One of Planetizen's Top Ten Books of 2006
"But for Birmingham," Fred Shuttleworth recalled President John
F. Kennedy saying in June 1963 when he invited black leaders to
meet with him, "we would not be here today." Birmingham is well
known for its civil rights history, particularly for the violent
white-on-black bombings that occurred there in the 1960s, resulting
in the city's nickname "Bombingham." What is less well known about
Birmingham's racial history, however, is the extent to which early
city planning decisions influenced and prompted the city's civil
rights protests. The first book-length work to analyze this
connection, ""The Most Segregated City in America": City Planning
and Civil Rights in Birmingham, 1920-1980" uncovers the impact of
Birmingham's urban planning decisions on its black communities and
reveals how these decisions led directly to the civil rights
Spanning over sixty years, Charles E. Connerly's study begins in
the 1920s, when Birmingham used urban planning as an excuse to
implement racial zoning laws, pointedly sidestepping the 1917 U.S.
Supreme Court Buchanan v. Warley decision that had struck down
racial zoning. The result of this obstruction was the South's
longest-standing racial zoning law, which lasted from 1926 to 1951,
when it was redeclared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Despite the fact that African Americans constituted at least 38
percent of Birmingham's residents, they faced drastic limitations
to their freedom to choose where to live. When in the1940s they
rebelled by attempting to purchase homes in off-limit areas, their
efforts were labeled as a challenge to city planning, resulting in
government and court interventions that became violent. More than
fifty bombings ensued between 1947 and 1966, becoming nationally
publicized only in 1963, when four black girls were killed in the
bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Connerly effectively uses Birmingham's history as an example to
argue the importance of recognizing the link that exists between
city planning and civil rights. His demonstration of how
Birmingham's race-based planning legacy led to the confrontations
that culminated in the city's struggle for civil rights provides a
fresh lens on the history and future of urban planning, and its
relation to race.
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