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The Most Segregated City in America"

The Most Segregated City in America": City Planning and Civil Rights in Birmingham, 1920–1980

Charles E. Connerly
Series: Center Books
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    The Most Segregated City in America"
    Book Description:

    One of Planetizen's Top Ten Books of 2006

    "But for Birmingham," Fred Shuttleworth recalled President John F. Kennedy saying in June 1963 when he invited black leaders to meet with him, "we would not be here today." Birmingham is well known for its civil rights history, particularly for the violent white-on-black bombings that occurred there in the 1960s, resulting in the city's nickname "Bombingham." What is less well known about Birmingham's racial history, however, is the extent to which early city planning decisions influenced and prompted the city's civil rights protests. The first book-length work to analyze this connection,"The Most Segregated City in America": City Planning and Civil Rights in Birmingham, 1920-1980uncovers the impact of Birmingham's urban planning decisions on its black communities and reveals how these decisions led directly to the civil rights movement.

    Spanning over sixty years, Charles E. Connerly's study begins in the 1920s, when Birmingham used urban planning as an excuse to implement racial zoning laws, pointedly sidestepping the 1917 U.S. Supreme Court Buchanan v. Warley decision that had struck down racial zoning. The result of this obstruction was the South's longest-standing racial zoning law, which lasted from 1926 to 1951, when it was redeclared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Despite the fact that African Americans constituted at least 38 percent of Birmingham's residents, they faced drastic limitations to their freedom to choose where to live. When in the1940s they rebelled by attempting to purchase homes in off-limit areas, their efforts were labeled as a challenge to city planning, resulting in government and court interventions that became violent. More than fifty bombings ensued between 1947 and 1966, becoming nationally publicized only in 1963, when four black girls were killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.

    Connerly effectively uses Birmingham's history as an example to argue the importance of recognizing the link that exists between city planning and civil rights. His demonstration of how Birmingham's race-based planning legacy led to the confrontations that culminated in the city's struggle for civil rights provides a fresh lens on the history and future of urban planning, and its relation to race.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3538-6
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-ix)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. x-x)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    City planning and civil rights have had a profound influence on each other. Birmingham, a city well known for its civil rights history, is less well known for its city planning history and the connection between city planning and civil rights. Formal city planning in Birmingham began in 1920 with the publication a year earlier of the city’s first plan and the passage several years later of the city’s first zoning ordinance. Because the zoning ordinance institutionalized racial zoning—the practice of separating whites from blacks through land use zoning—it also marked the beginning of city planning’s impact on...

  7. 1 Big Mules and Bottom Rails in the Magic City
    (pp. 13-35)

    As an industrial city built on its rich deposits of iron and coal, Birmingham has the distinction of being a city whose very name identifies it as a planned city. Named after the industrial city of Birmingham, England, Birmingham was incorporated in 1871 by the Elyton Land Company, which consisted of ten investors. The company purchased nearly 4,500 acres of Jones Valley farmland in Jefferson County, Alabama, where the South and North Alabama Railroad was expected to cross an existing railroad, the Alabama and Chattanooga. The investors were well aware of the area’s rich deposits of coal and iron as...

  8. 2 Planning and Jim Crow
    (pp. 36-68)

    Two significant movements of the early twentieth century, one southern and the other national, influenced the development of planning in Birmingham and planning’s most visible manifestation in Birmingham, racial zoning. In the South, Birmingham, like other southern cities and states, adopted Jim Crow laws that were used to segregate blacks and whites in various public and commercial places. Nationally, planning—particularly zoning—was adopted by many cities during the early part of the twentieth century as a means to use separation of land uses to protect property values. Together, these movements encouraged Birmingham and other southern cities to develop racial...

  9. 3 Planning, Neighborhood Change, and Civil Rights
    (pp. 69-101)

    In its 1923 editorial criticizing the racial zoning component of the proposed state zoning enabling act, theBirmingham Newsargued that racial zoning would impede the process of neighborhood change, thereby harming both whites and blacks. Specifically, the paper wrote:

    There is another feature: white neighborhoods change. People seek other surroundings—there is a vogue for a certain neighborhood, and the older portions of towns and cities are sometimes deserted for newer and more modern ones. Very often negroes fall heir to these neighborhoods, and are glad to get them; there are better houses than the average of negro rental...

  10. 4 “The Spirit of Racial Zoning”
    (pp. 102-128)

    In the 1950s, in the period immediately after the demise of racial zoning, Birmingham’s attention, as in other cities throughout the nation, turned to plans for urban redevelopment. Although a number of cities were interested in urban redevelopment prior to Congress’s adoption of the urban renewal program in 1949, it was after passage of that act that Birmingham began to seriously think about urban redevelopment as a planning tool and more generally to look at comprehensive urban planning as a desirable activity of local government.¹

    Aside from adoption of the 1926 zoning ordinance and implementation of a public housing program...

  11. 5 Urban Renewal and Highways
    (pp. 129-166)

    The Southside Medical Center expansion project represented the successful use of the urban renewal program to expel the black population from a neighborhood coveted by the city’s white establishment. The Avondale and Ensley urban renewal projects, as well as the city’s federal highway projects of the 1950s and 1960s, also demonstrate how the white community could use the federal government’s urban planning programs of that era to preserve racial segregation and to enhance the interests of the white establishment and white neighborhoods. As such, both the Avondale and Ensley urban renewal projects represent the use of “the blight that’s right”...

  12. 6 Civil Rights and City Planning
    (pp. 167-216)

    Despite its embrace of federal subsidies for urban renewal, public housing, and interstate highways, by the late 1950s Birmingham had been able to adapt these programs to its long-run objective of maintaining the racial status quo. As with zoning in the 1920s, Birmingham could adopt seemingly progressive planning reforms while using these reforms to maintain a system of racial segregation and inequality. With local public officials determined to maintain racial segregation in all ways of life and local vigilantes prepared to use violence to thwart black progress, Birmingham in 1960 appeared prepared to carry on as it always had.


  13. 7 The African American Planning Tradition in Birmingham
    (pp. 217-240)

    Although the 1970s mark the period in which Birmingham’s black neighborhoods asserted their power to help guide the fate of their neighborhoods, the seeds for this change were planted decades earlier with the establishment of indigenous black neighborhood organizations that attempted to provide the public services that were denied by the white-controlled city government. These organizations are part of an African American planning tradition that enabled Birmingham’s black neighborhoods to respond creatively and positively to their exclusion from the planning process.

    The African American planning tradition in Birmingham, as well as other cities, stands in contrast to the much better...

  14. 8 The Evolution of Black Neighborhood Empowerment
    (pp. 241-268)

    With adoption of the Citizen Participation Plan in 1974, Birmingham had reversed the city’s longtime tradition of denying its black citizens the opportunity to participate in the planning process. But the question remained as to whether the representation that the city’s residents, white and black, had obtained through the Citizen Participation Program would result in the city’s neighborhoods obtaining significant influence in the planning process. In the 1970s, Birmingham’s black residents were able to achieve a degree of influence they had not had before. By 1979, when the city elected its first black mayor, Richard Arrington, the black community had...

  15. Epilogue
    (pp. 269-288)

    With the rerouting of the Red Mountain Expressway, the recasting of priorities in the 1977 bond election, and the conditioning by HUD of the city’s Community Development Block Grant budget, residents of Birmingham’s black neighborhoods had established themselves as a source of influence in shaping the city’s plans. In particular, the creation of the Citizen Participation Program in 1974 permitted black neighborhoods to organize themselves and to develop a cadre of leadership that could begin to influence the planning process in Birmingham. Significantly, the city’s black neighborhoods had taken advantage of the changes wrought by the Citizen Participation Program to...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 289-350)
  17. Index
    (pp. 351-360)