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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Richard Arrington, July 18, 1974. Interview A-0001. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Race, politics, and development in Birmingham

Arrington believes that those in power in Birmingham, particularly those behind Operation New Birmingham, rely on tokenism to advertise the city as racially progressive. He worries that groups intended to advocate for black Birmingham residents, like the Progressive Democratic Council, abdicated their responsibility in a recent election.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Richard Arrington, July 18, 1974. Interview A-0001. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

Can you explain to me what happened in so far as that last city election? Particularly. . . . Well, let me tell you what I know. As I understand it. . . . Two things, and I'm particularly interested in one. One, I understand that the Progressive Democrats did not endorse . . . endorsed a biracial slate even though there were some additional black candidates. And that this had an adverse effect in the black community toward them. Two, that subsequent to the election, one of the incumbent councilmen died and that U.C. Clemon, who had been the next highest vote getting candidate was considered but passed over in favor of a white candidate as replacement.
Yeah, well, before I deal with those let me say. . . . One thing you have to know about Birmingham, and I guess this relates more to the earlier question than to the two you've just raised. Is that as we look at the progress here in this city and we look at the role, say, of ONB, you will see that we are still a city that's dealing very much with tokenism, particularly in the area of employment. I think Operation New Birmingham, again, going back to that question, has helped, for example, to get blacks into positions in banks, in junior management positions and to open up a few other jobs here, opportunities. But we're still very much on a sort of tokenism level. We have not moved away from that yet here in this city. And I think that also sort of represents the policy of Operation New Birmingham. It has wanted to say who the black leaders are going to be in this town and they have annointed blacks with whom they could deal, they felt they could deal. And that could mean a number of things. As leaders. And they have been in a position to do this, I don't know for how long they will still be in that position. But they have been in a position to, as I say, annoint certain people as leaders because Operation New Birmingham in effect represents the power structure. Any black could say he's a leader but when he has problems he's got to deal with these people who make up the power structure. And if the power structure does not recognize him, does not sit down with him, so to speak, he is effect not really a leader unless he has behind him some sort of very strong support such as only say Martin Luther King has had in recent years. But back to your other question about the last election. Now let me see if I can zero in. What was your first question?
I think if referred to Progressive Democrats in Jefferson County and their endorsement policy and the effect of that in the black community.
Yeah. Well, in Birmingham we still, unfortunately, we still play, particularly in the black community, endorsement politics. Many blacks in this community and this county as a whole look for political leadership. When they're going to go to the polls they look mainly for a ballot. And since the Progressive Democratic Council has been the only organized black political structure in this county, they have, of course, had the corner on the black vote. And blacks have looked for them to distribute their ballots. The marked ballots which are distributed through the churches and through the civic leagues. And I would say that most blacks here have, for years, voted the Progressive Democratic Council ballot, whatever marked ballot there was. This time. . . . by this time I mean the last city election . . . the Progressive Democratic Council sort of shirked its responsibility, or abdicated, is my feeling, in that it came out . . . with five seats available, it endorsed 10 folk. In effect, said vote for any five. This was sort of a cop out. I have not been able to fully understand it yet. I was at the Council meeting the night that the screening committee came in with the recommendation and more or less railroaded it, ramrodded it through. It did make quite a few blacks unhappy. They were displeased. I think it sort of served to shake up the Council a bit because some of the black ministers, a group called the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, came out with its own ballot and carried a large portion of the black vote. Went for that ballot instead of the Progressive Democratic ballot. I don't know if the Progressive Democratic Council has gotten over that.