[URBANTH-L]REV: Wilson on Connerly, _The Most Segregated City in America_

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Mon Mar 6 12:12:20 EST 2006

[cross-posted from H-Urban]

Published by H-Urban at h-net.msu.edu (March 2006)

Charles E. Connerly. _The Most Segregated City in America: City Planning 
and Civil Rights in Birmingham, 1920-1980_. Center for American Places 
Series. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005. xvi + 360 
pp. Maps, notes, index. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8139-2334-4.

Reviewed for H-Urban by Bobby M. Wilson <bmwilson at bama.ua.edu>, 
Department of Geography, University of Alabama

Race and Planning Practices in Birmingham

For the first time, in _The Most Segregated City in America_ , an 
historical connection is delineated between civil rights and planning 
practices in Birmingham. Author Charles Connerly demonstrates in detail 
how planning practices were used to maintain the racial status quo.  It 
is not coincidental that a city that became known as the most segregated 
city in America and the place for one of the most significant battles 
for civil rights in America, also was the South's most industrial city. 
For the early part of the twentieth century, a significant part of 
Birmingham's labor force consisted of blacks who migrated from the black 
belt region of the South to work in the coal and ore mines. These new 
inhabitants needed housing and Birmingham planners made sure that white 
housing was segregated from that for black people.

Birmingham had applied the logic of protecting property values (that 
propelled the zoning movement in America) to the legal separation of 
black and white neighborhoods. In the 1940s, black homeowners launched 
the struggle for civil rights by violating the city's racial zoning 
ordinance, which had been adopted in 1926. Not until 1951 was 
Birmingham's racial zoning declared unconstitutional by the Supreme 
Court, resulting in "the South's longest-standing racial zoning law." (p 

Connerly poses a critical question: why did it take so long to declare 
the city's zoning law unconstitutional, when the courts had already 
declared racial zoning in many southern cities, including Atlanta, 
unconstitutional?  In answering this question, Connerly distinguishes 
the planning practices in Birmingham from other southern cities. Racial 
zoning ordinances were often prepared by planners. To challenge 
Birmingham's racial zoning was to challenge the city's comprehensive 
plan. But more important, black citizens of Birmingham who wanted change 
were impaired by the intimidating strength of the white power structure, 
the organizational weakness of the National Association for the 
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the absence of black voting 
power. Not until after World War II did the NAACP take up the zoning 
issue. The city also made wide use of the "separate but equal" doctrine, 
which remained legally intact until the 1954 _Brown_ decision. By 
invoking a "separate but equal" clause in its zoning enabling statute, 
the city took advantage of the fact that the Supreme Court had not ruled 
that doctrine unconstitutional.

Although the city invoked the "separate but equal" clause in its zoning 
statute, there was no equality in racial zoning. The uniqueness of lots 
and neighborhoods made them inherently unequal, reinforcing inequality 
between black and white neighborhoods. Black neighborhoods were more 
likely than white neighborhoods to be located in or near flood-prone 
areas and industrial sites and were four times more likely than white 
neighborhoods to contain heavy industry. Birmingham argued that its 
racial zoning only restricted access to the property, not the purchase 
and ownership of the property, and therefore the rights of an individual 
to participate in the marketplace were not violated. But such legal 
reasoning on the part of Birmingham was not consistent with what the 
court said in _Buchanan v. Warley_ (1917), which tied the right of 
ownership to the use and occupation of the property.
Connerly argues that racial zoning undermined urban housing markets and 
this eventually led to its downfall. The 1926 zoning code provided only 
one black neighborhood for single-family housing and little or no new 
housing opportunities for black citizens. There was no "filtering" or 
"trickle down" of houses and neighborhoods from whites to blacks. As 
early as 1923, Birmingham prevented the entry of blacks into white 
neighborhoods, resulting in a dual housing market, one black, one white. 
After 1945, neighborhoods zoned for blacks could not accommodate the 
growth of the black population.  
Urban renewal provided Birmingham with the means to relocate blacks (p. 
103), a capability that racial zoning had not offered. The city had no 
problem in identifying neighborhoods with blighted conditions that fit 
the federal government's requirement for urban renewal. Highway 
development reinforced racial boundaries. Interstate 65, for example, 
became a buffer between the city's west side black neighborhoods and the 
central business district. Connerly is quick to note, however, that 
there is no evidence that city leaders, including Bull Connor, 
deliberately used highways as buffers between black and white 
neighborhoods. Yet, the effect of highway development was to reinforce 
some of the boundaries on the 1926 racial zoning map, such as part of 
the I-65 corridor. Due to significant dislocation of the city's black 
population by urban renewal and highway development, racial change in 
neighborhoods began to take place in the 1960s. By 1980, the majority of 
the city's inhabitants were black, the opposite of what white residents 
The black community did not remain passive toward these racialized 
planning practices. As agents, blacks were capable of doing things that 
made a difference, that is, to exercise some sort of power and 
self-reliance. In his discussion of the black planning tradition and 
neighborhood empowerment in Birmingham, Connerly might have found Michel 
de Certeau's _The Practice of Everyday Life_ useful to put his 
historical discussion into a theoretical framework [1]. In analyzing 
everyday practices, de Certeau made a distinction between "strategy," 
which requires its own space, and "tactic," which lacks its own space. 
Black citizens in Birmingham often did not have the means to keep to 
themselves, to withdraw and plan a general strategy. Blacks were 
intimidated in their neighborhoods and churches. There was no space to 
withdraw to for strategizing.  In exercising power, blacks, therefore, 
had to operate tactically, manipulating and diverting the space of the 
other, the white-dominated space. We learn that Birmingham's history of 
terrorist bombing began with blacks' tactical resistance to racial 
zoning. Connerly explains that black leaders and the NAACP waited for 
the right test case to end racial zoning, the legalized landscape of 
segregation. De Certeau would have called this a tactical move, playing 
by the rules to divert the white-dominated space for one's own use.  

In exercising power, blacks also attempted to produce their own space, 
where they could strategize responses to threats from the white power 
structure. According to de Certeau, to have a strategy is to postulate a 
place that can be delimited as one's own and serve as a base from which 
targets or threats from the outside can be managed.[2] 
Neighborhood-based civic leagues, which had existed in Birmingham since 
the 1920s, provided this space for blacks. These civic leagues chiefly 
relied on two strategies for improved services: petitioning local 
government and self-help.

With adoption of the 1974 Citizen Participation Plan, Birmingham 
developed one of most comprehensive neighborhood-based citizen 
participation programs in America, reversing "the city's longtime 
tradition of denying its black citizens the opportunity to participate 
in the planning process" (p. 241). From these Citizen Participation 
Program neighborhood associations, blacks were able to develop a 
political strategy that led to the election of Richard Arrington as the 
first black mayor of Birmingham.

Readers not familiar with the local history of Birmingham may get lost 
in some of the details provided in this work, but students of race and 
planning will come away with a better understanding of how planning 
practices constructed and reinforced race-connected practices in 
Birmingham, "America's Johannesburg."


[1]. Michel de Certeau, _The Practice of Everyday Life_, trans. Steven 
F. Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. 36.

[2]. Ibid.

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