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Historic Birmingham: A Legacy of Lessons

February 7, 2017

Barack Obama may no longer be President, but thankfully one of his final acts before leaving office was to sign of an executive order designating the Birmingham Civil Rights District as a National Monument.

This important decree, which was signed on January 12, includes the recognition of The 16th Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, the AG Gaston Motel and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth former church, Bethel Baptist as locations of such national significance that they were added to the list of America’s greatest national treasures and included in the National Park Service. And though preserving Birmingham’s legacy and honoring its past is certainly a powerful development for this historic city, I believe it can also serve as a blueprint for how we choose to behave towards one another as citizens of a nation embarking on drastic changes.

My hope is that both the divisive and the uniting events that occurred in Birmingham during the Civil Rights era will help ease current tensions and inspire constructive conversations about what it means to accept those who are different, whether it be their race, religion or sexual orientation. And such dialogue is needed more than ever when charges of voter fraud, proclamations about building walls, the mistreatment of green card holders, and the apparent attempt to alter facts and other positions that intend to undermine American values is a daily occurrence. Incredibly, these and other assaults on numerous bedrocks of our society have been made by our newly elected President and should be deemed unacceptable.

In response, we have seen massive protests in cities across our land and abroad that are reminiscent of ones during the turbulent ’60s. Those years were very difficult times for the U.S. because they were ones of extreme anger that often boiled over impacting innocent people both physically and emotionally. Some fifty odd years later that pain endures for many, especially in the African-American community, and I fear the progress our country made to protect and serve all its citizens could erode and erode quickly.

The other side of the coin, however, are the voices that are concerned about jobs and security who argue that the President’s actions and tough talk are necessary and not as severe as they appear but are instead being criticized under the harsh spotlight of a polarized society where political opponents overreact for their own political advantage. That certainly happened to President Obama and to some extent it appears that it is happening to President Trump. But regardless, it cannot be denied that there are huge (or YUGE as President Trump would say) segments of our population that are genuinely concerned and frightened. Only time will tell if their fears are justified.

That is why remembering and honoring what happened in Birmingham is more important than it’s ever been. I know this to be true because I have seen how several of my cases provided a process for healing simply by exposing the wounds. While many in Birmingham did not want to revisit a shameful era of firehoses and dogs, no one can dispute how the convictions of Tommy Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry for the bombing of The 16th Street Baptist Church became a tool to teach present and future generations about the struggles and sacrifices for equality, for respect, for freedom and for justice.

It is time for all of us to stand up and make our voices heard. To reject policies of exclusion and in some cases, delusion. The world is watching as we enter a new chapter in our American story. Everyone, whether you are on the right or left side of the political isle or smack dab in the middle of it, must make the effort to dial back the rhetoric and contribute to that narrative. Let’s rely on the legacy of Birmingham where we learn from both the struggles and the resistance as a source of material that guides us through this ever-changing landscape and what will be the new normal for at least the foreseeable future.