Archive for the ‘Heroes’ Category

Celebrating the Life of Dr. King

Monday, January 18th, 2010

I attended the 24th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Unity Breakfast at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center this morning.  The East Exhibition Hall was packed with people who had come to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King.  A few of them may have been a bit surprised at what they heard from keynote speaker Dr. Ed LaMonte*, but they’d be hard-pressed to deny the truth of his words.  Birmingham is failing to live up to its potential, he said, and he believes the future of the city hangs on two things: our ability to function as a community in addressing regional issues and our ability to address the educational needs of the city’s children.

He pointed out that at the time Dr. King was in Birmingham, there were 31 municipalities in Jefferson County.  Now the metro area encompasses parts of seven counties, and there are 94 municipalities — we’re even more fragmented.  There is no mechanism to identify and address regional issues, and that lack hurts all of us.  He used our inadequate public transit system as an example, noting that it was on the table at the first meeting of the Community Affairs Committee of Operation New Birmingham.  In 1969.

He moved on to some background on Birmingham’s educational system.  In 1963, there were 340,000+ people living in the city of Birmingham and approximately 70,000 students enrolled in the public school system.  By 2008, the population had fallen to 228,000+, with only about 28,000 students remaining.  A study by the Southern Education Foundation indicates that 50% of students who begin 9th grade in Birmingham city schools fail to graduate from high school.  Their mean annual income as adults is $15,803, which is $3,000 less than the mean of other high school dropouts elsewhere in the country.  High school graduates make around 40% more than their dropout counterparts.

The city has recently completed a search for a new school superintendent in a process that Dr. LaMonte says was met with “widespread skepticism”.  Birmingham has gone through six superintendents in the past 15 years; research by the Council of the Great City Schools shows average tenure for a superintendent in an urban system is 3.5 years.  We can’t wait for a superintendent to save the schools.  We have failed our children, and we need to do better.

Dr. LaMonte opined, to general applause and nods of agreement, that Dr. King would be disappointed in the Birmingham of 2010.

His prescriptions?  First, an engine for addressing regional issues — he suggested the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham and PARCA as electronic cigarette starter two existing organizations that are already well-placed and willing to serve this function.  Second, an organization whose single purpose is to monitor the city’s school system as an advocate for students — he said his personal instinct is to look to Greater Birmingham Ministries for leadership on this.

He closed by reminding us of Birmingham’s “great but significantly unfulfilled potential” and asking the question, “Where do we go from here?”

I hear there were a few toes that felt a bit stepped on by his address.  You know what?  Too bad.  There is an entrenched power structure in Birmingham, and it needs to be challenged just as much as the Big Mules ever did (and still do).  Dr. King was all about speaking truth to power, and Dr. LaMonte truly lived his legacy today.


*I couldn’t find a complete biography of Dr. LaMonte, so I would like to note that he has a long history as an advocate for civil rights and was instrumental in the building of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.  He’s also one of the nicest people I’ve ever met and has a wonderful son who is a dear friend and colleague.  ETA: Here’s a good feature (PDF) from Southern Magazine.

I’m not even going to address the idiocy in comments at the story.  Poor reporting makes it read as if Dr. LaMonte advocated for merging all 94 municipalities into one regional government.  He didn’t.  Suffice it to say that some ignorant rednecks who would never go near an MLK celebration are up in arms at the very thought.

ADDENDUM:  Here is a statement issued by the Co-Chairs of the Community Affairs Committee:

Birmingham’s citizens must talk with each other and work together to solve the serious problems that affect the city.

We should not reject the message that we need, as a comunity, to be hearing just because of who the messenger is.  We should also hold leadership and ourselves to the highest standards decorum and respect for others.  Our youth need to hear fresh thinking from adults.

We do not have time to hate. Recent political behavior serves solely to project negative images of Birmingham and distracts from the serious issues.

Finally, concerning the annual Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr, Unity Breakfast, kudos to those planners who had the awareness to make the breakfast truly unified.  We are diverse people with diverse heritages with different beliefs and non-beliefs.  We participated in a program with prayers offered by lay persons, Christian ministers, an imam, and a rabbi.  It was a good start.

Smith Williams
Helen Rivas
Co-Chairs, Community Affairs Committee
Operation New Birmingham


Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

Today is Veterans Day.  I’m remembering my father, who served in the Air Force during the Korean War.  I’m also remembering my brother, who died two years ago today.  He didn’t serve in the armed forces, but he fought for freedom in his own way, overcoming his own fear and shyness to speak out for equality for all people.

Blessings on all our veterans and their families.  And blessings on all those serving now and the ones who wait and pray for their safe return.

One Year

Tuesday, November 11th, 2008

A year ago today we were awakened by a ringing cell phone. I was so discombobulated that I couldn’t get to it in time. Surely it was a wrong number. No one ever called that early on a Sunday morning. When I finally dug the phone from my purse, I saw Tony’s number on the missed calls list. I called him back, and he answered, frantic, tears in his voice. “Kathy, I think he’s dead.” Surely, surely I didn’t hear that right.

Tony said Ken had had some kind of attack. He was fine one minute; the next, he couldn’t breathe. The paramedics were there, and they were about to leave for the hospital. I told him I was on my way. Surely he would be okay. The paramedics were there.

I packed a bag with the kind of thing you take when you expect to spend time at a hospital. A couple of shirts, some clean underwear, toothbrush and toothpaste. They might have to keep him a few days, but we’d be close to their house; I’d have a place to shower and wash clothes.

At the last minute Bill decided to go with me. He called his sister to stay with the girls, and we headed for Montgomery. My phone rang before we got to the interstate. Surely it would be Tony telling me Ken was better.

He wasn’t. He was gone before they reached the hospital, probably gone before they left the house. A heart attack, a stroke, a ruptured aneurysm? We don’t know. We do know he had been suffering with severe headaches for a couple of months before his death, but tests and scans had revealed nothing to explain them.

He went quickly. It’s what he wanted. He had watched our father die, slowly and painfully, just months before. He left behind an amazing and inspiring legacy, of which I’ve written a great deal. I’m so proud of him and what he accomplished in his much too short life. Most days that’s enough to get by on.

Today it isn’t. Today I just want him here. I want to sit and listen to him and Tony tell me about what they’ve been doing to the house and the yard, where they went over the weekend, how the dogs are doing, what’s happening at church this week. I want to ask him about the weed infestation in the front bed and how hard would it be to rewire the light fixture outside the garage door. I want to hear about the events he’s attended and the ones he’s planning and how important it is to work for justice for all people, not just the ones who look like us or believe like us. I want to see Tony light up when he walks into the room. I want to see my mother smile again.

Today he’s been gone a year. All the magical thinking in the world won’t bring him back. Tomorrow I’ll get back to cherishing the memories and doing what I can to carry on the work. Today I hurt.

Post 2000

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

Ken would have been 51 today. I miss him so much.

When I started this blog, I never dreamed that this would be post number 2,000. That’s supposed to be a milestone. I guess it is, in a way. Half of my family of birth is gone. I’ve finally learned how those other people who have lost so much continue to get up in the morning and go on with life every day.

The cilantro seeds I planted ten days ago have sprouted big time. There are ten tiny seedlings in the pot.


I’ll take that as a gift from the brother with the green thumb to the sister who never had one before. Thanks, my only brother — and happy birthday.

Mother’s Day 2008

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

The best of Mother’s Days to all of you who have birthed, adopted, grand-ed, step-ed, or stepped in when mom wasn’t available. Mothering is one of those jobs where most of the recognition comes after the fact, when the kids grow up and figure out you really weren’t that stupid after all, so — for those of you who aren’t there yet, here’s a big thank you!

In a cruel irony, this Mother’s Day falls on the six-month anniversary of my brother’s death. I can’t imagine what my mother must be feeling today. No one should have to endure the pain of losing a child, but the loss doesn’t negate the amazing job she did raising a son who became a hero to so many people. I know that, in the midst of her grief, she is proud of him. I hope I do half as well as she did for him — and continues to do for me. She’s a hero too.

Thanks, Mama.  I love you!

Dr. King

Friday, April 4th, 2008

So many beautiful words have been written and spoken today as people around the world remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I find I have nothing to add except this: Rest with the angels, Dr. King. Your life was not lived in vain. You continue to inspire millions of people to rise above and reach beyond the prejudices that shape our reality, and I hope, somehow, you know that. You changed the world for the better. Thank you.

Another Hero Passes

Monday, March 17th, 2008

Bruce Hilton, father of Tom and Steve Hilton of If I Ran the Zoo, passed away on Thursday. Their mother Virginia died in October 2007. Both of the Reverends Hilton worked on the front lines of the civil rights movement and continued to advocate for social and economic justice throughout their lives. They were strong supporters of LGBT equality and founded the Parents Reconciling Network. Bruce was the author of Can Homophobia Be Cured?, which graced my bookshelf for many years before I “met” Tom and Steve online and became part of the IIRTZ family.

There is a nice article from the University of Indianapolis alumni magazine detailing Bruce’s life and career here. The San Francisco Chronicle did a feature on Virginia after her death. Go read them and be inspired by what two ordinary people can do when their lives reflect their passion for justice.

Tom and Steve, I’m so sorry for your loss. Your father and mother left a wonderful legacy — for you and for us.


Monday, January 21st, 2008


“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963


Friday, January 11th, 2008

My brother Ken has been gone two months today. On Sunday, Daddy will have been gone a year.

Ken started the last year of his life taking care of Daddy, who had become too weak to get up without help. He walked Daddy through the process of dying with grace and a quiet confidence that I didn’t know he possessed. He lifted and carried and bathed and fed with infinite patience. When we knew there was no more time, he was the one who stayed calm while the rest of us fell apart. He told us then that he wanted to die quickly. He made me promise that if he ever found himself in straits similar to Daddy’s, I’d just give him the morphine already and let him go. At least he was spared that.

I didn’t get to say goodbye. I didn’t have the opportunity to tell him that he was a hero. Not just to me, but to so many others who were touched by his courage and by his commitment to equality for everyone. He was one of those rare people who could see beyond his own oppression, who didn’t seek to lift himself by pushing others down, who truly believed in God’s abundance.

Ironically, he struggled with depression throughout his life. There were days when he could barely get out of bed. He had insomnia. The arthritis that started in his twenties hampered his landscaping work. He was painfully shy and hated crowds. While he loved me and my family, he generally liked us best in small doses.

But he changed the world when he stood on the steps of the state courthouse in 2002 and called out Roy Moore, refusing to stay silent when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court used his office to advocate violence against gay people. What had been a fragmented equality movement was galvanized, as others who’d been too frightened or too disheartened or too busy or too uninvolved followed his example and stepped forward to say, “Enough is enough.” I was one of them.

Today, Equality Alabama, the organization that Ken co-founded, is thriving and growing. Alabama has two openly gay elected officials. The state chapter of NOW has been revitalized. The Open Hearts and Minds Lectures in Montgomery are an ongoing success. One young man whose parents disowned him now has another family: his gay dads, his adopted aunt and uncle, and three girls who consider themselves his sisters. Immanuel Presbyterian Church has a beautiful memorial garden, and the man who designed it is now truly a part of it.

Ken never wanted acclaim for his accomplishments. Frankly, it embarrassed him. He was happy to be at home with his beloved partner and their dogs, working in the yard or searching eBay for Tallulah Bankhead memorabilia to add to his collection. But he was called to speak out against injustice, and he answered.

If he had to have an epitaph at 50, I’d say that’s a damn good one.

Rep. Patricia Todd Receives Wooster Award

Thursday, July 12th, 2007

Actually, she received it a while back, but I missed it.  Patricia has worked on behalf of people with HIV/AIDS for over twenty years and is currently the Associate Director of AIDS Alabama. The Wooster Award is named for Louise Wooster, who ran a brothel in the nascent city of Birmingham in the 1870′s and stayed behind during the 1873 cholera outbreak, after half the population had fled, to nurse the sick and dying.

Today then, Wooster’s legacy lies in doing what it takes with what you’ve got, even if the first is terrifying and the second is not much to speak of at all. It’s also a matter of seeking help and looking for answers wherever you can find them, even if it’s from outsiders. Often, it’s reaching out especially to outsiders, and not for their benefit alone. On the whole, it sounds a lot like the practice of public health.

And it sounds a lot like Patricia Todd, who has worked tirelessly for years on behalf of a marginalized population, speaking up when she didn’t have to, and putting her own life on the line to help others.

Congratulations, Patricia.

BTW, check out the website for UAB’s School of Public Health.  It’s not the biggest program there, but it’s vital to all of us.  (H/T Terry).