Address to Leadership Birmingham Closing Retreat
Rabbi Jonathan Miller
June 9, 2017
Speaking at the 2017 Leadership Birmingham closing retreat fills me with emotion and reflection. I was in the class of 1992. I was young then—36 years old–and quite a newbie, having only arrived seven months earlier in Birmingham from Los Angeles. I was a confirmed Yankee; whose family was from the Bronx and I was raised in a working-class suburb of Boston. I could not understand southern culture, let alone embrace it. My eldest son was six. My daughter was 4, and Judi and I had a two-month-old baby at home. Sheila Blair was our leadership Birmingham taskmaster. Ah yes, I took the fabled bus ride and found myself immersed into the culture of this unusual place called Birmingham. I am proud to say that my introduction of my bus partner was the most remembered of my illustrious class. When I had the opportunity to introduce Bill Slaughter, a prominent lawyer who spoke with the moral and intellectual authority of the Pope while I listened admiringly for an hour and a half, I shared, “Friends, in my business, when I have two minutes to talk about somebody, they are usually dead.”
We would start our days at 7:00 am and go through to 9:00 at night—and by the way in those days we would walk to school five miles each day in the snow in the month of May–and I would try to prop my eyes open on the way home, when my wife would lovingly greet me with admiration for my civic devotion by handing me a crying baby with her loving words, “Here, I have had him all day, you take him.”
I remember vividly the discussion between Mayor David Vann and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. I did not know who these men were as they were sharing their stories. I did not realize that I was listening to two great spiritual giants bantering with each other and speaking about the early sixties, when they both played transformational roles in our civic life. At the last retreat, I think we heard from Billie Rushton, one of the business giants and Hatton Smith and Eddie Friend who spoke to us about A+, the effort to transform the way we support education in our state.
Twenty-six years later, Rev. Shuttlesworth and Mayor Vann have both died. Our city is still divided along racial fault lines. All the issues, or most of them anyway, seem to settle on racial wariness and suspicion, even though our community divisions are more complicated than that. We are still looking to attract business and growth to the Birmingham area that is divided by 37 municipalities that cannot seem to work in cooperation together in any meaningful way. We still do not fund education properly or equitably. My children had fabulous educations. Too many in our area do not have the same kind of opportunity my own kids had. We have built the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the McWane Science Center, the Pizitz Building, a reviving downtown, the Alys Stephens Center, Regions Field, Innovation Depot, the Entertainment District, expanded UAB and brought back an exciting football program, and now the Birmingham National Civil Rights Monument. We have upscaled our hospitals, and boasted new restaurants. These are milestones of a proud city on the move.
And we have shuttered schools and ignored neighborhoods that continue to suffer from blight and neglect.
I have lived in Birmingham for almost 28 years. I have loved living here. I have found Birmingham to be gracious and beautiful and friendly and delightful and frustrating and energy sucking and maddening and mystifying. Things have changed so much, and nothing much has really changed. At Nikki’s West, the same characters have served fried green tomatoes, okra and succotash behind the steamtable longer than I have been a rabbi. Birmingham is the most genteel and kind and the oddest of places.
Half a century ago, this city was called Bombingham and judges locked up five thousand kids in jail for singing on the streets after spraying them with firehouses. That is Birmingham. But God forbid you honk your horn. Instead we just say, “Bless her heart,” which means anything and everything and we do it with a smile so that nobody knows exactly what we are thinking and that is ok because we don’t want to tell people what we are thinking. That is Birmingham too. We are in the uppermost uppermost tier of per capita charitable giving in the country. And here is a fascinating footnote: poor people give a greater percentage of their income to charity than rich folks do. If you are poor, you will get more from the churches and neighbors and people on the street than you will from the government. We are kind and compassionate beyond any reasonable expectation, and still we make everyone, the rich and poor alike, pay 10% sales tax for food and medicine and clothing while our property taxes remain extraordinarily low. That is Birmingham too. We trust our pastors and we hate our governors and our mayors and our councilmen and our commissioners and our superintendents. We don’t want to give any money to them, none at all because we don’t trust any of them. We don’t trust the levers of government to be effective or honest. That is also Birmingham. We have come so far together as a community, and we are still miles apart when it comes to educational and career opportunities for all our children. That also is Birmingham. We pretend as though the children who do not have the opportunities that my children had when they were growing up are not our responsibility, and then we bemoan the fact that we are still among the nation’s laggards when it comes to prosperity and economic development. We sport the world’s largest collection of motorcycles and the poorest condition of roads. I could go on and on. You get the point.
The point is that Alabama and Birmingham are a mystery of illogical contradiction. The nicest people anywhere live here. The nicest. And too many people have hard lives. We cannot bring ourselves to make our state and city kinder and gentler for everybody. If you figure this out, tell me how this place works. I am longing to know.
But I will tell you something that I know and that I understand because I am a Yankee who has lived on the coasts until I made my way to this foreign land. There is something that Birmingham has that no other place on earth can sport in quite the same way. We have a deep sense of history. Birmingham is more than Bottega and Bottletree and the Summit and Little Savannah and Sushi Village and football and church. Birmingham is a symbol of modern America at its worst. Fifty plus years ago, Birmingham was the embodiment of oppression and injustice. Other places were bad too. Anniston, and Jackson and Selma and Montgomery and Parchman Penitentiary. Other places were bad. But Birmingham has remained active in the consciousness of America and the world. If you say Memphis, you think of Graceland and Beale Street, not the Lorraine Motel. New Orleans is Jazz and Bourbon Street, and not the auction blocks where human beings were degraded and sold like chattel. Nashville is the Country Music Hall of Fame, and not the slave quarters at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage Estate. But Birmingham is violence. We cannot seem to escape it. Books about Birmingham are histories of the civil rights movement and labor struggles. Books about New Orleans are fanciful stories of romantic vampires roaming the middle of the night.
This bothers many of our civic leaders. But it does not bother me. At the Downtown Rotary Club, maybe a decade or so ago—the years meld together—I heard Diane McWhorter, the author of the definitive history of Birmingham, Carry Me Home, speak about the importance of remembering history. We may want to forget, but it is our blessing and obligation to remember. The blue blood members of Rotary were not happy with her message. Why do we have to remember those difficult days? Why do we have to remind ourselves of Bull Connor and the Birmingham Jail and the six children killed on September 15, 1963; Carole Robertson and Denise McNair and Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins and Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware? Why can’t we forget about those days and just move on?
I shook my head. They didn’t get it. Memory and our history, as shameful as it was decades ago, is our city’s greatest strength. It is the catapult to a better future for all. As civic leaders, we ignore our history at our peril.
Let me use a couple of religious metaphors, which is my business after all, to illustrate my point.
The central story of the Jewish journey is arriving in the Promised Land of Israel. God brought my ancestors there with a plan that unfolded from the very beginning of creation. God caused a famine in the land and guided us to Egypt and there a new Pharaoh arose who enslaved us and afflicted us with cruel and vicious bondage. Then the process of redemption began. God’s mighty hand liberated us. God’s power delivered across the Red Sea. God reaffirmed His covenant with Israel at Sinai, sustained Israel with manna in the desert and brought us to the Promised Land. God made good on God’s promise to Abraham, whose children went from slavery to freedom, from despair to redemption.
Some of you here are Christian. Let me share the same story with different characters. For Christians, Jesus suffered through his arrest at Gethsemane, his trial before Pontius Pilate, and his faltering as he carried the cross on the Via Dolorosa (the path of sorrow) to his crucifixion. There he was nailed to the cross and he suffered through the heat of the day until death finally took him. But then, three days later when it was time to be buried, the Gospels tell us that his tomb was empty. God redeemed His son from death.
Egypt, Golgotha, Birmingham, the Promised Land, the empty tomb, Birmingham. These places are different but the messages are one and the same. We are not born free. We journey to freedom. We start small and we grow big. Our lives can be symbols of the power of transformation and change and redemption.
I learned long ago that living in a city with the history of Birmingham is not like living in Wichita or Cleveland or Springfield or Orlando. Our history is our strength. What we do here, in the shadow of what occurred during those fateful and defining years means that what we do today and in the years to come have moral and spiritual relevance. When we improve our future, we are redeeming ourselves from the past. When we create a kinder and gentler community, we overcome the evils that Birmingham once represented to the world. Once upon a time, our name was associated with pain and bigotry. Today, we have the opportunity, more than any city in our nation, to be a beacon for justice and redemption. Nobody much cares about what happens in Wichita or Cleveland or Springfield or Orlando, at least nobody cares beyond the 24-hour news cycle when things happen there. But here in Birmingham, what we do matters more as a barometer of spiritual health than any other place I can think of. We can be evidence that evil can be overcome, that violence can be vanquished, and that we can create opportunity and community. A scant half century ago, this was impossible. We can be the redeemers. Never forget that. We can be the redeemers of hope and freedom and change and transformation.
God depends on us. God needed Pharaoh to be a redeemer. God needed Pilate to be a redeemer. God needed slaves to make people free. God needed death to bring us to eternal life. God needs Birmingham to show that communities can change and that the old ways of thinking do not need to shackle us or burden us any longer. We are the redeemers of our city’s history and its pain and its struggle. We are the redeemers. Do not be dismayed. Do not be frightened. Do not be deterred.
Our past is ugly. Still, embrace the past. Only when we embrace the past can we continue to change from it. And do not believe, not for a moment, that the way before you is hopeless and that we cannot change. We have already changed so much, and we are just starting out. The whole world is rooting for us in Birmingham. God is urging us on. Be good. Be better. Be the best.
You can do it.