Published by EH.NET (December 2002)

Christopher MacGregor Scribner, Renewing Birmingham: Federal Funding and the

Promise of Change, 1929-1979. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press,

2002. xii + 188 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8203-2328-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gordon E. Harvey, Department of History & Government,

University of Louisiana at Monroe.

“Results rarely matched ambition in the Magic City” (p. 51). So writes

Christopher Scribner in Renewing Birmingham: Federal Funding and the Promise

of Change, 1929-1979, part of the University of Georgia Press series on

“Economy and Society in the Modern South,” edited by Douglas Flamming and

Bryant Simon. Scribner sets forth a new direction in the way we study the

modern South and its relationship to the federal government. In recent years,

southern studies has moved away from exploring the role of federal and state

governments and cast its attention on grassroots activists and individuals as

factors of change. Renewing Birmingham argues that federal programs and

money “actually stimulated and supported groups with alternative visions of

Birmingham’s future development and that, contrary to the common understanding,

the transforming role of the federal government in Birmingham — and by

implication elsewhere in the country — began well before 1963″ (p. 2).

This transformation, argues Scribner, cracked the foundations of the old order

in Birmingham and created a new elites who sought federal dollars as a means of

reviving the always-lagging Alabama economy. This new class had witnessed

Birmingham’s fall concurrent with Atlanta’s phoenix-like rise to a major

economic center of the South. Replicating the Atlanta pattern required more

money than the city and state desired to spend. The battle for Birmingham’s

future took place over whether the city would pursue such monies and it pitted

new pro-economic development groups against the remnants of the old “Big Mule”

alliance of black-belt planter elites and Birmingham industrialists, which

sought to preserve the old race- and class-based system from which it

benefited. Progress-minded folks, while not racial liberals, were willing to

overlook racial policies often tied to federal dollars in their effort to

reconstruct Birmingham in Atlanta’s image.

Perhaps no institution meant more to Birmingham’s future than the University of

Alabama Medical School. Awarded the school in 1944, Birmingham found that being

awarded a medical school and funding one were entirely different problems. A

historically frugal legislature in a poor state did not bode well for success

and the city and its new medical school looked to Washington for help, which

came in the form of the Hospital Construction and Survey Act of 1946, also

known popularly as the Hill-Burton Act. This new medical center, writes

Scribner, became a microcosm of the future of the city and the role of federal


Scribner’s strongest chapter is his discussion of urban renewal in 1950s

Birmingham. Several things had changed since the 1920s. Commercial leaders led

a crusade for federal grant-driven economic renewal, and the medical center

grew to become an attractive recipient of federal grants. But the optimism that

marked the early 1950s was dashed by the 1954 Brown decision, which caused a

retrenchment of segregation in the South, which curtailed economic growth.

Tormenting the city, writes Scribner, was Atlanta, which enjoyed a stronger

economy that led in turn to the earlier development of suburbs and white flight

and produced a less restricted housing market for blacks.

But as the city fell increasingly into its racial nadir, the Medical School

continued to grow and prosper, including expansion by acquiring land originally

set aside for slum clearance and redevelopment. Assuming leadership of the

college in 1962, Joseph Volker was a tireless grant seeker who saw that federal

funds were the only way the college would grow within its poor and frugal

environment. The city was at a crossroads by the mid-1960s. Should it remain

committed to segregation and continue as a second-class city of the South, to

remain forever in Atlanta’s increasingly long shadow? Or would it moderate its

racial views and challenge Atlanta with is medical college, which had the

potential to be a world-class institution? Scribner lets Volker himself

summarize the dilemma:

“Our dilemma is a simple one. On the one hand we are increasingly dependent

upon federal support for construction, and the financing of research and

instruction [and] such grants forbid discrimination in job employment. On the

other the elected officials have what they believe to be a mandate from the

population to maintain the local custom of segregation of the races” (p. 93).

For the bulk of the 1960s, Birmingham tried to find its identity, socially,

economically, and politically, writes Scribner. Business leaders, hoping to

replicate the Atlanta model, advocated new political leadership, expansion of

the city through annexation, and to allowing business leaders to hold greater

sway in city government while also calling for the replacement of the

commission form of government with the mayor-council system. Resisting such

efforts was the city’s old guard, led by Eugene “Bull” Connor, who had argued

in 1959, citing Nashville as an example, that the mayor-council form of

government usually led to blacks winning election to the council. To further

complicate matters, the Civil Rights Movement came to town in search of a

breakthrough in what many considered the toughest segregation atmosphere in the

South. Through it all, the medical center continued to grow and try its best to

avoid the racially charged atmosphere.

Scribner has presented readers with an illuminating study of how city boosters

used federal grants in the face of racial tension, political warfare, and

economic sluggishness. But federal money presented the city with a troublesome

choice: accept it and become subject to federal regulations regarding social

issues or refuse it and remain forever in Atlanta’s shadow. Scribner implies

that the city did both. When it came to the medical college and university that

grew around it, the city pursued federal money with abandon. But in other

economic areas, the status quo continued. Such was the case that by 1992, the

University of Alabama at Birmingham was responsible for one of every seven jobs

in Birmingham’s metro area. But to look at other segments of Birmingham’s

economy, writes Scribner, was to see little growth, especially for African


Renewing Birmingham reveals the danger of relying almost exclusively on

federal money for urban renewal and economic development. To be sure, UAB

buffered the city in the midst of a rapid economic fall in the 1970s. But by

the early 1980s, to venture away from the university complex was to enter

another economic reality, one that reflected the lack of commitment and vision

among city and state political leaders. Scribner’s study reveals a Birmingham

that at once wished to move beyond its past and follow closely the model set by

Atlanta while also maintaining allegiance to a racial and social order that

sought to preserve segregation. African American political leaders, who took

political power in the city beginning in 1979 with the election of Richard

Arrington, quickly fractured among themselves, and writes Scribner, “local

politics played out in absurd theater,” hampering the city’s progress (p. 140).

For the Magic City, the promise of change remained unfulfilled.

Gordon E. Harvey is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of

Louisiana at Monroe. He is author of A Question of Justice: New South

Governors and Education, 1968-1976 (University of Alabama Press, 2002) and

is writing a political biography of former Florida Governor Reubin Askew.