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Civil Rights Cities: Birmingham, Alabama

Last updated: August 2, 2023

Known as the “Magic City,” Birmingham was created at the end of the Civil War with the explicit purpose of bringing successful northern industries to the South. Nearly one hundred mostly prosperous years later, the city became a focus of the civil rights movement. Although scarred by tragedy during that period, modern Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city, is a key industrial center for the nation and is often named as a favorable city for business and quality of life.


The Post-Civil War Era

Thanks in part to a shipping canal that leads to the Gulf of Mexico, Birmingham, created in 1871 to become the “Philadelphia of the South,” was able to promise formerly enslaved African Americans industrial jobs and modern conditions. But for many, a better life would not be in store. Many soon discovered they had traded work in the fields for low wages and harsh conditions in mines and iron and coal plants. Industrial owners often leased homes to their workers at an inflated price; many workers sank into a vicious cycle of hard labor and debt. Threats, strict controls, and segregation laws kept laborers—both black and white—from unionizing. In the 1940s, companies often replaced paid laborers with prison workers. In the postwar 1950s, conditions had not greatly improved; the majority of laborers and domestic workers were African American, and nearly all earned poverty-level wages. Segregation was institutionalized, and black professionals earned less than white counterparts in nearly every field.

King in Birmingham

In 1960, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. organized legal, peaceful protests in Birmingham to bring attention to the inequities faced by African Americans and to call for an end to segregation. During one legal protest, the city’s police chief ordered firefighters to attack marchers with fire hoses on full nozzle. Those images were widely distributed by the media and sparked protests nationwide. King was jailed during a Birmingham protest and wrote the now-historic “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” that brokered an end to some instances of segregation. But the détente did not last long.

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Tragic City

On Sept. 15, 1963, the Magic City earned another of its nicknames: the Tragic City. On that day, Ku Klux Klan member Robert Chambliss placed a bomb on the steps of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, a main meeting hall for civil rights leaders. The detonation killed four African American children, and injured more than 20 others. The bombing set off wide protests that galvanized the movement.

Chambliss was found not guilty of the bombings during a 1963 trial. But in 1977, at the behest of then-state attorney general Bill Baxley, the case was reopened and enough evidence was found to convict the 73-year-old of the bombings. Three others were suspected of assisting Chambliss with the bombings, one of whom was also convicted of the charges.

All-Star City

Changes came to Birmingham in the wake of civil rights advancements. In 1973, an African American was elected to the state’s House of Representatives. And in 1979, biologist and politician Richard Arrington Jr. was elected the city’s first black mayor. Largely due to Arrington’s influence, the next two decades saw a rise in economic and educational opportunities for the city’s African American population. As a result of these efforts, Life magazine gave Birmingham yet another nickname: All-Star City.

Birmingham today

Modern Birmingham is Alabama’s cultural capital, teeming with colleges, museums and festivals. Although crime rates are high in certain areas, the city attracts new businesses and professionals in banking, high-tech, manufacturing and transportation. Business and trade conventions are a big draw, and the city has approved a $55 million downtown entertainment center with hopes of attracting business and leisure tourists. Along with these advancements, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church stands as a monument to the city’s past. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which received a medal for museum and library service from the White House, continues to lure visitors.

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