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 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 al.com 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.
Co-Chairs, Community Affairs Committee
Operation New Birmingham