near all of the American Idol finalists are from Birmingham including Taylor Hicks, Reuben Studdard, Bo Bice and Diana Degarmo. Gucci Mane is also from The ‘Ham, too, so all your bases are covered. It might not be much. But it’s something.

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Oh, you might not have heard of them, but there’s a lesser-known singing group from Birmingham. It was started by Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams, who grew up singing together around Birmingham. They later started a singing group called The Primes and moved to Detroit. Then they changed their names to The Distants. Then they changed again to The Elgins and hooked up with some more guys from Alabama.

Even though I enjoy them, they are pretty underground. However, they made this one really popular Christmas song that is super black. I think they made some other records, too.

Have you ever heard The Temptations?

Food

Birmingham has one of the greatest cookout cultures in the world. And Zagat, which is basically the ultimate restaurant authority in the world rates Birmingham as one of the 25 most exciting places for food in America. It lists a variety of eateries as examples of the culinary atmosphere of the city.

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But white people wrote that.

In every city in America, there exists a hole in the wall nightclub with the best chicken wings in town. This nightspot is the only place you can buy a bottle of Champale to wash down your fries. It has old regulars talking shit and the woman cooking the chicken is wearing a hair net and usher shoes. There is invariably blues playing and a disco ball dangling from the ceiling above the dance floor.

If you are ever in Birmingham, everyone will tell to dine at the historic black-owned fried chicken restaurant, Green Acres Cafe. But like most cities, you can’t just order Green Acres and think you’re getting a taste of Birmingham, you have to go to the original Green Acres on 4th Avenue that was founded in 1958. It’s just fried chicken and fries in a greasy bag. And it’s delicious.

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There just no dance floor.

The blackest thing that ever happened in Birmingham

I could wax rhapsodic about the Birmingham Campaign, civil rights, the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, the Magic City Classic or the black population in Birmingham. The Magic City Classic, the highest-attended HBCU football game in America, takes place every year in Birmingham and the city shuts down because it’s really everyone’s homecoming.

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I could even tell show you the pictures from 2015 about when the former mayor and a city councilman got into a fistfight on the floor of the city council meeting. But the blackest thing that ever happened in Birmingham was captured in these three photos:

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The man in the suit with no tie is Chokwe Antar Lumumba, mayor of the city with the largest black population in America, Jackson, Miss., who came to visit Birmingham a few months ago. The man in the vest and tie is Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, who gave Lumumba a tour.

While walking through Birmingham, they walked past the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little girls died in a 1963 bombing. They meandered one block over, where they stopped to talk to a group of men sitting at a table enjoying the spring breeze. And playing spades. On the sidewalk.

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Wait...It gets blacker.

A few minutes later, Woodfin was stopped on the sidewalk by a man who couldn’t stop hugging him and shaking his hand. The man told the story of how he got into some legal trouble when he was younger. Woodfin, an attorney, apparently represented the man and helped him out of his situation—for free. The man hadn’t seen Woodfin in years and told Woodfin that he had finished school, was now working and had also started his own business. He asked the mayor if he could do anything for him, even offering to cut his grass or buy the lunch.

In the place where they were standing, even during the civil rights era, 60 percent of the businesses were black-owned. They were standing less than two miles from the jail cell where King wrote his letter. After watching the spades game, they walked next door, where some older black men began ranking on how young the two mayors were because, mayor or not, you know how black people do. After Lumumba told one man his age, the man, beer in hand, replied:

“Boy, I could teach y’all young boys something.” Then, pulling up his pants leg and showing a scar, he added. “I marched with Dr. King!”

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If you zoom in on the of the pictures, you can clearly see the exact location where this happened to the mayors of two of the blackest cities in America:

At the 4th Avenue location of the Green Acres Cafe.

I rest my case.