Alabama - The magic/tragic Birmingham

Y'all come back now, ya hear


We drove into Birmingham Alabama in the dead of night… Ok, maybe it was about 7pm, but it had started to rain, we had driven all the way from Nashville Tennessee (read about Nashville here), everybody was hungry, everybody was tired, and everybody was a little bit excited to be in Ala-friggin-Bama-Baby. Yes, I may have sung more than one refrain of “Sweet Home Alabama” as Dom negotiated his way in the dark drizzly night.

Magic city
We pulled up to our hotel in the Five Points South neighbourhood. It bills itself as the historic entertainment district with great eateries. Hhhmm, by ‘historic entertainment’ it seems they meant thumping nightclubs and places with broken down pool tables. ‘Great eateries’ were of the fast, cheap, student variety. I think perhaps the tourist info sheet I read in the hotel may have been a little on the optimistic side. The district is close to the University of Alabama, once that realisation dawned, the vibe of the area seemed more in keeping with its surrounds. Back in my own student days a thumping nightclub followed by cheap food, scoffed around a broken down pool table, was indeed great entertainment.

We settled into a Turkish restaurant which included in its menu Italian, Indian, Mexican and American cuisine, all $3.99. Haute cuisine aside for a minute, I want to say something about the waiter, and this was a consistent theme from our travels around the South, he could not have been nicer and more well mannered. The man was a joy! It’s not often I feel moved to call waiters ‘a joy’ (or anyone for that matter) but he was, and so were all his fellow southern servers. This politeness wasn’t just limited to folks in the service industry, even the homeless man on the street, that we literally had to step over, was quick with a “Y’all have a great evenin’, ya hear”. Southern hospitality, I applaude it!

The next day I did something I think every man, woman and child should do at least once in their lives. And if you’re going to do it, you HAVE to do it in Alabama. It was exhilarating, terrifying, heart warming and thrilling in equal measure… We went to an out of the way Baptist church to experience an Evangelical Pentecostal Gospel-singing Awakening or, as we say back home, we went to ‘mass’.

It completely exceeded my expectations, and my expectations were high. I was replaying in my head the James Brown scene from the movie The Blues Brothers as we drove to this out of the way church (which Dom had discovered online after some internet soul searching).

I had hoped we would sneak in the back, mid way through a gospel extravaganza, have our brains explode and our souls soar, then sneak back out again. Oh no, no, no, that was not on the cards at all. Being the only white folks in attendance we certainly stood out. We were greeted with hugs and kisses and whisked up to the front pew.

Then the singing began…

Just a few people at first, mainly shouting out the word “JESUS” with a swing of a tambourine. Then before I knew it everyone was doing it; singing, roaring, up on their feet dancing in the aisles, swaying, hugging, microphones were grabbed and stories were told. I soon learned the correct response to a gap in a story is to shout out as loud as you can in a short burst “JESUS”. More stories; redemption...JESUS...survival...JESUS...forgiveness...JESUS.

At one point everyone held up their hands and shouted HALLELUJAH over and over. While the Head Tambourine Lady (her instagram handle) moved among the congregation yelling repeatedly “Thank you, JESUS”.

Róisín was in her element, this was far more entertaining than anything her Mum and Dad had ever done. She was doling out the smiles and gurgles to anyone who looked her way, and look her way they did. She was smothered in attention, one elderly lady declared “Well, Oh My Sweet Lord, look at her, we have one of God’s angels walking amongst us here TODAY. Thank you, JESUS”.

It was a tremendous experience, it wasn’t something I would personally subscribe to, but there was an undeniable feeling of love and community in that room. Scholastic achievements of parishioners kids flashed up on the screen behind the altar (it was more of a stage than an altar with cameras, microphones, a screen and a full band). I could see how people would flock there on a Sunday to feel part of something.

It does go on for a couple hours, which is a long time if you’re not buying into it. Also, I wasn’t on board with one of their hymns/songs which claimed that the only real God was the Christian God and other religious deities (which were listed out in the song) are false Gods and not true religions. Come on old chaps, there's room for everyone at the table, surely.

It was a Sunday morning that was spent way outside of my comfort zone but it is something I will never forget.

Walking around downtown Birmingham I don’t believe I encountered one white face. Upon driving out to the small hamlets of cities that lie just outside Birmingham, I don’t recall seeing one black face. Segregation may officially be a thing of the past but there is definitely an organic division, or at least that is how it appeared. Bear in mind, even using the word ‘Black’ in America to describe African Americans makes some people very uncomfortable. So please excuse my European clumsiness as you read.

The hamlet towns are picture perfect and feel very quaint and British in their exterior. We drove through the exceedingly pretty Homewood and stopped in Mountain Brook for brunch. It was so Anglophilic in it’s town planning that I half expected to be offered scones and clotted cream but it was your usual American brunch (eggs, bacon, pancakes offered every which way God intended).

While brunching (is it a verb? It is now!) I kept hearing snatches of conversation about “the game”, Dom explained to me that Alabama worships two things - God and Football. I was raging that we didn’t catch “the game” while we were there, when in Rome and all that. That said, I did make it once to a Stanford versus Berkeley American football college game. It sucked the life right out of me, 3 hours is not an acceptable amount of time for a sports game. They need someone on the pitch (Americans wincing that I said ‘pitch’) to shout things like “Chop, chop, hurry up chaps, shake a leg, let’s wrap this up”. Why do they call it a ‘touchdown’ when they don’t actually touch the ball down? Just sayin’!

I am a sucker for quaint English villages (I spent my pre teens reading Agatha Christie books, very rock and roll) so I could have idled away the whole day in Alabama’s answer to the Cotswolds. But, we were keen to explore the city, the city that became notorious in the 1960s for segregation and race riots.

A now somber City Hall
To give you a real sense of what it was like to walk in the footsteps of the demonstrators there is a Heritage walk signposted across downtown Birmingham. You start at Kelly Ingram Park and ‘march’ to City Hall, reading the horror stories off placards of the atrocities that were carried out. Even though I was familiar with the story it was shocking to walk and read about the heartbreaking struggle people went through.

Black people were second class citizens after slavery ended. Birmingham Alabama was the strictest of them all. Everything was segregated; schools, libraries, water fountains, barbers, transport, a white child couldn't play with a ‘person of colour’, if a black man even looked at a white woman he could find himself attacked by the Ku Klux Klan, lynched and hung for the town to see. The KKK even bombed churches, most notably the 16th St Baptist church killing 4 teenage girls.

In the 1960s black activists started non violent protests, they were aggressively stopped and arrested by the police. The activists controversially encouraged black teenagers to join in the non violent protests, the police turned hoses and dogs on them (they turned dogs on children!).

Bombed church, still alive and kicking today
Martin Luther King got involved and was arrested. He wrote his famous "Letter from Birmingham jail" from prison. It is one of the most evocative pieces of literature you'll ever read. I have listened to many politicians and pontificators give speeches over the years, I don’t think any of them come close to Martin Luther King Jr, the man had a gift.

Eventually progression was made and change happened slowly. Today America has a mixed race President. Times may have changed but discrimination and prejudice on both sides is still a real problem. Even today, 2015, when I turn on the news everyday there is at least one race related story. I think it’s a problem globally but having lived in different countries and now in the US, it feels to me that it is a particularly sensitive subject here. Obviously old fashioned attitudes have to change but also new political correctness has to ease up.

The November rain returned in buckets so we ran from our walking tour into the Civil Rights Institute. This is an incredible and humbling museum that will choke you up, infuriate you, make you terribly sad, and finally give you hope. As we walked around a young black student approached us and started a conversation. Like a lot of people in Birmingham he was curious about us “Europeans” and wanted to know “What brings y’all to Alabama?”. He told us he had been studying in Alabama and with the Martin Luther King movie ‘Selma’ coming out he wanted to learn more about the man.

He was very open and talked with ease about life as a black man in modern America. He thought there were pockets of society that really need to, in his words, ‘work on things’, but in general he felt that if he works hard enough the opportunities to do whatever he wants are out there. He felt anybody can strive for the American dream. I found this very uplifting, I’m sure there will be times in his life when he will doubt those words, so confidently said as a twenty something student, but it put a smile on my face to learn that the next generation has hope. Hope is powerful, sometimes hope is all you got.

Birmingham was once called the Magic City during the boomtown period of industrialisation. Sadly during the 1960s it was re-nicknamed the Tragic City. I like to think the next generation are bringing some magic back.

It was time to leave the drizzle, the history, the football and the 4 dollar feasts behind. We pointed the car towards Mississippi and put Johnny Cash on... “Yeah, I’m goin to Jackson, Look out Jackson town!”...

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  1. Thanks for coming to Birmingham and sharing your experiences, Sheilagh! I'm glad you experienced our famous Southern hospitality, but bummed that you missed out on the world class restaurants near your hotel (you were only a few steps away from James Beard finalist Frank Stitt's restaurants).

    Hope you'll visit again.

  2. Thanks Wade, a good reason to make it back to Birmingham :)


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