50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, how have things changed on Martin Luther King Day in Birmingham, Alabama?

Matthew Wood, on a year abroad at the University of Alabama, discusses what life is like today in one of the major battlegrounds of the 60s

In 1983, President Reagan made the third Monday of every January a federal holiday to commemorate the efforts of the century's leading civil rights activist. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. was first observed in 1986 but only implemented by all fifty US states in 2000. I recently visited the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama to assess the extent to which the city's black residents have achieved equality and integration in the city since the civil rights movement in the 60s.

In 1960, King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference identified Birmingham, Alabama as the epicentre of racial inequality, discrimination and segregation, and therefore their chosen battleground. King and local pastor Fred Shuttlesworth oversaw a peaceful boycott which resulted in progressive negotiations with the city's business leaders. This was a momentous occasion considering that at the turn of the century, the "City of Success" had emerged as an industrial powerhouse due to its heavy reliance on de facto slave labour to work the mines and steel factories.

However, not all of the city's powerful elite supported the integration movement. Civil rights activists were targeted by white extremists who in 1963 alone detonated over 50 dynamite explosions, earning the city the undesirable tag of “Bombingham”. Ku Klux Klan members organised the terrorist attack on the 16th Street Baptist Church which resulted in the deaths of four young girls; the convictions were frustratingly late and the sentences unjust. The infamous Eugene “Bull” Connor mercilessly suppressed the nonviolent resistance of unified SCLC members and local students in an episode of shocking and unfettered police brutality. Significantly, the world's television cameras captured images of police unleashing vicious dogs and powerful water hoses on defenseless protesters who remained composed, only breaking their silence to sing “We Shall Overcome”. This prompted a global outcry and led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Passivity in the face of racist violence had prevailed.

Birmingham in 2014 is a multicultural hub for financial, commerce and medical operations. Richard Arrington served an unprecedented 20 years as the first black mayor of the city from 1979, a period in which he single-handedly fronted a campaign for regeneration. Downtown is now a bustling areas of bars, bistros and microbreweries frequented by a youthful wave of intellects, doctors and lawyers. There are plans in place to link the city's districts together with a system of sprawling urban parks.

However, behind the seemingly harmonious present situation lies an undercurrent of white superiority which seeks to exclude Birmingham's black community. “White flight” is the term given to the process by which white residents avoid sharing public space with their African American counterparts. The downtrodden inner city areas are physically separated from the affluent suburban regions by the Red Mountain ridge. The politically distinct municipalities ensure their education system maintains a high quality by direct taxation funding. On the other hand, the city's transportation and school services are in desperate need of monetary improvement. Ironically, they are used and attended primarily by African Americans. The practice of interracial church attendance is around just 10 per cent. The city's white elite have slyly negotiated a partially segregated coexistence. The blue versus white collar discrepancy continues to illustrate the hurdles blocking most black residents from emerging as second class citizens. Examples of violence have been replaced by an unspoken yet fierce animosity. An undercurrent of police brutality has given way to Obama's decision to confront the notion of racial profiling head on, so far with limited success.

A comparison of the University of Alabama's two main campuses (one in downtown Birmingham, one in Tuscaloosa) outlines their stark differences. For example, the city establishment is a liberal and culturally diverse entity which continues to implement the progressive measures championed by King, Shuttlesworth and Arrington alike. The college town institution has been less successful in modernising; there exists a stifling conformity and uniformity of appearance, opinion and mindset amongst many in the student population. Alabama is gradually moving forward, albeit not as quickly as Dr. King would have wished.

Matthew Wood is reading American Studies at the University of Birmingham (UK). He is currently on his year abroad at the University of Alabama, in Birmingham (Alabama)

FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
New Articles
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Reception Teacher - Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates of pay : Randstad Education Gro...

Primary KS2 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam