Birmingham and the Detached Millennials

Steve Boswell

Steve Boswell

ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.

Today’s guest blogger is Steve Boswell.  We love to hear from young professionals.   If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”

-Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement’s commencement in Birmingham. A movement whose impact would serve to pave the path of minority progress far beyond the streets of downtown Birmingham. When I reflect on what happened fifty years ago in Birmingham, there are four people who immediately come to mind. Four people, separated in pairs, and pitted against one another as implacable foes. On the one side were the representatives of rights, peace, and progress in Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. On the other side were the defenders of a comfortable normalcy in the angry faces of Bull Connor and George Wallace. I picture four representatives divided by two ideals whose inevitable clash would significantly alter the course of history. It was Martin Luther King, Jr vs. Bull Conner, good vs. evil, liberty vs. tyranny. I think most of us think of the civil rights movements in these polarized terms. A zero-sum game with one winner and one loser. But thinking in these terms fails to account for the reality of a third party whose influence would be paramount.

Any time there is an ideal worth fighting for there are never only two parties to the cause. There are the advocates for, opponents against, and the indifferent to. Each of these groups either directly or indirectly influences the outcome of the movement. In fact, it was not Bull Connor or Wallace with whom Martin Luther King, Jr. was most frustrated. He expected and could plan for their opposition. Rather, it was the white moderate who most infuriated King. It was the moderate who was the target of his exhortations in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail. It was not the KKK and the White Citizens Councilor who “lie as the great stumbling block”, but rather the white moderate “more devoted to order than justice.”[1] It was residents of Birmingham who sat back and silently sympathized with the black man’s cause but claimed his ideal would come to fruition in time. Many of the moderates aligned more with Malcolm X who said “The only thing I like integrated is my coffee”[2]. The white moderate condemned direct action and urged for negotiation as they tied on the blindfold of bigotry which prevented them from recognizing that it was, in fact, failed attempts at negotiation which had led MLK to direct action in the first place. It was a “shallow understanding from people of good will” that was “more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will,” for “lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”[3] As the white moderate was the bête noir for Martin Luther King Jr., so too is the Birmingham moderate for those ardent supporters of this city and the hopeful movers of its future.

Any movement requires support. The bettering of Birmingham is impossible without the support of vast numbers of people. The Birmingham moderate is a group whose support the city can’t function without. From my experiences of talking with people about Birmingham, it seems the Birmingham moderate can be divided in two groups: the doubters and the detached. The doubters are an older group who believe the racial divide has evolved into an immortal chasm that will not be bridged. The detached seem to be primarily comprised of my generation: the Millennials. The baton of Birmingham’s future is in the process of being passed to us and what we will do with this opportunity depends on our collective ability to overcome the indolence and detachment which currently bogs us down.

It would be a mistake to classify the whole of the millennials as detached–there is a smaller portion of millennials who have already begun the debate about a vision for Birmingham’s future, and are hard at work to arouse excitement about it. But put simply, many of us millennials are detached from community. We live in the age of isolation. This isolation is characterized by ambivalence toward the social networks which are meant to connect us. And they do connect us, but they often do so while prodding our impulsive nature and undermining our authenticity. The object of our attention is changing constantly, and the inherent nature of social networks encourages this. Many of us males invest every ounce of passion in the Tide or the Tigers while our government invests our future income into insolvent corporations. We are more adamant about removing Verne and Gary from CBS than we are an inept politician from office. The vitality of many of our conversations hinges more on potential developments in a reality TV show, than it does the reality of our lives. We hear the word ”politics” and flee from it as we would the stench of a flattened, roadside raccoon not realizing that, though talks of politics may be unsexy and dreadfully laborious, it is the foundation on which our society is built. We can’t see the futility in immediate gratification, nor have the fortitude to fix our eyes on a future goal. If it’s not now it seems to be never, and if it is never then it is never worth considering.

But this detachment is not wholly our fault. What could one expect of us…having been raised in an era where Nintendo replaced outdoor play and the reading of Facebook statuses replaced the reading of literature? Where “computers and cell phones displaced the face for the interface.”[4] How can you expect us to know about Birmingham or our country when the subject of history is being deconstructed faster than the rhymes flowing from Lil Wayne’s lips? How can we achieve coherence and continuity of thought when we’ve grown up watching a Budweiser commercial followed by a NCAA tourney update followed by a Victoria Secret ad followed by a petition to support poverty relief in Africa? In isolation none of the aforementioned is inherently bad, but their aggregation can cause a dangerous, fragmented detachment. But only to mention these would be an act of that very pessimism which causes stagnation and prevents progress. For in spite of our general indifference, we Millennials embody one attribute which offers an abundance of hope for a unified Birmingham.

That attribute is the manner in which we regard race. Race has been the leading, and arguably, only inhibitor to the achievement of an ideal Birmingham–a thriving downtown that would surpass the likes of a Nashville and Atlanta in prosperity, efficiency, and overall utility. Our generation is not hindered as much were the baby boomers and their ancestors by this racial divide. We have grown up going to school together and playing sports together. We realize the ignorance in blaming a 21 year old white man for a sin committed by his long deceased great-great-great uncle. We realize how wrong and self-degrading it is to blame the current state of societal discontent on the black man wanting his rights. “Swag” is a term that most of us can define. Names like 2pac and Eminem are easily recognized by all races alike. I see more and more black brothers eating, drinking, and partying with white brothers. I see Native Americans hugging Hispanics, and I see whites mowing the lawn of the black man. Most of us skeptically frown when we watch the tube and see claims of passionate racism as a cause for this or that event.

The line which has long separated us is becoming blurred and increasingly innocuous. This coming together is the chief asset of my generation and offers hope for a unified Birmingham. It is the asset which could spark the commencement of a movement which would transcend race, status, and history and would be celebrated 50 years later by our grandkids. If only we can completely and permanently reverse the trend…to be indifferent about race, and passionate about Birmingham.

[1] Martin Luther King Jr, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, (1963).

[2] Alex Haley, Autobiography of Malcolm X, (1965), Epilogue.

[3] King, Jr.

[4] Chad Keathley, a personal friend of mine, recently made this remark which I found worth quoting here.

Steve Boswell is a resident of Birmingham, and grew up in Hoover, AL. He is employed with a local financial services firm and is a member of a local church.

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David Sher is the publisher of ComebackTown, a co-founder of Buzz12 Advertising and co-CEO of AmSher Debt Collection Agency.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham)), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

This entry was posted in Government structure, Guest blogger, Race relations and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Birmingham and the Detached Millennials

  1. JimfromBham says:

    *”We are more adamant about removing Verne and Gary from CBS than we are an inept politician from office.”

    Interesting statement.  Perhaps a test is whether you know who Verne and Gary are vs. can you name your State Senator and State House Member.

    In any event, detached does not mean disinterested.  Detached actually deals more with the emotions rather than the level of knowledge, or even what the solutions should be.  Hopefully the Millennials can deal with the recovery of Birmingham better than my generation (i.e., the Boomers).

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