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Banks, Phillips and Woodlawn students protest integration, Sept 12, 1963. Photo: Birmingham News

Still thinking about the movie Woodlawn that I am yet to see. And merging those thoughts with the Facebook conversation about the proposed new football stadium for USA. I guess that is part of the reason I’m so uptight about that one stadium supporter’s words that he “is tired of going to football games in the slums.” I’m feeling guilty by association, by not having spoken up in the 60s and 70s when the white flight from Birmingham, and so many other southern cities, was beginning.

When I was growing up in Birmingham, downtown was the place
to go for essentially everything. It was where most people worked, save for the many that worked at the steel mills on the west end of the city where I was initially brought up. West End, as it was formally called, was not a bad place to live except for the extremely poor air quality there. There was yet to be any governmental controls on the environmental damage from the steel and coal plants in Birmingham, or anywhere else in America for that matter. My brother, Dean, had bad asthma compounding his recovery from polio and leading my parents to decide to move away from our family and friends in West End in 1956. They found a house on the other side of Birmingham far away from the steel mills in an area called East Lake. East Lake was an early suburb and had many houses that were built for the returning GIs after WWII and thus much newer than those in West End.

Although I did not know it at the time, our new house was in the feeder area for Woodlawn High School, then one of the premier high schools in Alabama. In 1957, a new high school, Banks, opened only a few blocks from our house and my brother became a member of the first class there. He was still too physically weak to play sports; instead he joined the marching band and men’s chorus. But he did not live to graduate with his classmates; Dean died of bone cancer in the spring of 1958. And although I had thought I would attend the Catholic high school, John Carrol, my mother decided I would follow Dean to Banks.

When integration hit, downtown and the immediately adjacent areas were vibrant and the city schools were as well. The city was bound on the southeast by Red Mountain, named for the iron ore found there which was one of the reasons the steel mills had come to Birmingham. Only a few folks ventured “over the Mountain” on highway 31 to Vestavia where a county high school was located. That small school back then was also still lily white and Banks played them every year in football.

After the famous race riots of ’63 and the beginning of real integration in the early ‘70s, whites took their children out of the excellent Birmingham schools and moved their homes outside the city, taking their tax dollars with them “over the mountain.” The relatively poor semi-rural schools they put their children in began to flourish with the new white-flight moneys they then had while the newly segregated schools in Birmingham began to deteriorate. As enrolment dropped and tax money became scarce, the Birmingham school system began to close schools, among them Banks. The city schools became largely segregated again and the continuing target of conservatives who continue to strangle them and shift public dollars to private, essentially white schools. It is still happening there today under the “Accountability Act.”

I’ve lived in Mobile since 1974 and have watched much the same thing happen here. As the whites flee the city core, ironically justifying their moves in order to get their children into better schools and better neighborhoods, with few exceptions the old neighborhoods become the “slums” the USA fan so hates. And the kids left behind are hit with a double whammy: inferior public schools and poor neighborhoods with poor jobs that hinder them from learning what they need to know to compete in the future.

So yes, take that $70 million and build that shiny new stadium on the USA campus with a scoreboard larger than Auburn’s.  After all, USA is “over the mountain.”