Ken Jensen, Executive Director of the American Committees on Foreign Relations, brings us this account of TAI‘s recent sojourn in Birmingham, Alabama:For two days in October 2006, The American Interest’s Frank Fukuyama, Adam Garfinkle and Charles Davidson, TAI contributor Raymond Baker, and America Abroad Media’s Aaron Lobel traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, to talk foreign policy with local civic leaders. This encounter was provoked by the American Committees on Foreign Relations, parent organization to the Birmingham Committee on Foreign Relations and a 35-city confederation of local foreign relations groups that does this sort of thing upwards of 300 times a year. A half-dozen public events were held during which the Birmingham public did very much more than listen politely while the past, present and future of American foreign policy was discussed by national figures on the critical-minded side of things. Indeed, TAI and local foreign relations talent were mixed together in a number of forums, with international lawyer Frank Young, city councilman William Bell, and college president David Pollick sitting side by side with Fukuyama, Garfinkle, and Baker as equal interlocutors. During the American Abroad Media radio taping for national NPR distribution, an impressive collection of local talent sat across the room from the panel, contributing on-mike comments and questions. The quality of the events was easily equal to anything one would find in Washington. No: it was better. All this was possible because the local talent brought considerable international experience to the table, as well as familiarity with the Washingtonians and their work. They also brought global interests to the conversation, heading off assumptions of parochialism in either direction. For their part, the Washingtonians seemed very much at home. What they didn’t already know about business, legal, political, educational and cultural Alabama, they pursued vigorously out of real interest. If the conventional wisdom has it that policy intellectuals and heartland Americans are like oil and water to one another, it would seem that it is neither conventional nor wisdom. When one puts thinking American heartlanders together with thinking policy intellectuals, they all become what they after all are: good citizens of the same country. “Birmingham?” you say. Taking up another part of the conventional wisdom, how can this be a place for foreign policy dialogue? When the uninitiated think of Birmingham, they come up with a vision of steel mills (rusting, probably) and segregation—mainly segregation: the dogs and fire hoses turned on Freedom Riders, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail, etc. Birmingham means nothing more to most people than the site of a major American embarrassment, both in our own eyes and those of the wider world. A place as interested in foreign policy as it is in, say, SEC football? “Unlikely,” so says the conventional wisdom. “Global,” “knowledgeable,” “enlightened,” and “creative” seem words that belong to other places. And, yet, they apply to contemporary Birmingham. The Birmingham of Randy Newman’s song of the same name is still there, no doubt, and integration is far from complete; but that‘s an increasingly smaller part of the Birmingham story. Like many other American industrial towns that have had to adapt to changing patterns of international trade and investment, the Birmingham “dale” (well, more like a bowl or valley) is ringed with foreign auto plants, home to a substantial amount of international commerce, conversable on Internet business and foreign investment, and the like. Birmingham has sister city relationships with a host of foreign places, some of them surprisingly obscure. Its colleges and universities host more than a modest number of foreign students. And one can meet an astonishing variety of Yankees and foreign émigrés from places with, seemingly, nothing whatever in common with the Alabama of common imagination. Sit down with African-American city councilman William Bell, and he’ll talk to you about international trade and technology and tell you what it’s like to negotiate with the Chinese. Talk to Frank Young, and he’ll tell you about his international legal practice and attendance a few days before at a conference in Ireland of TagLaw, an international alliance of law firms. Talk to David Carder, retired president of a subsidiary of Birmingham’s Vulcan Materials, and learn about his years in the Middle East dealing with Saudis and others. David will also tell you that his former boss, Herb Sklenar of Birmingham, has his name on the bow of a gigantic aggregate carrier abuilding in Singapore, or that Herb is a member of the Advisory Board of the National Czech & Slovak Museum and Library. When you get to know him, Carder, an ex-Marine and supporter of most traditional U.S. relationships abroad, will modestly confide that he brought over a bright young Palestinian woman from Kuwait, took her into his home, and put her through college and graduate school. Carder’s friends would tell you how he arranged with the Birmingham Symphony the first American performance of a choral symphony by a young Chinese composer he discovered in Taipei. They will also tell you about the time he arranged for the mayor of a poor Transylvanian town to come to Alabama to seek support for various civic projects. This, on almost an offhand suggestion of a friend of a friend in Washington. Abbott “Shorty” Williams, former Birmingham Oldsmobile dealer, will let you know what it was like to serve in the Peace Corps in Swaziland at the age of 51. Or about teaching junior college in Xian, China, or doing church mission and construction work in Panama, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Rev. Ruth Lamonte will tell you about the three parishes in Scotland she serves as a replacement priest. Any number of others will tell you about the international reputation of the medical school at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. (The people named above are all well known civic leaders, by the way . . . and, along with their many involvements, stalwart members of the Birmingham Committee on Foreign Relations.) After you’ve talked to them, go with them to the city’s Civil Rights Institute. On the way, they will leave international matters aside for a moment and get to other parts of the Birmingham story, telling you about what national businesses have their headquarters there, that Birmingham has the world’s largest Kiwanis Club, that Veteran’s Day is a Birmingham creation, etc. The Civil Rights Institute is far larger than might be expected from a city of a bit more than 200,000 (and shrinking in favor of its suburbs). Its architecturally serious (and highly attractive) building fairly dominates its locale—across one street from the park in which “Bull” Connor did his worst and across another from where the four young girls died on Birmingham Sunday. Passing through it, the place would seem to be simply a museum dedicated to telling the history of segregation and how Birmingham overcame it. If that’s all it were, it would be a museum as complete and well done as could be hoped by any Freedom Rider and as objective as anyone of whatever disposition regarding the civil rights struggle might hope for. But talk to the staff there, and it turns out to be very much more than that. It is called an “institute” because it functions as a place of research and education on civil rights, human rights, freedom, and justice. And its concerns are not limited to Birmingham, by any means. Indeed, they would have to be called “global.” The Institute owes its existence in part to the leadership of veteran African-American civil rights activist Odessa Woolfolk (who was trained at the University of Chicago and taught at Ullman High School in Birmingham) and the aforementioned international lawyer Frank Young (the scion of a old Birmingham family). Talking to these two compelling people, one learns how the Institute was created—not by “carpetbaggers” or ideological imposition, but by a substantial-sized group of well established locals of various backgrounds and persuasions determined not to turn their backs on their city, to forget its awful past, or to allow Birmingham to be without a working symbol of a better future. The Institute was started with private funds in the early 1990s: now, it has a place in the city budget. Stay around a while and you’ll discover how seriously the Institute is taken by all Birminghamians and how proud they are of the place. (It would be a long while, incidentally, before Young, who is president of the Birmingham Committee on Foreign Relations, will tell you that he was law clerk to Judge Hobart H. Grooms. Grooms, upholding the principle of the rule of law although he was not personally in favor of the change, desegregated the Birmingham schools in 1965. Young worked on the court orders.) Upon reflection, one might say that the Civil Rights institute was established by what could be called “creative centrists.” What Birmingham is today, in its many splendid parts, is the work of these sorts of people. And it is surprising how many of them there are there. The “creative” part of the term is obvious when one reflects upon the fact of the Civil Rights Institute. What better way, if approached with all due seriousness and the will to accomplish something startling, to come to grips with the past and move on to the future? How better to overcome the decline of the American steel industry than to build the town up as a medical and educational center? “Centrism” comes into things in various ways. It involves recognition of the reality of what the city was and is and who lives there. It assumes that each of the components of its population—which has been diversified over time to include as great a variety of “outsiders” as might be found in any American city its size—have equal title to the place. More importantly, it assumes that nothing can move forward unless people with means as well as will meet in the middle, in the center. Meeting in the center is a wish that every public figure in American commends. The difference between these sorts of “centrists” and “creative centrists,” like those in Birmingham, is that the latter meet to actually create something (and make it permanent), not just to talk. In light of this quality of creative centrism, Birmingham was able to establish a Civil Rights Institute well in advance of its final arrival as a fully integrated city and, with that, to convey its aspirations with a concrete working symbol of them. Very much the same sort of thing can be said about the Birmingham Committee on Foreign Relations. Founded in 1943, the Committee was “international” Birmingham well before the foreign auto plants and globalized business relationships. Getting back to The American Interest visit . . . I confess that the notion of “creative centrism” as I’ve applied it to Birmingham was inspired by TAI’s explanation of the magazine’s editorial policy at a meeting with the editorial board of the Birmingham News. If I understood Fukuyama and Garfinkle correctly, TAI aspires to deal with America in the world in a fashion grounded in reality, while seeking new and imaginative means for managing that reality. As TAI now knows, the approach it has adopted resonates very well not only with Birminghamians, but with local and regional civic life in general. Strip away politics (especially as we’ve known it since the 2000 presidential election) and take a look at the positive things that have been done by local and regional civic leaders. In serving the 35 ACFR foreign relations committees, I have been struck again and again by the extent to which community leaders of all persuasions have achieved astonishing things by acquiescing to realities, and by coming together and doing something about them. Civic-mindedness of the sort displayed in Birmingham turns out to be reassuringly wide-spread. By and large, it is quietly pursued. If the national media do not attend to its accomplishments, it’s due to our overly developed appetite for bad news and our inclination toward reductionism when it comes to speaking about parts of the country. If one is most concerned with confining Alabama to the old Deep South, where it surely is, one will of course miss or dismiss evidence of its new qualities. More dismayingly, one will also miss the story—the real story—of what has happened in the political, cultural, and civic “center.” TAI went to Alabama to get to the American heartland, to acquaint Birminghamians with the magazine and to display the qualities of its founders and contributors. It was no surprise to me that the serious-minded of Red State America engaged so productively with serious thinkers whose proper stage may seem to be a much larger one. (It was also no surprise to me that Odessa Woolfolk of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute brought Frank Fukuyama’s latest book along for signing.) America outside its largest cities is simply no longer a place of local self-absorption, parochial interests, and indifference to the world abroad. And the civic-mindedness extolled by Tocqueville and others is as much a thing of the present and future there as it has been a foundation of our past. Stars may have fallen on Alabama in October, but Alabama also fell upon the stars. —Ken Jensen
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Published on: November 22, 2006A Letter From Birmingham Dale