This will be my last post for a while, and perhaps forever. The emergency MRI ordered by my Harvard-trained opthalmologist who performed my lens replacement surgery in February confirmed his belief that an underlying problem was causing the blindness in my right eye and the constant ringing in my ears.
Today, Wednesday, May 20, 2020, I will undergo a 12-hour operation to remove the bulk of a tumor that, among other things, is pressing on my optic nerve, depriving it of blood and oxygen. The remaining section of the tumor which has invaded delicate and necessary nerves and vessels will be treated by radiation. The surgery is complicated and the recovery may be challenging. I will soon find out.
In thinking about this latest in a long series of health issues, I could not help but think that in spite of it all, I had have a remarkably blessed life, filled with many loyal and cherished friends for whom I am so grateful. This surgery is just another bump in a long and winding road that has been my life. What a ride it has been!
But as I drove home from the meeting with the neurosurgeon, Dr. Carl Heiland, head of the neurology department and instructor at Tufts Medical School, (you can view his video on brain tumors here: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rirhV22dKTM), I had a fleeting moment of feeling sorry for myself and tears welled in my eyes making it more difficult to drive with only one eye actually working. So I pulled to the side of the road to regain my composure and remind myself of how mentally tough I am, despite my ability to cry at even the suggestion of animal cruelty. I also did a brief review of some of the many other travails in my life, just as challenging as this one, that I have survived and conquered. I suppressed my instinct to call out to God for help as I remembered the promise I had made decades ago to not ask Him for trivial things. then I drove home to deal with the many details that had to be handled if I wanted to leave things in the order I desired. But as my relationship with God crossed my mind over and again, I recounted the day I attempted to make a foolish bargain with Him that still to this day prevents me from praying for myself. So I am hoping that friends will save their thoughts and prayers for those in desperate need of miracles in these uncertain and difficult times.
While in college, I organized a Red Cross volunteer program for students to work in a local hospital emergency room as part of a service project for my fraternity. It was a way to make the fraternity experience, which I hated, more relevant and useful. I found the rules and the rituals to be ridiculous. Things like kidnapping pledges in the middle of the night and taking them blindfolded to a remote field where someone attempted to shoot flaming arrows into the dark sky at a mythical target while reciting nonsense from the “sacred book”, seemed beyond absurd to me and I had almost been kicked out of the group for giggling during this “solemn” ceremony. Andy Cannon, my best friend in high school and one of my college roommates, however, was keen on the whole charade and insisted I cooperate for his sake since he was the one who had sponsored me for membership.
Kay Waas, whose husband was the local government meteorologist, directed the youth programs for the Red Cross and loved the idea of young people wearing Red Cross jackets and providing non-medical assistance to patients and staff in the emergency room. She supplied us with spiffy blue jackets with a Red Cross emblem and embossed name tags to make us look official and supervised our two-day training session to prepare us for service. The program attracted pre-med and pharmacy students looking for real-life exposure to emergency medicine. And the hospital also seemed to appreciate the chance to have extra hands on board to free the medical staff from paperwork and more menial tasks.
I worked a regular shift two nights a week. In addition to my full class load, I was also working from 6 to 9pm as a “credit auditor” at Sears in a local shopping center. And on three nights I would work at the Holiday Inn at the edge of the campus as a night auditor. I would leave that job at 7 am and rest for an hour or two before my first regular classes which I tried to schedule as late as possible so I would be sure to stay awake during the lectures. It didn’t always work and I had to make adjustments as my grades started suffering.
In the emergency room, I would clean up exam cubicles and assist nurses in replenishing the stock room. At other times, I would help patients and their relatives fill out insurance forms and necessary paperwork for treatment. Mostly, I chatted with patients and relatives to act as a counselor to relieve their stress, assuring them things would be fine. But sometimes, when there was a serious emergency, I would be called into a treatment room to provide an extra set of hands. I hated those times because it brought me in direct contact with often gruesome injuries and lots of blood. Fortunately, I had worked in the St. Francis hospital laundry room while in high school and saw more than my fair share of bloody sheets, towels, and bandages before I was 18. Working there was the brainchild of my priest who thought it might dissuade me from wanting to become a doctor and direct me toward the priesthood as vocations continued to dwindle and young men willing to adopt that life were in short supply. He thought I fit the bill as a potential seminarian. Wrong.
I stayed sick most days I worked there, nauseated by the extreme heat from the giant washing machines and many dryers and ironing machines and the foul smells of the linens that continuously flooded down the shoot on a daily basis. The chemical disinfectants and strong detergents were enough to clobber anyone, but I was only 17 weighing about 125 lbs and seemed particularly ill-suited for the job. I was working to save money to buy my mother a diamond ring that I had on Layaway at V.V. Vick Jewelers in Columbus, Georgia. Mr. Vick’s daughter married Lt. William Calley of Mai Ly massacre fame not long after I paid off my ring. Despite the gruesome disgust I felt for the job, I persisted with the goal before me. But some days were harder than others. And there was never a day that someone on an upper floor had not just wrapped up whatever had been cut out of a patient and sent it down the shoot. Bloody feces and urine-soaked sheets were the norms. Body parts required special handling as did the syringes that I often found in the folds. But encouraged by the humble and nurturing black women who operated the flat irons day in and day out while humming and singing with smiles on their faces and without complaint, I made it through the summer.
My escape was the University of Georgia and now here I was in another Catholic hospital doing some of the same crappy jobs. But the interaction with people made it rewarding and the praise Kay Waas heaped on me regularly for my persistence and hard work made it worth the while and bolstered me for the really hard parts.
One of those came when there had been an automobile accident involving a family and they all arrived at the emergency room simultaneously by ambulances. Battered bodies filled every available cubicle and doctors and nurses scrambled to treat each victim. I was called into one where a young girl, maybe no more than six, lay unconscious and bleeding on a gurney. Three doctors frantically worked on her to revive and stabilize her and I stood by to hand them instruments and things like compresses. After an hour, she was still unconscious, but breathing with a regular heartbeat. She had sustained a head injury and was rolled off for immediate surgery.
I cleaned up the cubicle and returned it to neat order. Then I went to the employee break room and softly wept. I called on God to help this innocent child and pledged that if He would let her live, I would never call on Him for anything for myself as long as I lived. In retrospect, it was a naive bargain. You can’t negotiate with someone who holds all the power and control and needs nothing from you. Nonetheless, in my spiritually unsophisticated youth, I felt I had a deal. And when I learned the next day that the little girl had lived, I affirmed my resolve to keep the promise. I could have just relied on God’s mercy, but at the time a trade seemed appropriate. I sometimes wonder what happened to the child who would be a grown woman now, maybe with children of her own. And I wonder how she would react to the notion that a perfect stranger was in a room near her trying to negotiate with God for her life. Just a kid himself, begging for her life with nothing worth trading.
Over sixty years later, I can honestly say that I kept that promise which now seems a little ridiculous, reserving my prayers and petitions only for children who are suffering. I have kept God busy as I have never been want for a child in need; the latest being those kept in cages on our southern border and tens of thousands being maimed and murdered in Syria and starved in Yemen. And sadly, there is always a story closer to home of child abuse, torture, and murder where my mind imagines the horror felt by a trusting, innocent child betrayed by those entrusted to protect them. In Massachusetts, we have a number of recent stories of child murder and neglect which had led our governor to propose reform of our child welfare system. It’s coming not a minute too soon.
Oh for sure, through the years I have come close to violating what I viewed as the terms of the deal on more than one occasion, but somehow have managed to keep the compact intact. But it has been a real challenge.
Never during my time in Sumter County Georgia, working on school desegregation in a very hostile and dangerous environment did I ask for God’s help, though others, like Linda and Millard Fuller, my friends who founded Habitat for Humanity and Rev. Harry Dougherty and his wife Corrie may have been doing it for me, along with the Christian community that resided at Koinonia Farm. Jimmy Carter had been chairman of the school board, but helped me sue the board for their actions to thwart desegregation when he became governor shortly after my arrival there. His pastor at Plains Baptist provided spiritual guidance during this time and there was no lack of connection to God at Koinonia Farm, founded by the Southern Baptist theologian, Clarence Jordan. It was there, under the influence of these practicing Christians that I refined my own belief system and vowed to stay true to it.
And some years later, after making it through the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, I left for Sweden to study as a Fulbright Scholar and Sheldon Prize winner, an award of which I am particularly proud because T.S. Eliott was a Sheldon Fellow. I suppose I should have been a poet. It might have been a lot easier in retrospect. I also held fellowships and awards from the Sweden-America Foundation and Swedish Institute which allowed me great freedom to travel and study without economic worries, assuring that my time in Sweden would be productive and pleasant. But in a flash, a car accident turned it into a very dark time of grief and abject loneliness. Still, I managed to pull myself together and complete a degree at the University of Stockholm while finishing research for my doctoral dissertation for Harvard.
I resisted the head of the Fulbright Commission, Karin Linton’s plea that I go home to grieve in a familiar place and return the following year and stuck it out. Karin died in Sweden two weeks ago and it was for me a bittersweet moment because I will miss our friendship of over 47 years but rejoice in the idea that she will be reunited with her beloved husband Stellan and their only daughter Anne, who died of ovarian cancer at a young age leaving two small children.
One of the highlights of our friendship was time I spent with them at their summer home in California where I could see Elizabeth Taylor’s back yard from my bedroom window. And it was so much fun when I decided to attend Anne’s wedding in Stockholm and was sitting in a pew when she walked down the aisle, evoking a shocked look on her face and tears from her parents. I returned to Sweden several times, once to help resolve a problem that unfairly threatened Karin’s position at the Commission. She was forever grateful but for me, it was just returning the favor of the love and support I had received while I lived there. Karin became the foremost scholar on the works of Anne Tyler who wrote the Accidental Tourist and we often consulted on her literary career. We remained devoted friends until her death.
It took ten years of private, sometimes debilitating pain before I realized I had a problem not wanting any intimate relationships and sought grief counseling from Rev. Felix Joffrion, an Episcopal priest with a Ph.D. in Psychology who was based at St. Andrew’ s on Southside in his last duty station. We made lots of progress and had a few laughs along the way before I decided I could cope without him. He kept worrying about what he called the “Thomas Eagleton” syndrome, the VP candidate who had to resign when it was revealed he suffered from depression. But I cared less about my political career than the relationship on which I was working that I felt was being hampered by lingering grief. In the end that relationship also broke my heart for different reasons and I still carry the scars from it, dreaming sometimes about the past with a different ending. But yet, I survived reality and did my duty for the community, giving my best in my public positions.
Early on in my time in Birmingham, I had come close to breaking the deal when I returned to Birmingham to work as special assistant to the Superintendent of Schools and dealt with vindictive and ignorant board members Clyde Kirby, Bettye Fine Collins, and Ossie Ware Mitchell, who were too busy promoting their own interests to serve that of children. I wound up suing them in federal court and winning in a case listed in the Federal supplement styled Katopodis v. The Birmingham Board of Education that established the rights of educational professionals versus that of lay boards and was used all over the Country to assist educators unfairly dismissed and demoted. Many of my Harvard professors were amused when I was invited back to lecture on “my” case. Professor Walter McCann took delight in reminding me I had made an A-minus in his Law and Education class. I told him I would have done better if it had not been so boring.
They found it more amazing that I intended to use my notoriety from the conflict with the Board to run for the City Council. Walter and Jay Featherstone, the editor of the New Republic, sent campaign contributions. And in one case I got a telegram of congratulations when I won. Who sends telegrams anymore? At that time, in 1977, I was the youngest person ever elected to the Birmingham City Council and two years later, definitely the youngest Council president in Birmingham’s history, though some have wrongly claimed that distinction with faulty math. I took some delight in occupying the same office that has once been used by Bull Connor. Birmingham was changing and I was proud and blessed to be part of that change.
I dealt with all the usual crap that comes one’s way when you run for public office and on the night of my victory, I knelt by my bedside and promised God that no matter how difficult things might get, I would always try to do the right thing. I found this to be a particularly difficult promise to keep for many reasons. But I retired from the Council after two terms in 1985 with a clear conscience. I had accomplished every goal I had set and, after consulting with Miss Nina (Miglionico) who said she intended to retire, I decided to join her. It would not be fun anymore watching Jeff and William violate their oaths of office every day to support their whore hopping hedonism. We had both witnessed it close up and were disgusted that there were not better leaders from the Black community that could better serve their many needs without lining their pockets and providing pathetic examples of leadership.
There were certainly times with my foray into business that I could have used God’s help. It was a disaster, not of my making, but because I had trusted the wrong people to protect my financial interests. But the race for the County Commission loomed on the horizon and seemed like a great way to continue my public service career with less stress. Boy, was that a miscalculation.
I did not realize how vicious a campaign could be. It was complete with smear sheets and negative ads and an all-out assault on my character, even claims that I had lied about my education and Harvard had no record of my attendance. Like many of Trump’s lies, this was easy to disprove and many of the other claims were so outlandish that they became fodder for comedic routines. Still, it was hurtful to read that I was having an affair with my priest and regularly used illegal drugs. Of course, neither was true. But what shocked me the most about the smear sheets and the campaign, in general, was that it was coming from Chriss Doss, a Baptist minister who was the incumbent. He and his supporters had tried to annihilate me in the Republican primary with vicious attacks that became more virulent when I became the Republican nominee for the seat. I have wondered from time to time, if Commissioner Doss, who went on to teach at Samford University, a Baptist institution, ever looked back with regret or remorse on his disgustingly nasty campaign. I doubt it, because his brand of Christianity, like that of his colleague Karen O. Bowdre, never examine their own consciences because they are too busy looking for the sin in others.
Rev. Doss’ chief political and media adviser, Cy Steiner, did come to my office months after I had replaced Mr. Doss, seeking forgiveness. A few months after our meeting, he killed himself for unknown reasons. It brought back memories of the political consultant who had cost me the Mayor’s race with his underhanded tactics who also killed himself. Jack Hatchett had also sought forgiveness for what he had done to my career and my reputation with innuendo and outright slander. After the campaign ended, he would stop by my apartment unannounced late at night, eating a banana and making suggestive comments in some juvenile attempt to seduce me. It was awkward to say the least and disgusting on many fronts. But more insufferable because he had also exploited the fact that I was not married in his political pieces for Frank Parsons, his candidate. Now, he claimed he wished he had worked for me and wanted to be friends. It was not going to happen, although in both cases, I told them I had moved on and held no grudges, It was God from whom they needed absolution. I have no way of knowing if they asked for it, but there is no question that neither Hatchett nor Steiner ever achieved the peace they needed.
They were not alone in a willingness to use whatever it took to win. The attacks just kept coming as if this seat on the Commission was worth millions. Turned out it was if you were a greedy bond attorney like Bill Slaughter. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Republican primary to defeat me with his crony and partner in crime, Gary White. I was no match for them and unwilling to do the things necessary to achieve re-election. I could not keep the promise of doing the right thing and run a negative campaign with the deserved counter-attacks on the character of Gary White. As a result, Mr. Slaughter made millions, Gary took kickbacks and the County ultimately had to file the largest municipal bankruptcy in history to pay for the greed of one sick lawyer and his dutiful minion. And the citizens of Birmingham and Jefferson County continue to pay the highest water and sewer rates in the country because of it.
I retired to other things that seemed more productive and less dangerous to my reputation, organizing the Council of Cooperative Governments whose membership included Atlanta, Birmingham, Memphis, New Orleans, Meridian, and twenty-six smaller municipalities focused on obtaining a designated high-speed rail corridor through the South and developing a plan for a reliever airport for Hartfield-Jackson. 9-11 ended that project which had made tremendous progress in a short period of time achieving official designation by the Federal Rail Administration of a Southern HSR corridor and developing structured lines of communication between major Southern cities that fostered cooperation on many mutually beneficial legislative initiatives and projects.
Then came Larry Langford and his opportunity for real leadership in the community. He possessed tremendous talent and I was so excited to see him elected, first to the County Commission and then as Mayor of Birmingham. Our association began in 1975 when he was a reporter with a local TV station and I was Special Assistant to the Superintendent of Schools.
…..to be continued. hopefully. It’s late and I have a big day ahead of me.
Dr. Verna Thornton, a gifted and talented physician now living in Minnesota, asked her Facebook friends to comment on their lastest encounters with racism and not hold back. The question correctly implied that racism in an on-going phenomenon and seemed to be directed to people of color based on most of the responses where respondents recounted their own personal examples of prejudice and discrimination based solely on the color of their skin or ethnicity. I also sadly gleaned from it that Verna may also still be experiencing that same prejudice even though she left her successful practice in Georgia and her home state of Alabama to flee the pain and aggravation of ignorance and prejudice and moved North, like many people of color in the South have done for decades. But apparently, even the frozen land of Minnesota appears to be unsafe from irrational hatred, no matter how gifted and productive a person of color might be.
I have known Verna since she was an adorable, precocious child. My first encounter with her family came when I met her grandmother, Verna Kennon, at a church event that was political, a common occurrence in the deep South where the church has played a critical role in the advancement of civil rights and the attainment of political power by minorities who have endured indignities and ignorant stereotyping since their ancestors first involuntarily stepped foot on American soil.
Her grandmother, whose name Verna bears, was a striking woman with a regal bearing. Elegant and well-spoken, she was not shy about expressing her political opinions but seemed wary and suspicious as I engaged her trying to win her support for my first-time candidacy for the Birmingham city council. She made an impression with her patrician air and elegance and stubborn resistance to my charm offensive. Later as I came to know her daughter, Dr. Dannetta Thornton, also lovely and gifted, it was clear that the family were Birmingham aristocracy; moneyed, educated, and sophisticated. Gaining her support was helped by my close friendship with another member of Birmingham’s black leadership cadre, Helen Shores Lee, whose father was a civil rights icon who filed the lawsuit to integrate the University of Alabama and dozens of others in his over 50 years as a practicing attorney to advance minority rights in Alabama. I am honored to be the godfather to two of his grandchildren, Damien and Danielle Shores-Larkin. On a trip with them to Italy to celebrate their sixteenth birthday, (they are twins), I was reminded that racism is not confined to American shores when Damien encountered some problems at our hotel with hostile staff that could not seem to accept that he was a registered, paying guest. But I did not need this episode with racism to remind me of how ubiquitous and insidious racism has been and still is, not just in the South, but everywhere. Sadly, it seems more prevalent than ever in this age of Trump where it has been allowed to flourish in plain sight.
It’s difficult to have a productive conversation about race in the current political environment with heightened sensitivities that are looking for a fight about anything that slightly smacks of intolerance or criticism. A recent example for me was when I commented on Bloomberg’s support of stop and frisk while he was mayor and made reference to the statistics concerning black on black murders. There may have been a better way to have worded that but the blowback was insulting and insinuating that because I dared to mention that there was an inordinate number of black people killing other people of color, I was somehow a racist. Notwithstanding the likelihood of the same sort of criticism of this piece, I think there can never be a solution to the problem of racism unless we start with an honest discussion of the subject and acknowledgment of the mountain of data that is on file concerning the insidious effects of racism, including some of the facts we may not like.
I don’t remember exactly when I first encountered racism or became aware of its existence. My mother was born in Wylam and her family lived most of their lives in and around Birmingham. Because my stepfather was in the Navy, we lived in other parts of the Country but often visited Birmingham. When I would visit my aunt, sometimes during summers because she had an in-ground swimming pool which seemed like a big deal to a 12-year-old at the time, I remember well my uncle Carl working himself into a frenzy on a regular basis, talking derisively about the “niggers down at the plant”. The plant was the Fairfield branch of U.S. Steel where he worked in something called the tin mill, making more than the average wage in the area. But the integration of the plant and potential promotions of black workers to supervisor positions threatened his security and often induced rants of generalized hostility toward the whole race of people as he decried their ruining society by simply trying to obtain voting rights. He told vicious racist jokes and demeaned black people behind their backs, although I never saw him act that way toward any of the black people we might encounter at the Wylam Ice House or those he employed to help him build his house in Pleasant Grove, a developing suburban neighborhood he viewed as a safe sanctuary where he and my Aunt Sis could raise their only daughter Carla away from their perceived and imagined threat of black people.
My aunt was less vocal, but there was no mistaking how she also felt, refusing to call black people anything but “niggers” and rejecting any notion that things were not just fine in Alabama for them. She loved George Wallace and his stand against integration. To her mind, there was no need for a Civil Rights Act or any laws to ensure equality. Somehow, despite ample facts to the contrary, people of color seemed to be being given preferential treatment which meant white people were the ones somehow being oppressed.
Her views moderated somewhat when she converted to Catholicism and started attending St. Stanislaus Church where there were a couple of black members and influential “liberal” priests, like Father Friend who she deeply admired and with whom she became close before he left St. Stanislaus and became a bishop. I had converted years earlier and was proud and pleased when she told me of her decision to be baptized Catholic, especially in the face of strident opposition from her mother, my grandmother, who abhorred Catholics. She made an exception for me but was vocal and dire in her comments to my aunt but often admonished me not to take communion as it was the way “they” were exerting control over my impressional young mind. Still, there was beneath Aunt Sis’s facade of tolerance, a palpable hostility and obvious disdain for the entire race of black people. She came by it naturally. Her uncle had been a member in good standing of the Wylam branch of the KKK and no one in the Alexander-Morgan families used anything but derogatory terms when referring to black people. (Years later I donated the KKK robe I found in Uncle J.C. Holme’s trunk at his house in Mcdonald Chapel to the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum. He was a well-known and respected businessman. But like many of his generation and culture, he hated black people and wanted them “kept in their place.”)
My aunt’s often- expressed a deep love for me caused her to ignore my early career in the ’70s helping to desegregate schools in Sumter County, Georgia and later in Birmingham. But for my uncle, I was a traitor to my race and a pariah. He never forgave me, but in a major concession, agreed not to use the word “nigger” in my presence after I violently protested and threatened to never visit his home again unless he stopped. Still, he lived and died a racist and never expressed regret for the hatred and prejudice he had encouraged and perpetuated.
They used to say that one difference between the North and South was that in the North, they loved black people collectively, but hated them individually; while in the South, we loved them individually, but hated black people collectively. I found this to be truer than not as my family lived in Georgia in a house not far from a poor black neighborhood. Sometimes, I would play games with some of the black children I knew and my mother, who hated ironing, would regularly hire black women of various ages to perform that task for her, paying next to nothing for their hard work. I was predisposed not to dislike black people having gone to school with black children at Sacred Heart Elementary in Pensacola at the time of my conversion to Catholicism when I was in the fifth grade. And, like most children, I was oblivious to political issues or any valid reasons to hate people who had not done anything to me. I was more afraid of the white bullies in school than any black kid I had ever met.
But some things became fairly obvious, fairly quickly after we moved to Georgia from Pensacola. Pensacola High had been integrated, but Harris County High in Hamilton, Georgia was not. The school bus would pick me up in front of my house and drive by the black kids I knew, often standing in the cold and rain waiting for a second bus that followed to pick them up and take them to their all-black schools. In many ways, Harris County was more sophisticated than many rural Georgia communities because of the influence of Callaway Gardens, an upscale family and golf resort located in Pine Mountain. they had changed the name of the town years earlier from Chipley to Pine Mountain to make it more exotic and alluring to tourists. It’s proximity to Ft. Benning in nearby Columbus also seemed to influence attitudes there. In fact, the priest who came regularly to say mass at our small church, Christ the King, which had been one-room gas station, was from Ireland and made it clear to me on more than one occasion that the hell I was catching at school for going to church with “niggers” was a price I’d have to pay to obey the teachings of Christ who was no “respecter of persons”. Even when our statue he had imported from Ireland got knocked over and violence against us seemed possible, Father Ryan held the fort and refused to bend even though our church was perhaps the only integrated public facility in the County. At school, I was often asked about how it felt to go to church with niggers but they also asked me if we believed in Jesus so I chalked both questions up to rampant ignorance.
There were many ways to perpetuate segregation in our community and people were creative in finding them. Callaway Gardens could not openly discriminate so they created a black only theme park down the road with free admission. On hot summer days, the place would be jammed with black kids using water slides and the wading pool. Still, I sometimes wondered if they might like to see the bigger park a mile away or attend a performance of the FSU circus that played there in the summers. And while the Callaway Gardens Inn, later a Holiday Inn and then back to a privately owned facility, did not openly discriminate, I can only remember checking in one black family at the cottages during the several years I worked there. somehow they knew this was not a place where they were welcome. It was simply understood that mixing together was unacceptable and most people seemed content to follow the unwritten rules of discrimination rather than pay the price of conflict and ostracism.
As school desegregation came to the area, I taught in a consolidated high school in Greenville, Georgia, 12 miles from my home in Pine Moutain and close to Roosevelt’s Little White House in Warm Springs, where he had died n 1945. I loved going there and would sometimes leave school and wander through the house and garage absorbing as much of the history and ambiance as I could. It was not as popular a tourist attraction as it is today and there was freedom to explore the place and actually pick up things in the house and hold them; like a cup actually used by the president. It was a good thing to feel that a president as great as Roosevelt was a real person. Moreover, it stimulated me to read about him and Eleanor and it was there I first learned about battles to treat all people with dignity and respect.
There were only two black kids in my homeroom class. One was brilliant; the other intellectually challenged. But working with Centia and Jim every day, I came to love them in the same way and often fretted about the world into which they were born and what might happen to them in a society that saw them as inferior to my white kids. But change was occurring and the death of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King on the heels of the assassination of President Kennedy seemed to spur momentum to make the world fairer for them. It was clear, however, that poverty, especially in the case of Centia, presented an obstacle that would be difficult to overcome. And my heart bled when a kid would have a birthday party and invite the class, except for her. Or the lunchroom supervisor would rail about having to give her free lunch without the slightest understanding of her family circumstance and without empathy or compassion. I suspected that the larger world into which she would stumble would be no more sympathetic or accommodating. Who knows where she is today?
I left my brief teaching career to take the position of Director of Federal Programs in Sumter County, Georgia whose county seat was Americus. My principal task was to implement the last school desegregation order and ease the burden of the process with programs to elevate the learning levels of the black children who had been receiving inferior teaching and educational opportunities for decades. It did not take a bleeding heart liberal to recognize that black children had suffered from unequal facilities, learning materials, and inferior teachers who struggled to do their best with inadequate supplies and kids who came to school ill-prepared to learn because of deprivation at home.
The Sumter County schools were a stark example of institutionalized racism and bleak discrimination. And no one seemed particularly bothered by it when I arrived on the scene. I have recounted the story of Jimmy Carter, Millard Fuller and others who helped challenge this racism in other pieces I have written for this blog so I will not repeat them here. I have told the stories of separate waiting lines at the Courthouse to buy a tag or pay taxes and the wide-spread hostility of the community toward Koinonia Farm, an integrated Christian community. But in my mind, I still feel the rage I felt when I visited the office of one of the board members for one of our federally funded Title 1 programs that helped pay for vision screening of pre-schoolers and grade-school aged children. He was an optometrist who was making lots of money providing these screenings. But there in his office, he had built a four-foot high planter to divide the waiting room. And while there were no signs like those in the Courthouse directing “colored people” to one side or to separate drinking fountains now equipped with cups should someone drink from the wrong fountain, it was clear as to his intent. And parents of the children being seen, like conditioned animals, chose the side appropriately congruent with their race in which to wait for the exam.
I canceled the contract with the doctor and caught hell for it. And more was to come as it became clear that the school board would not go gently into the quiet night of desegregation. Some of this story can be read in a lawsuit filed by the wife of Henry Dougherty, an Episcopal priest who once served in Birmingham. Carrie Dougherty v. Sumter County Board of Education tells her story of discrimination against her solely because they lived in an integrated community. A more subtle case of discrimination because of opposition to integration policy can be found in Katopodis v. the Birmingham Board of Education which is listed in the Federal supplement. And for the ambitious reader, there is my piece housed in the Harvard library system called, “Re-segregation in the South: The Case of Sumter County, Georgia”. They all tell similar stories of an underlying, irrational hatred of black people that have made them the target of discrimination, violence, and prejudice for all of my life, even until the present.
There was a brief respite from the racism that permeated my work and existence in the South when I trucked off to Harvard to study at the Kennedy School of Government where other issues dominated the conversation. I had many friends of color there and the very air in Cambridge seemed easier to breathe without having to worry about race dominating associations or affecting any colleague in the academic community. And my stay in Sweden was much the same, except that black people were few and far between. While studying there on my Fullbright grant, I worked part-time at the embassy and often spoke to groups about life in the American South. When I discovered that the primary interest of Swedes was discrimination against minorities, I included a showing of the film, ” The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” as an introduction to the discussion. Few Swedes, however, had personal knowledge of discrimination and had grown up in an egalitarian society where equality was legislated and enforced with a myriad of social programs. I never encountered an example of overt or even implied racism, although there were groups of immigrants who seemed to be less welcomed than others. Still, it was socially unacceptable to express hostility or disdain for anyone, much less a person of color. I never saw it happen and it was a good feeling to live in a place where no one pretended to be better than anyone else, much less actively demean and humiliate them.
But the reality I have always known returned in full force after I received an invitation from the Birmingham Board of Education to return to my old position and accept appointment as Special Assistant to the Superintendent, a post I had held the summer before I left for Stockholm. Dr. Wilmer Cody had persuaded me to reject an offer for an internship from the National Institute of Education in Washington and come to Birmingham instead. I agreed to what proved to be another bad career decision on my part. It wasn’t long before board members like Betty Fine Collins, Clyde Kirby, and Ossie Ware Mitchell figured out that I did not accept the job to just mark time or grow mold. The first shot fired in the war between the board and the administration was the Equity Study I was charged with completing that was designed to ferret out policies and practices that actively discriminated against minorities in the school system at all levels. I was essentially a data clerk compiling statistics on hirings and promotions, facility and equipment comparisons, and other aspects of the schools’ operations that were breeding grounds for inequity.
No one seemed surprised by the results of the study which documented in hard numbers the effects of a long-standing segregated system where racism was institutionalized and organizationally protected. What was surprising, at least to me, was the level of opposition to measures to correct the problems. After carefully reviewing all personnel files of minority applicants for promotions, I expunged the files that contained incidents arising from race that were being used as excuses to deny black candidates from being made assistant principals, principals, or appointment as supervisors at the board offices. I compiled a list of these individuals on an affirmative action list to give them priority consideration for promotions wherever a vacancy occurred. As nothing happened and the board, including black members, opposed these promotions, I realized I had not taken into account the power in the hierarchy of black supervision over many years that still wielded influence and power which they were not about to give up easily.
For many years, the superintendent of schools had simply relegated the supervision of black schools to a black deputy. In the case of Dr. Raymond Christian, the superintendent prior to Dr. Cody, he had told his only black deputy superintendent, Dr. Carroll Hayes, to do whatever he needed to do to keep the black schools running and out of public consciousness. At the time he presided over a system that served 70,000 students and black students were in the minority. Dr. Christian seemed to care less about what happened to them as he focused on the “white” schools. Dr. Hayes was the supreme authority over hiring and facilities that served black communities. But that changed when Dr. Christian was charged with implementing the order to desegregate and dismantle what was essentially a dual system with its own administrative structure and chain of command. There was to be one unified system with an integrated central administration.
To preserve his position and power, Dr. Hayes, after whom a high school is named, was forced to accept the crumbs from the table and whatever the superintendent was willing to cede to him. As a result, traditionally black schools fell into further disrepair and equipment was often distributed without regard to any semblance of need or fairness. One white high school might have two walk-in coolers in the kitchen while a similar-sized black school would have none. Or an elementary school in a white neighborhood would have more teacher units assigned to it than a comparable school in a black community, making pupil-teacher ratios much higher in these mostly black schools.
One would have thought black board members appointed by the City Council when they were forced to do so, would have been outraged by these inequities and particularly sensitive to discrimination against black teachers and supervisors. But internal politics and the desire to protect the “black superintendent” as he was called, kept them largely silent. It was reasonable to expect that with the retirement of Dr. Hayes and the advent of Dr. Cody, a more progressive superintendent, change would be forthcoming. The Equity Study was a good start, but no one had taken into account the feelings of Waymon Matherson, the administrator who succeeded Dr. Hayes. Or for that matter, the resistance of white administrators to changes that leveled the playing field. It was best demonstrated when one principal complained to Dr. Paul Houston, a key member of the administration’s leadership team, that he was putting all the summer schools in the black schools and it was grossly unfair. Dr. Houston calmly replied, “We no longer have black schools or white schools; we just have public schools.” He was right in theory, but in practice, few were willing to accept that notion, least of all Dr. Matheson.
Dr. Matherson had spent much time courting board members and using every connection available to him to make certain he remained the conduit through which every decision affecting previously all-black schools had to be passed, including all personnel decisions. But Dr. Houston and I determined that was not to be as we recruited a new cadre of minority leadership, including people like Perry Ward, an outstanding teacher who went on to become president of Lawson State College. He was one of many success stories that came from ignoring the traditional pipeline and developing leadership unbeholden to Dr. Matherson and black board members under his influence, if not control. It must have been very painful for him. He was accustomed to black supervisors and assistant administrators like Clara Harrison and James Goodson being at his beck and call, even for personal errands. Suddenly, they were liberated and free to bypass him and go directly to the superintendent directly. Dr. Matherson’s power was waning but not entirely depleted.
Dr. Matherson’s wife, Fannie, worked in the superintendent’s office and was a reliable and dedicated worker. Her brother, Charlie, worked for Lasseters, a Homewood based textbook and school supply company that had a virtual lock on all business coming from the Birmingham Board of Education. It was not because they were low bidder or supplied superior service, but mostly because of the owner’s son-in-law, the affable and gregarious Alan DeVan who intensely lobbied the board members and top school administrators to keep the company’s stranglehold on hundreds of thousands of dollars of business. Even I fell under his spell when I went to the Lasseter store to have something framed. When I went to pick it up there was no bill. I was told Mr. DeVan had handled it. I sent them a check for what I had been told it would cost, but it was never cashed. I decided not to make a big deal out of it. He was tight with all board members and had done similar favors for other administrators, including Dr. Cody. Swimming against the current seemed like something from which I might get drowned. And I was right.
On one occasion while a textbook bid was pending, Mr. DeVan asked me to come and see the Lasseter warehouse where the books were stored, processed, and distributed. Things were pleasant enough as we wandered through the building with him proudly introducing me as “the guy who was really running things at the Board of Education”. He clearly saw me, rightly or wrongly, as a big fish he had hooked that would make certain nothing would change or be disrupted in his and his company’s relationship with the Board.
As we approached the back of the warehouse, he suddenly called out to a black employee busy at work packing books. “Come over here, Charlie,” he yelled. As Charlie stopped work and sauntered our way and stood a few feet from us, Mr. DeVan continued. “Tell, Dr. Katopodis whose nigger you are,” he demanded with a gleeful tone of superiority. I was stunned and in disbelief. But before I could open my mouth to say anything, Charlie responded. ” I is your nigger, Mr. DeVan,” speaking the words in an almost mournful voice, but clearly accustomed to performing on command for his boss.
Rage welled in me as my face turned bright red and my eyes glistened with tears as I blurted out my anger at Alan DeVan and oddly enough, Charlie. “Don’t you ever say anything like that again”, I yelled at him. Don’t let anyone ever demean you like that, even if you have to beg on the streets”. Then I turned on Mr. DeVan saying I would see to it that he never got another dime of Board business. As I stormed out of the warehouse, I still shook and on the way back to the office realized that my life was about to become more complicated. Still, I imagined that however bad my life became, it could not be worse than poor Charlie’s having to work for this bigot and endure his daily tirades of racist bigotry. It was easy for me to suggest he resist and be fired. I had never had to look for a job as a minority in a community that did not value my work as equivalent to that of someone of another race.
The battle for the soul of the board was now on with Matherson and DeVan aligned and me and Dr. Houston on the other side. I can’t say how Fannie must have felt surely hearing this story from her brother, but married to his oppressor’s ally. The battle raged on for months and months. I worked hard to help Dr. Houston get the job of superintendent of the Princeton, New Jersey Schools and he safely made it out of Birmingham without damage to his career. But I was not so lucky. The battle took a dark turn resulting in my position being eliminated by the board and my suing in federal court to win it back. I won the case and was reinstated and then resigned to help lead the Alabama School of Fine Arts. But one major casualty of the battle was my carefully conceived ambition to be a White House Fellow and work in Washington. The long road in this process came to an end when the ever vindictive and petty Bettye Fine Collins joined forces with two other board members to fire me on the eve of my final interview at Airly House as a national finalist for the appointment. The judges were honest and apologetic in telling me that being fired and thrust into controversy made my selection almost impossible.
I had counted on Jimmy Carter, a former chairman of the Sumter County School Board, winning the presidency and my being there to be useful when he arrived at the White House. After all, we had worked together on school desegregation in his home county and had a basis from which to establish a relationship. But it proved to be a fantasy and too complicated to explain to the panel of notable judges at Airly House. How could I have explained Alan DeVan or the common use of the “N” word in a community from which I was increasingly feeling alienated? All was not lost, however, when I was able to offer advice to others like Bill Roper and John Saxon, both Alabamians, who did make it through the final round and serve the Country as White House fellows before going on to illustrious careers. I often wonder how my life might have been different if I had held my tongue that day at Lasseters. I lost a career, an ambition, and a few other things as a consequence, but think I may have retained my soul.
The notoriety from the school board controversy gave me the name identification and reputation I needed to make a run for the City Council. It also gave me the motivation as I could not wait to try and replace the idiots on the board of education who had disrupted my life. With substantial minority support from black teachers, principals, and administrators, I cruised to an easy victory to a position on the Council with 27 people in the race, including Don Black, the grand wizard of the KKK in Alabama. Racism was still very much alive and well, but the courage of Arthur Shores and his decision to endorse me over black candidates for the Council struck another blow against discrimination because of someone’s skin color and made me pledge to be color blind in my decisions as a public servant.
After only two years on the Council, I was urged to run for mayor against the incumbent David Vann, whose popularity had completely disintegrated after the Bonita Carter incident where a young black woman was shot by a policeman at a filling station that had just been fired upon. It’s a long, painful story upon whose facts. much less conclusions, we will likely never agree. So I won’t discuss it here. only to say that the incident catapulted Dr. Richard Arrington to the mayor’s office as the first black mayor of Birmingham. I also ran and came very close. But it was time for a city transitioning to a majority-minority city to have minority leadership. Ironically, I had helped preside over the transition of the school system to a majority-black one and now I was about to do the same thing as a Councilman and Council president as the City’s population changed from majority white to majority black.
Council meetings became increasingly contentious as black members of the Council, specifically Jeff Germany and William Bell, who were self-absorbed with their own hedonism and economic interests chose exploitation of race rather than accomplishments for the black community to maintain their positions. Every issue seemed to be turned into a racial issue, despite the fact that our mayor was black and held a tight reign on the means to deliver services to underserved, black communities.
Racism was evident in every meeting of the city government and in Birmingham’s politics, despite our best efforts to eliminate it. In retrospect, I think I was very naive about the impact of racism on my own success and popularity as a public official. It should have been evident after one incident while I was campaigning for mayor in 1983.
My mother and aunt had joined me at Five Points West in front of Parisians to hand out leaflets in my campaign for mayor. They handed people a brochure while I shook hands and greeted shoppers. Everything went smoothly until one man who had just been given a pamphlet by my mother, approached me to shake hands, saying, ” I’m all for you, John. We gotta get that nigger out of there”. Without thinking or hesitation, I spontaneously reacted jerking the paper out of his hand. “I don’t want your vote. you can keep it,” I said with a tone of disgust as my mother and aunt looked on in dismay. “What just happened?” they asked in disbelief as the man slithered off angrily shaking his head. I didn’t know and didn’t have a good answer. But maybe it was just that moment when I realized that these people were not really for me, but against our black mayor and every battle I had fought for honest, better, progressive government came down to my skin color; not my ideas, values, or abilities. It was a rude awakening.
When I decided to declare as a Republican for the County Commission, it was partly because I could not accept Georgia Wallace as the head of the party under which I would have to run. And, of course, the new “over the mountain” district that had been created had been drawn as a Republican district and it would have been near impossible to win it as a Democrat. Also, there seemed to be no clear lines of distinction any more about who the good guys were. I reasoned that the label did not matter and I could help shape the emerging Republican party in Alabama into an inclusive, non-racist force for good. Boy, was that a dumb idea.
While serving as Secretary of the Alabama Republican Party I decided to send delegates to the upcoming convention a unique momento. A friend had given me an engraving done by a Dutch immigrant of an image of Abraham Lincoln formed by the words of the Emancipation Proclamation where he lightened and darkened the ink. I had seen Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech done with was with a computer, but this was hand-drawn and required considerable artistry. I had given a framed copy of it to George W. Bush when he visited Alabama to campaign for his father and he loved it. After all, Lincoln was the most famous and accomplished Republican to ever live. Why wouldn’t everyone want one of these?
I went to considerable expense to have the copies printed on high-quality paper and affixed with a custom mat as I mailed these to every delegate to the upcoming ’86 convention in New Orleans where George H.W. Bush would be nominated. Of the hundred or so I sent out, I only received one thank you note and none at the convention mentioned the piece; not even its novelty much less its appropriateness. I wondered why my staff had not warned me that Lincoln might not be a Southerner’s favorite president and we were still fighting “his” war. I suspect my enthusiasm for the task stopped them. In retrospect, Confederate flags would have been better received. Despite the polite facade of politeness, racism was still very much alive. Another clue might have been that there was only one black member of our delegation, Richard Findley. Four years later, at the Republican convention in Houston to re-nominate President Bush, he was the one who warned me not to walk into a meeting of some of the delegation who had just burned me in effigy because of some of the comments I had made in interviews about the need for more diversity in the Party. Marty Connors, the executive secretary of the state party had even “loaned” my floor credentials to a guest and I had to use influence I had with the national party to get onto to the floor, though it really didn’t matter much since we knew the outcome of the convention. And how many times can you hear Lee Greenwood sing “I’m Proud to Be An American” without wishing you weren’t? I didn’t stick around.
Don’t think that Republicans have some exclusive patent on racism. In the South, and maybe elsewhere, it’s equal opportunity and no respecter of political affiliation. This became apparent to me when I first ran for the Jefferson County Commission and met head-on more prejudice and hatred than I had ever encountered as a City Councilman or candidate for mayor.
The Community Affairs Committee or CAC had a long history in Birmingham as an arbiter of fairness in elections where they supposedly were working to eliminate “the bloody shirt of racism” as David Vann liked to call it from the local elections. But over the years, the group had turned slightly left with the vast majority of members being Democrats. In the mayors’ races I had run, we were asked to sign a pledge to not use race in the campaigns. As a result of doing this, despite some perceived violations on the part of Dr. Arrington’s campaign, we were honored with brotherhood awards from the National Conference of Christians and Jews. They had long worked for better race relations in the Birmingham community doing other things like honoring interracial friendships. Helen Shores Lee and I were honored one year for our longstanding personal friendship at a time when black and white social relationships were rare. So it came as no surprise when they invited me to appear with Chriss Doss, the incumbent County Commissioner against whom I was running in the 1984 Commission race.
Many of the CAC members had lent their endorsement to Mr. Doss, a loyal Democrat and supposedly decent guy. And none appeared to abandon him even when his campaign adopted some of the nastiest tactics ever used in a commission race. This was before the advent of the Internet and social media so the Doss campaign created well-prepared smear sheets that it distributed to every barber and beauty shop in the County to encourage the spreading of false gossip, like the lie that I was having an affair with my Catholic priest, costing him promotion to bishop, and had broken up another friend’s marriage by sleeping with his wife. They also threw in marijuana and cocaine use which was also untrue. Fortunately, the tome was so over the top and the lies so outrageous, most people treated it as the fiction it was and many were disgusted by it and voted for me because of it. They even said I had lied about my college degrees which my attorney, Mike Reddicker was delighted to easily disprove.
So when I approached the morning of the CAC where Mr. Doss and I were to appear for the evaluation by the CAC, I was ready. I marched in with a boom box and a tape of a radio commercial being run by Mr. Doss. When It came my time to speak, I played the tape and let the group hear the commercial warning voters that if I were elected, “they” would take over the County. His meaning was clear. Blacks now controlled the city government and with my election, “they” would have control of the County’s. Nevermind that I was white. I was allegedly the lackey for the City of Birmingham’s black mayor.
The group sat in stunned and awkward silence as the commercial concluded with Mr. Doss’s disclaimer of approval. Then I chimed in that I was not seeking their approval or endorsement, would sign no more of their meaningless pledges, and never vote for funds to support them. I had lost respect for them as a group and individually when they allowed their personal politics to override their duty and obligation to confront racism, even when it came from one of their own. I left the meeting feeling a whole lot better but knowing that I might have done damage to my chances to be elected. Turned out I was wrong and I won that race by a landslide becoming one of only two Republican officials in the Courthouse. That would change dramatically in the next twenty years as voters joined their respective tribes and government officials, like Gary White, Mary Buckelew, Bettye Fine Collins, and others participated in gerrymandering district lines to exclude the possibility of bi-racial districts and ensure their re-elections.
There appear to be some places where it is just easier to be racist. Birmingham and Jefferson County have proven to be among the best. Things that get spoken in Alabama are things no one in Massachusetts would even think, much less dare to utter out loud. This is not to say that there are no racists in Massachusetts or that I myself, do not from time to time catch myself slipping into making racist stereotypes. It’s easy to do when, like I told in a previous post, you are attacked by a marauding band of young black men hell-bent on trouble or some person of color abuses you in some way. I almost came to blows with one black woman who insisted on sitting next to me at Foxwoods while I played my favorite penny slot machine, blowing smoke in all directions as she chain-smoked one obnoxious cigarette after another. I was winning and she was losing and I was certain she’d run out of money or cigarettes in short order. But she persisted even in the face of my coughing and gasping for air. I caught myself just in time to avoid a scene when I reminded myself of other smokers who were white and just as inconsiderate and annoying. Upon a return a few months later I encountered the same woman sitting at the same machine next to “mine”. This time I just avoided the inevitable by choosing to find another machine or come back later. Problem solved without anxiety or frustration!
There may be a valuable lesson in this. We can attack racism by starting with our own, acknowledging it and its irrationality. We can apply reason and avoid making generalizations, transferring one person’s bad or inconsiderate behavior to a whole class of people who may share some physical or cultural characteristics in common. And we can work on heightening our own sense of empathy asking ourselves the question Robert Kennedy posed fifty years ago when confronted about the issue of whether black people had finally achieved equality in America. He said, “But if any man claims that the Negro should be content or satisfied, let him say he would willingly change the color of his skin and go live in the Negro section of a large city. Then and only then has he a right to such acclaim. Yet, however much the condition of most Negroes must call forth compassion, the violence of a few demand condemnation and action.”
This means not only confronting our own inherent racism but challenging it whenever and wherever it presents itself in our daily lives and in society in general. Now, more than ever before in the age of Trump where hatred has been normalized and prejudice further institutionalized, it is imperative to uphold the values upon which our nation was founded that all men (and women) are created equal. And that no one, not the president, not the evangelical church, not our employer or even a misguided friend has the right to demean another, make them less of a worthwhile human being, or deny them the fair treatment and dignity we would expect for ourselves. At every turn, we must resist.
Despite the price, I’m glad I told you. No, Mr. DeVan, Charlie was not, never was, and never will be “your nigger”.
It was inevitable that as Michael Bloomberg rises in the national polls, he would become a primary target of his opponents in efforts to stop his well-funded juggernaut towards the Democratic nomination. But listening to their ad hominem attacks on him in his first debate appearance reminded me of hearing a nun’s confession: it was like being stoned to death with popcorn. I heard nothing that disqualified him as a viable candidate, even without comparing his alleged personal flaws and political sins to those of Donald Trump, the most corrupt, amoral, and loathsome jerk to ever occupy the Oval Office.
Yes, I wish that on his way to becoming a self-made billionaire and one of the richest people in the world, Bloomberg had been more sensitive, polite, and careful in his language. And while as mayor of New York trying to stop over 600 murders a year, I wish he had chosen more benign tactics to save lives on his way to ultimately cutting that number in half. And while I’m wishing, I also wish he were taller, younger and better looking as we seek the perfect candidate to trounce Trump in November. And it might help if he were not from New York and Jewish in a majority Christian nation with a grating accent and flat debate affect. And I might wish he could make up his mind as to whether he’s a Republican, Independent, or Democrat. But if wishes were horses, beggars could ride and I may not get all I’d like in a candidate that can also soundly defeat the most dangerous threat to our Republic in American history.
Frankly, I am less concerned about who he offended with an occasional unwanted off-color or sexist joke or comment than I am about his commitment to equality and advancement of the cause of women in the workplace and in protecting their reproductive rights. If he were accused of sexual harassment or rape or discrimination against women in his company or in the NYC mayor’s office, I would hold a different opinion. And living in the present and looking to the future, I will be happy if he learned lessons from his folly and pledges to advance programs and values where there is no room for sexism or demeaning women or anyone for that matter.
The issue of Stop and Frisk is more complicated and controversial because I can envision why a mayor concerned about his constituents dying daily from gun violence might advance any policy that had a chance of reducing that horrific statistic. Clearly, his motive in allowing the stop and frisk policy to continue in his administration did not come from a place of racism any more than it did when Larry Langford targeted certain communities and young black men with guns to topple Birmingham from becoming the murder capital of the South.
I remember cringing in 1977 when Larry and I first ran for the City Council and he talked about police brutality on the campaign trail. While others, including me, were pledging to do all we could to eliminate police brutality, Larry expressed an opposite view saying, “Some of these thugs need to be knocked upside the head and if their parents won’t do it to make them act right, then the police should be allowed to”. What was more shocking than this comment coming from a young black man who could easily be a target of police violence himself based on his profile, was the reaction of the audience with dozens of “amens” and heads nodding in agreement. I thought to myself at the time that if I had said something like this I would have been branded as a racist forever and run out of town. (Turns out I was run out for the exact opposite.)
One of his primary objectives as mayor of Birmingham was the elimination of black on black violence in Birmingham and he was willing to try anything to accomplish this goal. He took lots of ridicule and political grief when he called for a city-wide prayer rally to humble ourselves before God and beg for His help in stopping the violence that was killing so many of Birmingham’s young black men. Dressed in sackcloth and holding Bibles, city prayer leaders gathered at Fair Park to pray and bring attention to the problem. Many in the audience of mostly older citizens were gratified by the effort Larry was making. Couple with a more effective police chief in A.C. Roper, he was doing his best to attack this long-standing and mushrooming problem.
I don’t know the statistics and whether this event had any impact on the murder rate, but I do know that Larry Langford showed enormous courage in confronting the problem head-on and trying to make violence culturally unacceptable. He took the same attitude in trying to eliminate drug use among young people. Coming from a guy many young people saw as “cool” and a role model, he probably made more progress than any previous mayor in addressing these persistent and pervasive problems and setting attitudes.
So I asked myself, what Larry might have said about Stop and Frisk and got an answer I think would have been classic Larry, “Stop their asses and knock ’em upside the head if needed to take away their illegal guns.” Would he have been concerned about innocent young people of color being unfairly treated? Absolutely. But he would have reasoned that it was an unfortunate price that might have to be paid to save the lives of the innocent, including many children, who die daily in Birmingham as public officials tip-toe around the issue to avoid being called racist or handing an issue to opponents who don’t have a clue as to how to address this scourge.
As I watched Bloomberg trying to remain stoic as he was being bar-b-qued on the national stage over his not being quick enough to recognize that some young people of color were being unfairly targeted by his crime reduction policies, my mind wandered to an experience I had two years ago on the subway in Boston. I was taking an evening train on the Red Line from Harvard where I had attended a dinner at the Kennedy School of Government and was appropriately attired in a coat and tie. Somewhere between Harvard Square and my destination of Fields Corner, three young black men, barely above high-school age, boarded the train car which only had three passengers including me.
They were similarly dressed in dark hoodies and sneakers and rowdily bounced around the car in an almost phrenetic panic. They bantered in language that was hard to hear above the din of the train noise but regularly ended each sentence with “Nigga”. As the subway made a stop, two of them spit out the sliding doors onto the platform as if in some sort of crude contest. One upped the game when he urinated out the doors at a later stop along the route of the 12 regular stops before my destination. They were all delirious with delight at this bold and somewhat dangerous act.
I tried to pretend that I was preoccupied and ignoring what they were doing, but that soon became impossible when one of the “kids” pulled out a rubber mask of an old white man, slipped it over his face and plopped himself in a seat directly across from me. As I shuffled in my seat, he mimicked my every move in what was an obvious attempt to mock and intimidate me. He was joined by his two friends who encouraged him with derisive laughter at my expense. I was petrified but tried not to show it.
I quickly assessed my options, hoping to see more people enter the car or an MBTA official. I wanted to leave the train but worried about deboarding at an unfamiliar stop where I might be more vulnerable than I was while moving toward my final stop at high speed. Every moment became torture as I imagined all the terrible things that might be hidden in the folds of their clothes. Could one of them have a knife or maybe a gun? Why were they doing this? Was it just for fun or had they targeted me for a robbery based on how I was dressed and my vulnerable age? I already knew that at 70 I could not outrun them or overpower just one of them, much less three. How was this going to end?
Fortunately, within minutes we were at the JFK stop and several people boarded the train. I seized the opportunity and quickly rose to change seats next to a burly black man who looked like he might not tolerate shenanigans from these guys. They must have also sensed this as one of them removed the mask and they all exited the train at the next stop.
I breathed a deep sigh of relief, but could not stop the flood of racist thoughts that flooded my mind. I reminded myself that I had three black Godchildren, none of whom ever acted like this. And my mind wandered to the all-black school in Columbus, Georgia where I had once or twice worked as a substitute teacher. While some of the kids had been unruly, I had never experienced a feeling of being physically threatened. I could not help myself as I wished these guys a fate worse than death.
So would I care if these guys were stopped based on a profile of someone likely to commit a serious crime? Would I care if their feelings were hurt or their civil rights violated in a humiliating stop where they might be frisked for illegal weapons? No, I doubt it. Especially if it made me and others feel safer or actually be safer from criminal elements in our society or even children with no respect for anyone or anything on their way to becoming full-blown criminals. Am I sorry about this? Yes, in the same way I am sorry about other realities, like the statistics showing who is committing the majority of violent crimes in our neighborhoods and the conditions that have created breeding grounds for crime.
Does this mean I am supporting Bloomberg for president? Not yet. But as I make up my mind and try to convince others to support my candidate, I want to feel like I have been rational and fair in evaluating every possible candidate who has a realistic chance of defeating Donald Trump. There’s simply too much at stake to allow the Internet with many false claims or photos from years ago, like ones I’m seeing with Bloomberg and Trump side by side, to draw paranoid conclusions that Bloomberg is only in the race to stop Sanders, or this is just his first step toward his goal of world domination. (BTW, I don’t remember notions like this being floated after pictures of the Clintons and Trump were posted online.)
I do have one question of Bloomberg’s critics. If he is as bad as you say he is, how did he get elected three times?
It’s time for the electorate to grow up and start being more intelligent in its evaluations and assessments of who can lead our nation. If we had done this 3 years ago, Donald Trump would be a carnival barker in Atlantic City or in a mental institution instead of being the leader of the free world.
The devastating State report that nearly a third of Birmingham’s public schools are failing seems to have come as no surprise to anyone, based on the tepid response from school board members and city leaders. To qualify as “failing”, a school must rank in the lowest 6% of all schools in Alabama as measured by standardized tests administered in the Spring of every year. This method of ranking was specified in the Alabama Accountability Act which was passed by the Alabama Legislature in 2013 in an effort to identify problem schools and raise the historically low quality of education in the State. Although it is not the only viable measure of success of a school, the ranking is a good indicator of the existence of problems that are stunting achievement and damaging a child’s chances for success as they move through the education system in Alabama. But if a child is in a failing school where their test scores have helped earn it that title, it’s not likely that through some unidentified magical process they will do better as they advance grades or even move to other schools that are not designated as failing. Trying to learn in a failing school is like a child trying to swim with a weight tied to their feet. Until it is removed, it is likely they cannot make progress and may even drown as they develop more negative feelings about school and learning in general.
In most communities that value education, such a report card would be cause for serious alarm. In Massachusetts, which expects excellence in all its schools, it would be a cause for parents and community activists to march on City Hall and the State House with pitchforks, if necessary, to demand better. While the Birmingham community, in general, especially those without children of school age, might be numb to this news and those who are interested are offering weak defenses for why this is happening, I suspect that parents of children in the 16 schools who earned this designation this year are in a panic as they consider the opportunities for a better future their children are being denied by an inferior education. The fact that there are four fewer schools in Birmingham this year than last, that are being called “failing” can be of little consolation.
So how should the community move forward in light of the affirmation that many of their schools are substandard when compared to the majority of others in the same school district? The location and apparent composition of the failing schools do not appear to be much different from most of those that are succeeding. So it is not pockets of poverty or other demographics that seem to be causing the problem. Without a closer look, however, at things like the presence of two parents in the home and education level of those parents, it is difficult to say definitively what is wrong and causing the failure of students to achieve passing grades on standardized achievement tests and, in aggregate, causing the school to fail.
I’m sharing my thoughts as someone who cares about public education and had involvement for many years with the Birmingham City Schools as Special Assistant to the Superintendent working on projects like the Equity Study and EPIC School, as well as, raising achievement scores that were at the national level while I worked in the system. I also had extensive involvement in developing the creation of magnet school and community school programs, both as an educator and as an elected public official. And some may remember that I served as Associate Director at the Alabama School of Fine Arts for many years and was instrumental in obtaining their downtown Birmingham location and the funds to build the school that exists today as one of the State’s very best high schools. With this said, it should also be noted that I have not had active involvement in the schools in recent years and I have no clue about the politics of the school board, the Mayor or city officials that impinge on the progress in the schools.
My last active involvement was done primarily through my influence with Larry Langford in his capacity as both a County Commissioner and Mayor of Fairfield and Birmingham. ( Just typing this makes me realize what an incredible life he had if you really think about it. We began our careers together when we were both elected to the Birmingham City Council in 1977). He and I shared a common view that education was the solution to many of Birmingham’s and the state’s problems and we set about to “do something” as he was fond of saying.
We started by persuading Richard Scrushy, founder and CEO of Healthsouth, to donate all the company’s surplus computers and technology for use in our community’s poorest neighborhoods. It did not take much argument as Mr. Scrushy was always ahead of his time and willing to assist with any good idea. He was extremely generous in donating hundreds of leftover equipment from the company’s Y2K audit in preparation for the transition to the year 2000. He also donated the seed funds to establish a program for refurbishing those computers and distributing them to where they were most needed. The program started as the Healthsouth eLearn Program but morphed into Computer Help for Kids as more community leaders caught the vision of helping close the technology gap between the rich and disadvantaged in our community by placing some type of computer in the hands of every child who did not have access to a computer.
Despite its critics, the program was highly successful, providing computers to hundreds of children in need and to many organizations serving them. Moreover, it set the stage for the City’s participation in the One Laptop Per Child program developed by the Media Lab at MIT that targeted developing countries to provide low-cost computers to grade school children living in poverty. After I learned of the program, I enrolled in a seminar at MIT so I could have access to Dr. Nicholas Negroponte, the famed founder of the Media Lab, in hopes of persuading him to make Birmingham the first city in America to participate in the program. It helped when I facetiously described Alabama as an equivalent of a third world country.
When the time was right, Larry and Melva Langford flew to Cambridge to help seal the deal. Larry’s infectious enthusiasm made it hard for Dr. Negroponte or anyone to say no and MIT made an unusual exception to include Birmingham in the program. It was a real coup and came with many benefits. The program was on a roll with great public support and appreciation, especially from the kids that got their own special green and white computer, when Mayor Willaim Bell, for reasons that escape most intelligent people, abruptly ended the program. In fairness, he may have some rational explanation I have missed, probably the claim that the City did not have the money, and maybe he could take the time now that he is retired to explain in detail why the program was stopped. Moreover, what has replaced it in an age where computer literacy is critical to learning and should be started as early as possible if the language of technology is to be mastered in a world increasingly reliant upon it.
While he was president of the Jefferson County Commission, I encouraged Larry’s inclination to be bold and damn the torpedoes to move forward with a 1% sales tax to fund school rehabilitation and new construction. I argued that we needed to eliminate all substandard facilities to provide the very best learning environment we could for every school in the County. There could be no more excuses for not performing academically when all school facilities were of high quality. To be sure, I was not the only voice arguing for the tax, but others may have had different motives. Certainly, bond attorneys and those in the bond finance business must have been thrilled at the thought of a new dedicated revenue source that could finance millions of dollars in bonds to produce the cash for the needed school improvements. Larry and I reasoned that the tax would be temporary and the good it would do seriously outweighed the political risks. Of course, I was not the one catching the hell from the community, especially those without children in the schools. But Larry was determined and steadfast and very politically effective in persuading his colleagues to support the plan. It was his finest hour as a public servant as far as I am concerned.
On a recent trip to Alabama, I was stunned as I passed Hueytown High School, Pleasant Grove Elementary, Oak Grove, and saw some of the other truly amazing facilities from one end of the County to the other that were built with the proceeds from this tax. Some of the schools seemed to have been decidedly overbuilt, but no one could argue about the quality of any of them. Some college campuses are not this elaborate and I’m sure the new facilities are a major object of community pride. I wondered out loud, however, if many people ever gave any thought as to how this had happened, much less thanked Larry Langford for his vision and political courage. I often heard him cursed, even as he lay dying, but the praise he deserved was faint and muted.
Had things gone as we planned, the next steps of our plan would have been eventually implemented. First, we intended to provide free wifi in every neighborhood where we would use the churches, which are ubiquitous, as “hot spots” so children living closeby could connect to the Internet, now an essential and primary learning tool as the ways children learn changes with advances in technology and exponential availability of information. And we were already discussing with community leaders like Dr. Neal Berte of Birmingham Southern College renown, a plan to provide college tuition assistance, perhaps even free college at some local institutions, to every child who graduated from Jefferson County Schools. Larry had numerous and serious discussions with Milton McGregor, the owner of the State’s controversial gaming venues, who had pledged assistance with the program after the details got worked out. Of course, Mr. McGregor wanted to have an exclusive) gaming license in Birmingham to operate a casino when and if legislation was passed to allow them in all parts of the state. We were giving much thought as to how to get this passed when things got disrupted.
After Assistant U.S. Attorney George Martin targeted Larry for prosecution, he and his sidekick Matt Hart questioned me at length about conversations between Larry and Milton to which I might have been privy as they looked for anything for which they could indict him. They even suggested that I help them design the crime by which Larry and Mr. McGregor could be charged and convicted. They also wanted to do the same with Richard Scrushy. Apparently, it was hard for them to believe that Larry and Milton’s discussions centered on improving education in Birmingham. They thought there must have been some self-serving interest on Larry’s part. They were wrong. When Larry was not discussing education plans, he was tossing up Bible verses for discussion and comment. Frankly, he drove me crazy with it. Unfortunately, the determination of Mr. Martin to kill the messenger of progress in Birmingham also killed the momentum the community was accomplishing through his leadership to solve some of its most pressing and persistent problems; educational quality being at the top of the list.
But today we are in a new and different place with new leadership in the community who have the responsibility to make the schools as good as they can be and offer the opportunity for a more than just adequate education for every child. no matter what their individual background or circumstances. This is imperative if children are to succeed in an increasingly competitive world where getting an average education or just finishing high school is not sufficient.
So, if all the physical facilities are now in great shape; technology is as up to date as it can be, and the community and its leaders agree that education must be a priority, then what else needs to be done to correct that problems that are making many schools fail? We have to start with an assumption that may be incorrect that every teacher in an affected school is properly trained and certified in their appropriate fields. There is absolutely no substitute for, or effective alternative to, a qualified and caring teacher in the classroom. And it is the responsibility of the superintendent and school board to make certain every teacher they hire and place meets the highest standards possible. And like with any profession, there must be continuous professional development to make certain those standards are maintained and that teachers have exposure to new ideas and current trends in teaching that may make them better in the classroom.
At one time, under Dr. Wilmer Cody, the school system established a network of lead teachers which they called resource teachers who were assigned a territory to make themselves available to teachers in the school that had special needs or problems that might be blocking their effectiveness as teachers. The resource teachers regularly met with individual teachers to monitor their progress and also conducted regular workshops aimed at improving teacher effectiveness in the classroom. It was a good idea then and a better one today in light of some of the deficiencies that are causing school failures. The leadership to make certain this program works has to come from the superintendent’s office and the school board in recognition that improvement in teaching is the key to improved student achievement and school stability.
Even with all this and adherence to the basics we all know can work if properly followed, there are some other things that might be done to ensure passing grades for every child and consequently, the school in which they are learning.
Here are my thoughts and suggestions:
Begin by acknowledging that a serious problem exists and stop trying to sugar coat it with platitudes and flimsy excuses like ‘we’re making progress because there are four less failing schools than last year’. Even one failing school is a disaster when it’s your kid in that school. So let’s be adults and admit that somehow it is our fault, not the children’s’, that these schools have failed and it is our responsibility to fix them. We alone can fix them.
Let’s make a realistic plan to correct the problems specifically contributing to the low test scores. The data does not lie. Start with it as the foundation for identifying skill sets that are substandard and dominant in the student populations most affected. Then identify the resources currently being used to address the problem with a ranking of those that seem to be the most effective. We have a control group in the schools with similar populations that are not failing. Look at what they are doing right. For example, does an extra teacher aide in the classroom seem to make a positive difference in elevating test scores? Then, let’s think outside the box, without regard to cost or practicality and identify all resources that would be ideal to solve the problem. Keep this list handy for future reference.
Conduct an audit for equity, focused on the failing schools to make certain all of them have equal or better resources than the many that are not. The last Equity Study of Birmingham City Schools of which I am aware was conducted in the late Seventies and was designed to identify disparities between schools that had been segregated. It focused on disparities in physical plants, hard assets, equipment like projectors, and racial discrimination to which employees had been subjected in placement and promotion decisions. At that time, every effort was made to equalize the distribution of learning materials and other hard assets between schools to achieve as much parity as possible for each of them. This included a careful examination of teaching resources to provide the same teacher-student ratios in every school and also addressed a fair division of support personnel, such as teacher aides, counselors, teacher supervisors, and specialized teachers like speech pathologists and nurses.
Implement a plan to make certain all schools are “balanced” with equal resources beyond the physical assets like science labs, libraries, and special learning spaces such as mini-stages for student presentations and performances. Establish peer learning spaces where students can tutor each other.
Make certain student-teacher ratios are at the lowest number achievable. A kid in a classroom with 35 other students and no teacher aide is automatically at a disadvantage. There is no substitute for direct interaction between the student and their teacher because the teacher is not just imparting knowledge. Through the teacher’s “classroom manner” they are also conveying values and priorities and establishing learning as a positive and exciting thing. In much the same way as a doctor’s bedside manner tells a patient that they are valued and being heard, a teacher can instill motivation that no iPad or other devices possibly can. There is no substitute for the human touch from a caring and qualified teacher. But every child must have adequate one on one time with that teacher, although teacher aides can provide valuable supplemental adult contact.
Conduct individual student evaluations to identify learning problems specific to each child. As part of this evaluation, other school resources like guidance counselors and school nurses should be involved in making certain that child mental and physical health are not presenting problems for learning. As part of the mental health assessment, there should be a fair determination that the child’s home life is supportive of their learning. There may not be much that can be done about a child not having books or technology in the home because of the family’s financial circumstances, but there are things that can be done if a child is being neglected, going hungry, or abused. A good school is alert to anything that impedes a child’s progress and is sensitive to factors outside of the classroom that may be harming the child.
Involve parents at every opportunity possible for their participation in their child’s learning process. This means more than meeting with them once a year at the school open house. There should be regular classes and seminars offered by every school that aims to bring in parents for group and individual discussions on topics that affect their child’s performance. Seminars on things like how much sleep a child needs each school night; what extracurricular activities augment learning as opposed to those that detract from it; resources available in the larger community to ensure regular doctor and dentist visits; how to obtain SSI and nutrition assistance for the family. In other words, there must be a focus on the home and things to improve the child’ s life outside of the classroom. The quality of life a child enjoys at home is integrally related to how successful they might be in the classroom.
Identify community resources that can be involved in a significant way with schools that are failing. For example, local schools like UAB, Miles College, and Birmingham Southern have teacher education programs where it should not be difficult to persuade administrators to allow student practicums and internships in targeted public schools. Encourage them to conduct research projects and workshops on impediments to student learning in individual schools that need prioritization, rather than focusing on theoretical issues affecting the whole system. Think creatively about other resources in the community that are stakeholders in the success of the schools. Every potential employer should be concerned about generations of ill-prepared students who will one day enter the workforce or be their customer or client in the future. EPIC School once had a program where Regions Bank and other businesses helped with things like landscaping the grounds, replacing worn carpets, installing a flagpole, and providing help with other issues the school faced. There is nothing wrong with asking local businesses to help meet needs not being addressed by the school board. For Catholic schools, The Cristo Rey program relies on business sponsors and has had remarkable success in raising student achievement in the selected parochial schools. After I discovered this program in Boston on the recommendation of someone with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, I suggested it to the board of the Holy Family Foundation, headed by Melva Langford, as something that might hold promise for helping Holy Family High School. The staff and priests took it from there and enrolled Holy Family in the Cristo Rey program with apparent remarkable success. But there are other business organizations just as willing to sponsor a failing school in their community and they should be identified and enlisted for help.
Organize politically to make certain the school board and city leaders keep the improvement of failing schools as their top priority. Teachers have rights and their voice is important. They should not shrink from expressing their views or sharing ideas about what can be done to improve the school in which they are teaching. Teacher organizations like the NEA and American Federation of Teachers have a role to play in making certain political support they are capable of providing is given wisely to those you will support the public schools in meaningful ways. In the recent governor’s race in Kentucky, the teachers are being given credit for defeating the Republican incumbent who was not supportive of public education and electing someone who is. Teachers organized are perhaps the most politically potent force in any community. Their network has a wide reach and it should be used to promote the cause of public education and its proper funding as the most important instrument for change and progress in America.
Ultimately, no institution is better than the sum of its parts and the quality of its members. If we really want better schools, we have to have better administrators, better teachers, and better students. Of particular importance is the capacity of every child entering the system to learn and how soon they started being exposed to things to help them learn.
One of my grand-godchildren, Preston Pohnel, aka Jonathan Preston) just achieved a perfect score on his Florida Standards Assessment, something he has done since he started taking the standardized tests in the third grade. No doubt he had good genes and inherited the capacity for intelligence from his parents, but he also had something else to give him a headstart and lay the foundation for his success in school. He had a supportive home in his early years where he was the focus of attention and exposed to everything we thought might help his cognitive development. Even before he was born, Preston’s mother, Erica, made certain her diet was free of alcohol and supportive of a positive pregnancy. She listened to classical music and even read aloud to the fetus. And after his birth, she enlisted things like Baby Einstein tapes and mobiles to help with his early brain development. As a toddler, Preston was turning on the DVD player and popping in Veggie Tales to watch with focused rapture as an assortment of characters vied for, and kept, his attention.
As important as these things may have been, is that he was never put on “auto-pilot” and left to his own devices to entertain himself. He was always guided by a parent who gave thought to what he was being asked or allowed to do. And that practice has continued with his step-father providing guidance and encouragement as he undertakes extra-curricular activities like band and hockey. In addition to the tuba, Preston taught himself to play the guitar and has had at least two solo concert performances. He was even asked by a high school rock band to fill in for one of its regular members at a gig where they needed a substitute. For a 12-year-old, this was a big deal!
Preston’s grandparents have also played a valuable role in making certain that he had technology support and exposure to things that captured and stimulate his interest. A couple of years ago, his grandfather brought him to Boston to attend a Red Sox-Yankees game at Fenway Park. We then took him to Harvard to see the first computer and tour the Science Center. From there we boarded a duck boat that he was allowed to drive on the Charles River before he headed home with a new laptop I had prepared for him with a Harvard logo on it to remind him of the goal of attaining admission to a good college. I just replaced it this past April with one he and I shopped for at Best Buy with my insisting that we get the most sophisticated machine that could last him through high school and serve both his gaming and academic needs. In doing so, I acknowledge that unless learning is also fun, it is not something that children will want to do on their own. With a little work, it does not take a lot to determine areas of interest that will hold a child’s attention and encourage them to read and think. More and more that seems to be technology as almost every kid I see on the subway ot in a restaurant has their face in a device like an iPad or iPhone.But there are things at the local public library that can substitute for the technology that may not be available at home and books still have the power to transport children into new worlds and stimulate their minds to think new ways. But a child cannot drive themselves to the library or check out a book without guidance. The parent must continue to play a critical role as the child’s first and primary teacher. And the more resources a parent has, the better the outcome.
All this is great if you live in a community that has these resources or if you come from a family with stable incomes and both parents involved in the child’s life. But if you are a single mother with three other children and are worried about paying the rent and feeding the kids a decent meal each day, the last thing on your mind is where can I take them next to entertain them and do they have the latest computers or the luxury of a cell phone. Some days it is all you can do to just cope. That is why the community must take responsibility to help in every way it can to make certain that children who did not ask to be here or were born into circumstances over which they have no control are not victimized by a society that does not value their potential as much as we value Preston’s.
Only when we cut out the lip service about how important education is and demonstrate our commitment in actions can we eliminate failing schools that are failing children. What are your ideas to make our schools better? Please share them here and with teachers and administrators at your child’s school and with school board members who are asking for your vote on a regular basis, along with the mayor and councilmembers who must give more than lip service to making education Birmingham’s number one priority.
I was having lunch at the Cedar House in Tarrant, Alabama with Al Troncalli who was in the last stages of dying from complications from AIDS when Roger Bass, a Birmingham businessman, approached our table. Al lived a block from me on Highland Avenue in a bungalow everyone in the Highland Park neighborhood knew well. Nestled between two overpowering apartment buildings facing Rushton Park, the charming little house had many admirers.
I remember well the day in 1977 I rounded the corner on my way home from a City Council campaign event at the Highland Golf course and was greeted with at least a dozen “Katopodis for Council” signs festooning Al’s well-manicured yard.
You could not miss them and I was amused and gratified by the sight. I stopped to thank the owner, an obvious supporter I had never met, sitting on his porch holding court with friends. I introduced myself and told him how grateful I was for his enthusiastic support in my first race for public office after being fired from the Birmingham Board of Education and reinstated by a federal judge. (Katopodis v. The Birmingham Board of Education is in the Federal Supplement and was considered to be an important case establishing the limits on powers of a lay board over education professionals). The well-publicized fight between the superintendent and school board, with me as a casualty, had given me huge name identification that I decided to exploit. But what really motivated me to run for the City Council was the fact that it appointed school board members. It seemed like the best way to impact the future of schools in Birmingham by choosing better board members and getting rid of some of its less rational members, some of whom now have schools named after them. I had learned that years ago when Lester Maddox, the former ax-wielding governor of Georgia, was asked how he intended to improve the notoriously bad prison system in his state. He quickly responded, “Get a better grade of prisoner”. Seemed to me that despite the source, there was a lot of truth in this. So getting a better grade of school board member and, in my case, a better grade of City Councillor was a way to improve Birmingham, the city where I was born. (Baptist West End; now Princeton in 1947).
Al Troncalli shared the deeply felt notion that our city government needed improving. He said he was happy to help with my campaign; he just wanted a better Birmingham and he was counting on me to help achieve it. It was that simple. He didn’t want anything; not a contract, free tickets to events; or even to hang out with a politician; just a better community and he knew local government played an important role in making that happen. For every Al, I met on the campaign trail, there were a hundred others like him who just wanted a better city with more opportunity and a better quality of life, for everyone, not just a few.
In every election in which I ran after that, I could count on Al to have signs in his highly visible yard which grew larger in size with each subsequent campaign until they reached almost billboard size, probably violating a zoning ordinance. In addition to the signs, Al often volunteered to hand out literature or staff a telephone bank and could be counted on to help in any way he could. Although we were not social friends and I found his lifestyle a little bizarre, I had a deep appreciation for his political support and encouragement, especially because he never made a single request of me for anything. He never even suggested how I should vote on a particular issue. He was a constant dependable source of support and encouragement. Serving on the Birmingham City Council, and later as it’s president, was not always easy in a racially divided city whose government reflected that divide in every one of its meetings.
Every meeting had an issue that seemed to accent the inherent conflicts between the black and white communities. At one meeting, Councilman Jeff Germany claimed, without a scintilla of evidence, that mosquito spraying done by the City was only being done in white neighborhoods. He often substituted exploiting the racial divide for substantive accomplishment. His record of non-achievement is without equal in the local government posts he held. Always more interested in free tickets to sporting events and concerts so he could scalp them, he spent most of his time hustling campaign donations to finance his hobby of escorting female “cousins” with miniskirts to various places, always traveling by car or train because he was afraid to fly. Given his customary behavior, I understood why he would not want to meet his maker any sooner than necessary. He was one of two young black leaders, William Bell being the other, who was given a great opportunity to serve the community and make a real difference for minority and disadvantaged people in Birmingham. But for both of them, personal gratification took precedence over eliminating slum housing, job creation, education, or anything else that could have really helped someone. After a short stint in prison, Jeff joined the staff of a prominent Birmingham church and may be now doing great things that he wishes he had 40 years ago when he had greater power to accomplish them. But he was a serious disappointment as an elected official, and perhaps to himself.
I spent lots of time trying to deflect his constant kibitzing about discrimination, even after the election of a black mayor who was the most powerful man in the State and able to correct Jeff’s real and imaginary of problems. Of course, even Mayor Arrington could not correct his flawed character and immaturity. After his claim of discriminatory mosquito spraying, I joked that the City was only killing the white mosquitoes so no harm was being done. And frankly, the use of Malathion that was taking the paint off of cars was not something to be wished for. But there were, in fact, many other persistent and serious problems confronting the community where racial disparity was at the root which he could have helped address.
While at the Board of Education as Special Assistant to the Superintendent, I had designed and conducted the “Equity Study” that identified many of the effects of discrimination that left black neighborhoods with inadequate school facilities and resources. So I knew well that we still suffered from the lasting damage done by decades of discrimination and segregation. The question was, what to do about it? After the study showed a consistent pattern of discrimination in hiring and promotions, I took it on myself to review the personnel files of every black teacher or supervisor who had been denied a promotion in the last decade.
Where there was any evidence of prejudice at the hands of white administrators, I expunged the files and re-submitted the person for consideration for promotion. These were cases where there was a note about an argument between a black and white teacher and a code notated to prevent the black teacher from moving up no matter how much time had passed. I never found a single instance where the white teacher was also reprimanded or prevented from promotion. There were a number of black teachers who were promoted to principals and assistant principals after I “cleansed” their files over the objections of the long-serving Assistant Superintendent for Personnel who was known for his white bias. When I ran for City Council, these teachers affected by the Study and my work were outspoken and visible in their support for me which was very gratifying and paid a dividend when I garnered a segment of the vote no one expected me to carry; namely large numbers of Black votes. I learned from this that people of color in Birmingham, perhaps more than any other group, are more forgiving and discerning. They know when someone is genuine in trying to help them and they remember.
I presided over a city council in a city that was transitioning from majority white to majority black and it was wrought with difficult, thorny problems and regular conflicts. Having grown up in Birmingham, Al Troncalli seemed to instinctively understand how hard the job was and did not add to my burdens with uninformed opinions or criticism.
And now he was dying and steadily deteriorating and his political friends like Jimmy Blake, Bill Johnson, Nina Miglionico, and I quietly determined that we would do what we could for him to make his final days as peaceful and comfortable as they could be under the circumstances. That’s just what friends and neighbors in the South do. It didn’t seem to matter to anyone of what disease he was dying.
In the subsequent twenty years since that day I had walked up his driveway, Al had given me hundreds of laughs and helped keep me grounded with his sharp wit and snappy comebacks at inappropriate moments. After my election to the City Council and in my runs for mayor, I had picked up a lot of “faux friends” like Harold Ripps, the multi-millionaire apartment magnate for whom Al worked as a designer and was often called upon to attend dinners at his penthouse apartment he had built on the crest of Red Mountain. As my potential utility to Harold’s business interests increased, I was more regularly included in these events. He was always needing a traffic light, a road paved, or zoning variance somewhere in his real estate empire and thought having a council president, potential mayor, or county commissioner as a personal friend would help cut through red tape or gain special favor. He was wrong in my case.
While I served on the Jefferson County Commission, the County engineer came to my office one day to tell me about a sign that had been erected on County right-of-way near a new subdivision being developed by Rime Companies, Harold’s business. The brick sign was intended to be permanent and beautifully designed. The problem was, aside from it being on property that belonged to the public, it had been maintained by a longtime resident as part of his well-manicured yard, as is common all over the County where it was impossible for County maintenance crews to care for every parcel that is public right of way.
“Call the Rime Companies and tell them to take it down”, I told the engineer. An hour later, Harold called my office to make the case why the offending sign should be allowed to stand. He offered no logical rationale and was unconvincing, thinking his personal friendship with me would cause me to cave on the issue. It was galling that he thought he did not need to ask the County, or anyone, for permission to erect the sign. He had reasoned that I would simply go along on such a minor issue. Notwithstanding our personal connection and his financial contributions to my campaigns, I insisted that the sign be moved or taken down. When he did not immediately comply, I ordered County crews with sledgehammers to get it done and called the homeowner to apologize. So being my “friend” did not always have benefits. In fact, it was a common complaint I heard from supporters who sought favors and expected me to routinely, and without question, comply with their requests, needs, or demands. I heard often how I was not a team player and too independent; meaning not easily influenced or subject to bribes, however subtle. But still, I played the game as best I could, striving to keep my integrity in the process and do what I was elected to do without favoritism.
As egregious as this “build a sign anywhere you like” offense was, it paled by comparison to when Elton Stephens, Jr. of EBSCO wealth, woke up to find a house on the vacant County property adjoining his beautiful home off Rocky Ridge. Seems that Sam Raine, a developer of sorts, had bought a vacant, deteriorating house and had it moved during the night to a lot that was a leftover piece of land from a County right-of-way acquisition to expand Rocky Ridge Road. Mr. Stephens was rightly livid when he woke up and found his new neighbor and called my office in an outraged panic. Shortly thereafter, I had a call from Mr. Raine’s son-in-law, attorney Steve Salter also a friend and supporter of mine, trying to persuade me that this was a reasonable action on Mr. Raine’s part. It clearly wasn’t. And despite Steve’s best effort and my personal history and friendship with him and his especially law partner, Richard Groenendyke, a close friend, I insisted that the house be immediately moved or face the same sledgehammer treatment as Harold’s brick sign.
At Harold’s routine parties to show off his new trophy date or entertain his bookie or Paul Finebaum-a regular at the dinners whose droll wit added little to the soiree, I routinely had to stifle outright laughter as Al would comment on the odds on the length of the relationship with Harold’s latest love interest and whether he would remember her name the following week. Once, when he called me to ask what I thought of his latest conquest, he was disappointed when I said I didn’t remember her. When he went on describing her so I could match a name with a face (or body) I promised I would get a new megabyte for my computer so I could keep up with his dates in the future.
It was more disgusting and sad than amusing as we watched him regularly demean women as no more than part of a collection of objects. A few times I watched him toss his hapless date a roll of cash he had just won from his golf game as if she were a prostitute waiting for payment. All the while, Harold avoided serious relationships and focused on his money, about which he was extremely paranoid. He had a lot and wanted to keep it.
I occasionally arrived a few minutes early for the dinner and would sit and chat with his date du jour while he cleaned up from his golf game. Somehow I identified with these women and often asked myself why I was there being bored and disgusted with his need to gratify his ego with female and political trophies, of which I apparently was one. In a way, I was prostituting myself by giving him time I could have used in more satisfying and productive endeavors. Having Al there now and then, making wisecracks and never being serious made the evenings more tolerable. But it was Al’s observations on the food routinely served at these events that often left me always stifling laughs. Despite being able to afford a full-time butler and a cook, Harold never allowed deviation from the menu of chicken legs and thighs which he apparently preferred because they were the cheapest part of the chicken. Al openly lamented that the only breasts we had never seen at Harold’s were those of a roasted chicken.
Al was always good for a spontaneous laugh on any subject, at any time. After watching the legal proceedings in the Jeffrey Dahmer case, I called Al with a question. I told him that a jury had just declared this deviant who had killed 17 young men, chopped some of them into pieces; had sex with some of those pieces and even ate some parts as sane to stand trial. “ I have a question”, I queried him in disbelief, “ So what does it take these days to be declared insane?” Without hesitation, instantly, Al responded, “ Become a Republican; run for the County Commission; buy an optical company; date a crazy woman; and attend a hundred boring dinners at Harold’s.” “Enough said”, I replied, laughing, though his brutal honesty hit home more than I liked as we hung up.
About a year or so before he died, Al had come to my nearby home to tell me he had AIDS and was resigned to premature death. He wept as he spoke of the only good thing about dying being how happy he would be to see his mother again. He talked about how much she loved him and he loved her and that she cooked pasta every Sunday in an Italian tradition that was the highlight of his week. The following Sunday, I called him to say I was cooking lasagna and invite him to dinner with some political friends. Every week after that, until he was no longer physically able to attend, I hosted a dinner party on Sunday nights where local politicians and other community leaders regularly assembled for at least one Italian dish and spirited political conversation. I perfected my cooking skills with these soirees which were a lot of work as I tried to make them memorable.
Al’s keen wit and well-developed sense of humor made him an ideal guest to keep things moving and resolve conflicts between some of the guests with disparate political views. As I was busy in the kitchen, I could hear loud laughter regularly coming from the living room. The dinners accomplished many unexpected good things, aside from giving Al something to look forward to each week and keep up his spirits in the face of disaster. Years later I would hear from friends like Dr. Jimmy Blake lamenting that after Al died, the dinners stopped. Many of them became good friends with Al, independent of me. It was unexpected as Al was an avowed and obvious homosexual, a fact that he never hid, even if he could have. I never expected people in public office in the early ’80s to be so accepting, much less fond, of someone whose lifestyle was so divergent from their own religious and political views.
Al was the first sexually liberated person I had ever known and his frankness about sex often left me shocked, embarrassed, and blushing. But it was impossible to dislike him or not appreciate his infectious optimism and keen sense of ironic humor. He was a unique character whose authenticity and genuine love of others made you want to reciprocally accept and appreciate him. And now that he was in trouble, it just seemed right to do whatever we could to help him, without reservation or judgment. It wasn’t easy in my case because I had never been married and was often the subject of nasty gossip as people gratuitously speculated why.
At first, it was amusing as I heard reports of their often nasty comments. On one occasion a campaign worker told me she had heard that I had broken up Councilwoman Angie Grooms Proctor’s marriage and was gay. I asked if I was allegedly sleeping with Angie or her husband Reed? I think it was Mark Twain that said genius was the ability to hold two opposing thoughts in your head at the same time. So there were lots of geniuses in Birmingham that I routinely ignored.
But eventually, it became unsettling and disturbing as some jerk would make an invasive and insulting call to a radio show where I was appearing or make catcalls like one did while I was riding in a Christmas parade in Hoover with one of my godchildren. “Faggot” is a word that should be relegated to the same place as the “N” word. It certainly should never have been uttered on the main drag through Hoover in the direction of a child. Britton was 10 at the time and confused over what was being yelled. And I was helpless to do anything but ride on and ignore him as he grew louder.
Being seen with Al with any frequency only exacerbated those rumors and frankly often made me feel uncomfortable. But as his illness dictated that his friends be more available to him, I made up my mind to just deal with it and ignore the comments as I had done with so many unkind and ignorant others I had endured through the years. I had heard much worse said about me, without justification, throughout my political career, making me often question if I really wanted to be in elective office. It took some courage to continue. Being insulted like this was shocking at first, as I had apparently lived a sheltered life and cannot remember ever having experiences like these in my academic or professional life. But it just came with the territory in Birmingham politics where hate, prejudice, ignorance, and , sometimes, just flat out meanness find a happy home where they flourish.
When Al learned that he had developed another side effect of his disease, diabetes, and would need to start taking insulin, he called me in tears saying he just could not do it; it was too much for him to give himself shots on a daily basis; he hated needles. He said he was ready to die. I successfully argued that he was being selfish and the problem had a simple solution: I would go with him to UAB hospital and learn how to administer the shots and do it for him daily on my way to work. He protested that I was much too busy to do this, but I prevailed in my argument that it was going to be simple, easy, and no real inconvenience. Turned out that it was a disaster. On my first attempt, I was stuck by accident by a lancet he had just used to draw his infected blood for testing.
The flustered nurse called in a panic code over the PA system and I was whisked to another part of the hospital for tests and flushing of the pinprick with hydrogen peroxide. All the while, I was thinking to myself how stupid and careless I had been and if hydrogen peroxide could really kill the AID virus, why were we still in a dither over this terrible disease? I came home hours later slightly exhausted and dazed from the experience, but not unduly worried as I had read that the chances of contracting the disease this way were minuscule. My only worry was that if I did get AIDS, no one would believe that this was how I actually got it. The public loves to gossip and has wild imaginations and I learned early on in my public career to not be distracted by other people’s prejudices and fantasies or it would turn into a full-time job. In this case, I was too busy to think much about it, entertaining my own fantasy that I was going to own a building at UAB because of their negligence. Alas and thankfully, I was fine and Al eventually learned to administer the shots himself which was a huge relief for me, but another ordeal for him.
A couple of months later I was in Rome and visited a Capuchin catacomb under a church in the heart of the city. It seemed like a good thing to do until I came face to face with hundreds of human skulls and bones used to decorate the place. A monk approached me and without speaking a word led me to a corner where there was a small shrine that seemed to revolve around one of his deceased colleagues whose skeleton was still not suitable for display among the hundreds of others lining the walls. I remembered that adage about when in Rome, doing as the Romans do and decided to just do what was expected of me. What could it hurt? So, I said a brief prayer for Al as I lit a candle and deposited a few dollars in the slot below the wax-covered box on which dozens of burning candles sat glowing in the dark and depressing space. When I got home, I called to check on Al and he said that while I was away he had started feeling much better and had been taken off insulin at his last doctor’s appointment. I asked him what day that was. It coincided with the exact day I had knelt at the underground shrine and prayed for him. Being a good Catholic at the time, I was absolutely certain a miracle had occurred. But if it had, it was not lasting.
Al was rapidly losing control of his body and could not walk. He would eventually become unable to speak and confined to a hospital bed in his living room that we positioned so he could view Rushton Park and watch the parade of people who trotted or strolled past his home on a daily basis.
In his final weeks, I took to sleeping on his sofa for fear that he would die during the night. I did not want him dying alone and was distressed when his sister, Grace, was very late one day returning from an errand to fetch some cranberry juice he needed to swallow some of his medications. She explained breathlessly that she had stopped by Lily Rubin at Brookwood and had found this “fabulous outfit that would be perfect for the funeral”. In that instant, it occurred to me that her insensitivity to what was happening might not be appropriate. Certainly, it was not comforting. So I volunteered to stay with him at night so she could continue shopping, unfettered by any obligation to Al. To be fair, I’m certain she loved her brother but could not cope with the disease that was taking him from her. She was mortified and angry when I testified in a court case about his assets that he had died from complications from AIDS. She apparently would have preferred some other deadly disease more socially acceptable and less disruptive to her routine. Sleeping on his designer sofa was a real pain. After tossing and turning all night and waking every time Al groaned or coughed, I would eagerly wait for the hospice nurse to show up in the morning so I could walk back to my apartment to get ready for work, often exhausted, physically and emotionally. His illness took a toll on me, his family, and others who loved him.
It was almost a relief when he finally died. It happened while I was there giving him some cranberry juice from an eyedropper. I had stopped earlier in the day by the Blake house where MaryAnn had given me a huge bunch of daylilies to bring to him.
Their strong fragrance wafted through his house as I turned on a boom box and played one of my favorite Andrea Bocelli works, The Prayer, on which he collaborated with Celine Dion who once said that if God had a human voice, He would sound like Andrea Bocelli. And God seemed to be in the room when a young woman appeared at the door and identified herself. She said she was from hospice and was there to give Al a massage to help with his circulation. But as his gaze met hers as if he knew her, though they had never met, she said that she would instead just give his limbs a light rub with fragrant oils. I stepped to one side of his bed to allow her to work.
After a minute or so, she suddenly looked at me and in a quiet but commanding voice, said, “John, Al would like to leave us now, but he wants your permission to go. Tell him it’s ok”. I was stunned and almost annoyed at this awkward intrusion into what had been a peaceful moment, but there did not seem a way out of this. So I almost whispered as I told him everything was under control and, though we’d miss him, it was ok for him to leave us when he was ready.
Within a few seconds, Al bolted up as if trying to get out of bed. I asked, “Where you going, buddy”, as he slumped back and breathed for the last time. I was reciting the Twenty Third Psalm over his lifeless body when by chance, Jimmy Blake was simultaneously pulling into Al’s driveway, coming to take me to dinner. He entered the room, felt for Al’s pulse and closed his eyes, pronouncing him dead as he then asked Al’s sisters who had gathered on his front porch to come in and say goodbye to their brother. Tears flowed as they hugged and kissed his cold, ravaged body. No one seemed to remember at that moment that he had AIDS.
Then I went home to contemplate what had just happened. I was shaken for days by the experience asking all sorts of questions of myself without answers. I still cry thinking about it; not from the grief, but over the beauty of the moment. I now understood why Sister Francis James, who taught me in the fourth grade at Sacred Heart Elementary in Pensacola, would lead us in daily prayer for a peaceful death. At age 9, it seemed a little morbid and premature, but as I come closer to the appointed time, those early prayers give me some comfort, especially if they arrived where they were supposed to. I’d really like a peaceful death, if at all possible, Lord! But if I stay on Facebook, it may not be possible.
I still don’t know from where the woman with the oils had come, but for me on that afternoon, she was an angel sent by God who helped end the suffering of a kind and decent human. I spoke at his wake and was allowed to do a reading at his funeral as we mourned his loss. I donated a tuxedo shirt and some gold tuxedo shirt studs and cuff links so Al could be buried in his tuxedo. It was a request he had made. “Why a tuxedo?, I asked. He responded, “Because everyone looks good in a tuxedo and I want to look as good as possible. ” His comment gave me another laugh at an inappropriate moment.
But on this particular day in Birmingham, Al was very much alive and had called to ask for a favor. Could I take him to lunch at the Cedar House, a cafeteria restaurant in Tarrant City run by a devoutly Catholic Italian family we all knew from the Inglenook neighborhood and Mass at St. Bernard’s? He craved Grace Romano’s home-style, soul food cooking which was among the best anywhere.
I physically hoisted his frail body into my car and was surprised at how light he was. When we arrived, I carried him to the closest table at the small restaurant favored by working people, politicians, executives, lawyers, and a host of others who would come from all over the Birmingham area to regularly eat there. Grace was normally affable and generous of spirit, but was greatly disturbed by Al’s deteriorated appearance and clearly not happy about his presence. It was an awkward, but natural reaction. I assured her that his disease was not contagious from casual contact but fully understood her recoiling at the sight of his dissipated body.
Her reaction was no different from the one I got from cafeteria workers at Lewis School who refused to wash the lunch trays of disabled kids from nearby Lewis-Slossfield for fear of catching what had caused the children’s disabilities. The superintendent had sent me to solve the problem and it took several meetings, lots of patience, and the participation of a doctor to convince them to resume work so that those children could have hot lunches. With so much misinformation and fear about AIDS circulating, I could not fault Grace for being apprehensive or worrying about his presence’s effect on her business. I had had a few of those moments myself, even though I had thoroughly educated myself on the subject and was relatively fearless about the disease. Still, in the back of my mind, there was occasional apprehension over my close proximity to the deadly AIDS virus.
Despite his physical infirmities, Al was alert and very aware of his surroundings. So when Roger Bass, whom he had never met, approached our table, obviously going out of his way to speak to me, he was paying attention. “Where have you been?”, Roger gregariously blurted in an almost sincere way to convince me he cared about the answer. “You never return your calls.”, he complained. The encounter was short as I smiled weakly without an answer to his question which was awkward and absurd as Roger and his friend, another politician still in office, shuffled through the serving line.
As Roger walked away, Al could not help himself. “I don’t know what that was about,” he said. “But anyone who knows you knows you’d return a call to the devil. That guy is full of it.”. “It’s a long story,” I replied, briefly sharing how I knew Roger and why his comments were particularly disingenuous and annoying.
I could not have guessed that it would be almost thirty years later before I would get around to telling the story again or frankly, give Roger Bass any thought. But the memory of my brief friendship with him came flooding back after he sent me a friend request on Facebook a month or so ago, right before my 72nd birthday, reminding me of a trip I had taken with him for a birthday twenty years ago. I debated whether it was a good idea to accept it, but ultimately decided it couldn’t hurt. I was so wrong. After reading his comments on some of my posts, a couple of which were personally insulting, and being reminded of painful and unpleasant events in Birmingham in which he played a part and that changed my life forever, I decided his was a story worth telling and a saga of how things routinely work in Alabama politics.
Roger, like Harold Ripps was another of those “friends” who seemed to just come with the job in politics. I only became aware of him after my election as a Jefferson County Commissioner where I surprised lots of political observers when I assumed the position as Commissioner of Roads and Transportation. Somehow, an image of me had been created by those who did not know me, thinking I would take some other position less taxing or more elegant where I would not have to get my hands dirty. I had a hard time understanding this. I had personally renovated an entire apartment building on Southside, partly became I intended to live there, but also because I wanted to demonstrate that a landlord could be a responsible real estate investor and make a profit without being a slumlord. In the ’70s this was a real problem in Birmingham as Olshan and other apartment owners allowed buildings and rental houses to deteriorate as they maximized profits by exploiting powerless tenants.
I was pushing landlord-tenant legislation at the City Council to try and get better enforcement of building codes and eliminate Birmingham’s ubiquitous slum housing as one of my first priorities after being elected. I reasoned that setting an example was a good idea from which I might also learn a few things. I also wanted to promote the cause of historic preservation which was just coming into public consciousness at the time. So I bought a deteriorating 8 unit apartment building that was built in 1918 and could be found there every weekend, covered in soot or paint or doing other repairs about which I knew nothing. There was no YouTube so, for me, everything was by trial and error. More than once I jolted myself while working in the attic dealing with the old knob and tube electrical wiring. And I almost fell through one of the plaster ceilings when I misstepped on one occasion missing a rafter. It was sometimes lonely and dangerous work, but I took great satisfaction as I worked to transform my building which I dearly loved.
When I decided to add air conditioning to the units, to preserve a rock wall and hide ductwork to keep the buildings historic character, I hand-dug a large trench with a small shovel in the crawl space under the building, disappearing for hours with no one knowing where I was. This was also well before the days of cell phones and I sometimes shudder to think if I had been bitten by a rat or snake or had a heart attack, how long it would have taken for someone to find me. I might have still been there if this had happened as I doubt many would have thought to search for me in the narrow crawl space.
When the building came back to life and was beautiful, I felt like all the hard work had been worth it. There was a waiting list for the units because I kept the rents within reason and relatively low. I had lots of interesting tenants. One of my favorites was Frank Stitt who had moved to Birmingham to open a restaurant. He was a hard-working, guy with a really lovely disposition and I helped him find a location and loaned him my Greek painter, Mr. Leontis, to paint the space near where I had located my campaign headquarters. I did a few other things to help, as well. I always enjoy going there and still seeing the set of French doors I gave him from my building that separates the bar from the main dining room.
Last year, it gave me great satisfaction when Highlands Bar and Grill was given the James Beard Award as the best restaurant in the Country. No one deserved this more than Frank. He transformed fine dining in Birmingham and paved the way for many other restaurants in this genre. When he asked to rent the apartment and told me he was trying to open a restaurant, I asked him what he knew about the restaurant business with a comment that “You don’t look Greek to me”. Turns out, Greek or not, he knew a lot. He has always been a great citizen as well and was very helpful as we worked to create the fountain at Five Points South as a memorial to our mutual friend, Cecil J. Roberts.
I had foolishly also climbed on the roof of the Lewis-Slossfield School to replace it with the help of a group of my friends who volunteered to do the dirty and dangerous work after the Birmingham School Board claimed they could not afford to make the repairs. Disabled children, some with fragile health, were getting wet while sitting in leaking classrooms. They also had no air conditioning and were stuffed in classrooms where they could not turn around their wheelchairs or easily ambulate with crutches. The new roof really helped, but the building was a WPA project built in the Thirties and had seen better days. I did not know at the time that this project would pay political dividends down the road. Entering elective politics had never crossed my mind. But when I announced for the City Council, I received a call from Helen Shores Lee telling me she and her family had decided to support me for Council. I did not know who she was at the time, but as we became close friends, I realized how pivotal the endorsement of her father, Arthur Shores, had been in my election success. They had made the decision to support me, in large part because her son Robert had severe developmental handicaps and was a student at the heretofore ignored Lewis-Slossfield School.
Eventually, I conceived of the idea of just replacing the school and “mainstreaming” the disabled like I saw them do while I studied in Sweden. This complicated project became what is known today as EPIC School, described by Ethel Kennedy as a national model for educating special needs children. To the annoyance of his wife, Kay, Dr. Paul Houston and I obsessed over this special project for years, talking of nothing else as we imagined what the school might be. I wrote the grant and secured the last bit of funding to build it from Governor George Wallace after I met with him in his office and showed him stark and depressing pictures of the children.
I had been told by state officials that there was no money for such a project. But as he thumbed through the black and white photos John Northrup (now director of the Alabama School of Fine Arts) had taken for me, I saw him soften with tears in his eyes. Then he said, “You know, when I travel, they sometimes have to take the jams off the doors to get my wheelchair and me through them”. I nodded in sympathy and then said, “But you have state troopers and staff to do this for you, Governor. These kids can’t order people to help them. They are at our mercy.” With that, he rang for his finance director, “Jimmie, get in here. Cut him a check for the $200,000 he needs to complete the school”. At the Board of Education the next day, everyone was in disbelief as I handed the check to superintendent Wilmer Cody, not least of which was me.
Every time, thereafter, that I wanted to think ill of George Wallace, I remembered that moment and prayed for God to bless his soul. As he lay dying at his modest home, I would sometimes visit him to bring him cigars and discuss politics. His favorite subject was a Birmingham woman named Virginia on whom he apparently had a crush in his youth. For him, she was always the one that got away, to his great regret. He could not believe I did not know her but thought my election in Birmingham was a huge mystery. He had never carried Birmingham in any of his elections.
To communicate with him as his deafness increased, it was necessary to type messages on a computer screen to which he would verbally respond. Whatever sins, he may have committed in his life, he seemed to pay for them in the last days of his extreme suffering.
The notion that I was some kind of wimp was irritating and false, but somehow persistent. Maybe it was because I did not like football and often gave away the free tickets I received because the City ran Legion Field. I even gave away Alabama-Auburn tickets, to people at the dry cleaners or grocery store. If I had been smarter I could have given them to Jeff to scalp for me. Or maybe it was just the goofy look I wore regularly and seem to have perfected. The ties also didn’t help convey my inner macho!
After my election to the County Commission in 1986 where I took the position as Commissioner of Roads and Transportation, some of the County employees came to my office to tell me I had messed up their “pool” where they had taken bets on which newly elected commissioner would take what position. No one had gotten it right, thanks to my taking the transportation post and throwing a monkey wrench into things, so they decided to use the money to hold a welcome party for the commissioners. But Roads and Transportation was the largest and most complicated division in County government and I feared what might happen if it were left in the hands of someone who might use it politically and foster corruption. Turned out, it was the Environmental Services division I should have been concerned about. Who knew sewers could be such a filthy, but very lucrative business?
I’m sure my becoming Jefferson County Commissioner of Roads and Transportation also came as a surprise to Roger Bass. Roger was president of Dunn Construction, a local road paving company that had been in business for a hundred years. He was the first non-family member to head the company owned by Jamie French and his wife’s family; almost Mountain Brook royalty in what we called the “Tiny Kingdom”, where marrying your cousin is almost obligatory to keep the wealth in the family.
Roger was a Florida native and not to the manor born and it was a singular accomplishment for him to hold this post. He was attractive, pleasant, and apparently competent and talented enough to gain this position and, ultimately, prominence in the road building industry. He used his attributes to his advantage when he was elected president of the Alabama Roadbuilder’s Association, a very powerful political force in the State. They routinely made substantial financial contributions to politicians they favored and who would advance their cause. They proudly and publicly boasted of their influence with powerful Alabama politicians, like Senator Richard Shelby whose campaign coffers bulged with donations from their members.
My ostensible friendship with Roger started with his visit to my office and then an occasional invitation to lunch. It was a casual relationship based on business and politics and his perceived need to have a relationship with the County where his company did business. But it was an unnecessary courtship. I had determined long before my election as commissioner that contracts would be awarded only on the basis of who was the low bidder for the work, no matter how much I liked the contractor or how much they liked or disliked me. And if you were a contributor to my campaign, it would make it more difficult to obtain work as I exercised extreme caution and avoided the practices I had witnessed in the City where I could predict votes of Council members on most issues based on who was in the council chamber and how much they had given to the campaigns of my colleagues. Of course, the more accurate predictor of Birmingham City Council behavior on any one issue at that time was what the Mayor favored as he wielded unparalleled political power. But where special interests placed their political donations, like in all politics at all levels, could not be discounted and played a major role in every Council and Commission decision.
I hated the way things worked. I remember well when Councilman Russell Yarbrough told me one day on the city council election campaign trail that John Harbert, of the namesake construction company he had founded, wanted to see me in his office. I naively asked why? “He wants to make a contribution to your campaign,” he said, sounding a little bewildered by how almost stupid I was about politics and specifically, politics in Birmingham. “Can’t he just mail it?” I asked.
When I had entered the 1977 race for the City Council along with 27 other candidates, Nina Miglionico had sarcastically commented that “It would be a wonderful opportunity for me to learn something about my city.” Boy, did she make an understatement! I not only learned about the City, it’s geography, demographics, and its problems, but gained a greater understanding of human nature and how politics could bring out the best and the worst in people. And I learned for sure that certain people like John Harbert demanded more attention and petting than others to bring out their best.
I had piously promised God that if I got elected to the Council, I would always try to do the right thing, no matter the consequences. (Remember, I was Catholic and while in high school had considered entering seminary and becoming a priest. Guilt, self-punishment, and sacrifice were ingrained in me at an early age.) And I intended to keep that promise and do things differently, even if it meant political peril and the end of my public career. But insulting a guy, who at the time was the richest man in Alabama, did not seem like the way to start. It would have been really dumb. So I made an appointment and nervously trotted out to Shelby County and the chic, intentionally rust-covered complex that was Harbert Construction.
Sandy Falkenhagen, Mr. Harbert’s devoted secretary greeted me and made me comfortable as I anxiously waited to meet one of the most powerful men in the State. He came out and reached for my hand in a warm greeting I did not expect and immediately allayed my discomfort. His beautiful office was adorned with priceless things, like silver made by Paul Revere, old master paintings, and a sculpture done by an Italian artist friend of his, Enzo Plazzotta, of the many faces of the actor Peter Ustinov. Mr. Harbert also commissioned Enzo’s studio to make copies of Leonardo DaVinci’s Vetruvian Man which he donated to various places, including one to the Birmingham Museum of Art.
He presented the piece to the Museum with great pride and fanfare. It never occurred to him that the naked body depicted would offend some of the women of the Museum. While president of the City Council, I got a call from Margaret Livingston, a really lovely person dedicated to the Museum who asked me to find a way to give the statue back to Mr. Harbert without hurting his feelings. I asked why, in disbelief that she would risk insulting one of the museum’s most generous patrons. She then took me to the loading dock to show me the work and delicately explain why it was offensive. It became obvious. It was simply a matter a perspective in more ways than one. On the loading dock, the Vetruvian Man’s crotch was at eye level and the first thing that greeted your gaze. It was indeed somewhat daunting. So I came up with a plan to elevate it on a green marble pedestal to match the building, outside on the west wall of the Museum (which the City owns, by the way.)
At the dedication of the statue in its new spot, I joked that I had been the model for it. No one seemed to buy it, least of all Mr. Harbert. Marvin Engle, commented out loud, “You wish.” The beautiful statue worked for a while, suspended fifty feet in the air, but then the Puritans and evangelicals mobilized and insisted it be taken down from its perch as it was too easily viewed from the Expressway and passing traffic. I think it now resides at the Civic Center’s health forum, but who knows? It’s Alabama so it might have been melted down by now to make bullets.
Someday I hope someone will honestly explain to me why Vetruvian man’s small penis was more offensive than Vulcan’s large bare ass which has graced the City for decades and still does.
When Enzo lay dying, Mr. Harbert rushed to his side to be of comfort. Despite his humble, almost redneck beginnings, John Harbert was a man of remarkable sensitivity; charming, intelligent, and sophisticated. It surprises me that no one ever accused him of being gay. He boasted that he had started his multi-million dollar empire with winnings from a crap game as he was leaving the Army. But he was a shrewd businessman and astute political player. And, as I was about to learn, he was also adamantly and obviously racist.
After some complaining about the City and how the “niggers were taking over”, he got down to business questioning me on how I intended to win my race. My answers did not seem to matter. All that mattered to him was that I was white, and in the runoff election, was one of five white candidates pitted against five black ones. To his mind it was very simple; the five whites had to prevail if the City were to survive. Concern about the racial dynamics of this race had led me to pressure one of my strongest support groups, VOTES-Voters of the Eastern Section- to endorse William Bell for the Council to encourage integrated political slates. (Their endorsement effectively launched William’s long political career, a fact which I have regretted several times.)
I had been endorsed by the powerful black political organization, the Jefferson County Democratic Council, headed by Arthur Shores and David Hood in a gutsy move that created much controversy and, I suspect, some grief for them. I have previously mentioned the role his grandson’s disability played in this decision. Their endorsement, which excluded Jeff Germany, is what gave rise to the Citizens Coalition, founded by Richard Arrington, that soon overtook them as the most powerful black political organization in the State of Alabama. But they fervently shared my belief that racial politics that ignored qualifications of individual candidates was a bad thing. Diversity is a good and necessary thing. I was honored to have the endorsement and ignorant of how really powerful it was at the time. I soon learned that this endorsement was tantamount to being elected, foisting me to the top of the pack in the Council race and assuring my election to City government and launching my political career, for better or worse.
Mr. Harbert did not know this as he pulled a checkbook from a drawer in his expansive and expensive desk and asked, “How much will it take for you to win?” I told him we had run a conservative campaign and I estimated the runoff would cost another $2000 ( It was 1977 and things were lots cheaper then!) He began writing a check for that amount. “Oh no, you misunderstood,” I said. “That’s the total cost of the campaign and I am only accepting maximum donations of $250 from individuals who can afford it.” “Why’s that?” he asked with a tone of disbelief that bordered on disdain. I stammered, “So that if I am ever put in a position where I need to return a donation, I’ll be able to afford it,” He scowled as he peered over his reading glasses and tore up the check he had started. Then, without comment, he wrote another for $500 and tossed it at me. “Take this and go”, he said. “And good luck”. I left feeling like I had been violated in some way, but the campaign needed the money and alienating this guy did not seem like the best idea at the time. He was not just a political player and super-rich, he was also being appointed by the Governor to the board of the Alabama School of Fine Arts where I had just begun working. I was no fool. I reasoned that I would find other ways to demonstrate independence and integrity down the line. But it would not be easy.
Years later, I had a similar experience where I fell short of the mark, choosing discretion over political courage when I received a call in my Commission office from a federal judge. I had never received a phone call from any judge, much less a federal one and I was taken aback. I was more polite than usual, anxious to hear why he was calling. He began by saying that it was against the law for a federal judge to make a campaign contribution to anyone, so he could not help my campaign for re-election. I jumped to a conclusion that he must have been solicited in a direct mail appeal and apologized saying I would be sure to have his name removed from our mailing list. I went on explaining that the list had probably not been updated since he had given to my Council campaign as a private attorney. “Oh no,” he said. “That’s not it. My mother found some cash on the street and she swears it belongs to you. Can you come by my office and get it?” When I protested that it could not have been mine, he adamantly repeated the claim. It jolted me as his meaning became clear.
As I hung up, I debated on how to handle this obvious violation of campaign laws. But again, I reasoned, how stupid would it be to insult a federal judge with a campaign finance morality no one else seemed to be practicing. Besides, I reasoned, when will I ever be in a position where there might be a conflict of interest with a federal judge?
The future can be hard to predict. I could never have imagined at the time that I would one day file a formal complaint against federal Judge Karen Bowdre for her conflicts of interest and prejudice as I did in 2011. It’s a story for another time and one I should have told long ago. And I will tell it in detail in a later piece. ( I see a book coming).
Her husband, Birch Bowdre, was a member of a law firm I hired to sue the City to create districts in future Birmingham City Council races. I did this with the help of Marty Connors and others for many reasons, among them to give ordinary people without resources to run an expensive city-wide, at-large race, a chance to win. It was also to assure more racial balance on the Council, which frankly did not work out quite as well. His law firm made lots of money off the lawsuit as it settled. But Judge Bowdre saw no conflict here as she presided over my trial in 2009 for “theft of honest services”, a crime prosecutors employ when they can come up with nothing else to take down someone they’ve targeted. It was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010.
It’s hard to imagine her in the company of great judges I have known or had dealings with, like Hobart Grooms, Foy Guin, Sam Pointer, Bill Acker, U.W. Clemon, and Sharon Blackburn. In my informed opinion, Krane Bowdre has no business being on any bench, much less the federal one, as I will explain in the future blog piece unless I get zapped ahead of time. I have kept up with many of her decisions and I can’t fathom the number of lives she has ruined while moralizing, as an allegedly devout Baptist, about how St. Paul served jail time and it did him good. She apparently thinks everyone should go to jail for the moral experience.
In a recent case, she sent a father of small children to prison for 26 months because his six-year-old son found a gun in his mother’s bedroom and took it to school, shooting himself in the hand. No one can argue that the man should have not had the gun as someone with a prior felony, or that he was not irresponsible in leaving it where it might be found by a child. But a reasonable question of decent Christian people might be how the long term interest of this child and his siblings was served by depriving them of the breadwinner in the family and the influence of their father? I can’t imagine the hardship this created for their lives.
But things like this are of no concern for the proselytizing Judge Bowdre, who is known for handing out exceptionally harsh sentences, except in cases like that of Ken Livesay which is discussed later. In her courtroom, she regularly dons a Kente cloth stole with religious symbols as an outward sign of her piety. Of course, it could just be a bad fashion statement. But I doubt it having heard her preach from the bench while screwing me. What’s wrong with wearing this or any religious symbol in court is this is that it implies that she has been anointed by God and is infallible in her rulings. It is apparently routine for her to ruin people’s lives, lecture them, and then pray about it later. The good news is that she is retiring in 2020, probably to join a law firm, like that of her friend lawyer Julia Boaz Cooper. Or maybe she will become a Baptist missionary. In any case, God bless her. I have a recurring fantasy that we will meet in the afterlife and have an opportunity to discuss our differences. But maybe not.
After Julia Cooper testified in my trial on some trivial point, the Judge told her she was excusing her as she knew she was anxious to get to California to see her significant other. They both giggled at the prospect. I wrote down the precise time and date that the exchange had occurred and was stunned when it had been expunged from the trial transcript. It was relevant for many reasons, not least of which was that during Julia Cooper’s representation of Healthsouth against me in the conflict over the Pita Stop Building, she had been paying Jack McNamee, my attorney, for his services in another case without revealing this fact to me. I had complained over and over that her law firm, Bradley Arant, could not represent anyone against me without my express permission, as I had been a client of her firm for many years and they had sensitive financial and other information in their files that could be used against me.
When she refused to step aside, likely because of the huge fees she was being paid by HealthSouth, I contacted John Whittington, my attorney at Bradley. Turned out he had left the firm and was nor Senior VP and Legal Counsel for HealthSouth. But he did respond and agree that there was a conflict that he would ask the manager of the Bradley firm, Bo Grenier, to handle. He never did and Julia continued to direct the fight against me in court, using a surrogate attorney, Hope Cannon, as the frontwoman.
I never understood why my many demands of my Attorney Jack McNamee that he insist that Bradley recuse themselves from the case went unmet until I got new information years later. From the very beginning of my case, Mr. McNamee had been taking large payments from HealthSouth, approved by Mr. Whittington and Julia Cooper. He had simply fucked me over for this money, throwing my case and even stealing $150,000 from a later settlement. It is an unbelievable tale of greed and ethical violations by at least three, and maybe six lawyers who knew what was happening. I was the only one kept in the dark as they raped me and laid the foundation for my future problems. In any other state, they all would have lost their law licenses. And while Bradley attorneys can strut around like respectable professionals, I will always know the truth about this stain on their integrity.
Of course, this is not the only ethical lapse for Julia. The guy in California she was rushing to meet was the attorney on the other side of a case against HealthSouth. She capitulated and settled with him for $40 million of HealthSouth dollars and then married him.
Judge Bowdre is not the only one with a bogus commitment to integrity in public office, free of personal politics. I can’t count on my hands and toes the number of public officials who are there for what they can take; not give. At least Julia is honest in her dishonesty, demonstrating she’ll do anything for money, position and a false image of respectability.
More than once I had attempted to persuade fellow commissioners to adopt a policy of eliminating no-bid contracts in all County business, including personal service contracts which were exempted by State law from the bid process. If you were a lawyer or engineer, you could be hired on a negotiated contract and paid whatever the Commissioner in charge decided and might get past the full Commission. It was not hard to do as self-serving Commissioners had adopted a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” practice. You could do whatever you wanted in your division, as long as, you did not question what other Commissioners were doing in theirs’. I didn’t buy it and often “meddled” in the affairs of other Commissioners, arguing that I had not been elected as Commissioner of Roads and Transportation, but as a County Commissioner and needed to be involved in all aspects of County government, providing oversight where needed. Most Commissioners, with the exception of Jim Gunter who was a remarkably decent and competent public official, strongly disagreed. Clearly, lawyers had designed this loophole in the law and lobbied for its passage. But engineers and other “professionals” also loved this irrational exemption which no one could adequately explain or justify. And every Democrat on the Commission fully embraced this practice as a way to reward financial supporters and advance their own political security.
I was dismayed and more than shocked when my proposal to end the practice of no-bid contracts met with adamant opposition, even from small engineering firms that would have benefited from my resolution. I had reasoned they would like a policy that evened the playing field and gave them a fighting chance against large firms with deep pockets and professional lobbyists. I was dead wrong. When it failed miserably, I did the next best thing and adopted a policy for my division that banned the acceptance of anything of value from companies with which the County did business. Only after pressure from the County Engineer, Jerry Drake, for whom I had great respect and appreciation, did I modify the policy to allow for “the reasonable cost of a meal” to allow him to continue his practice of regularly dining with engineers and contractors from whom, he argued, he regularly obtained useful professional information.
After my own desk became cluttered with gifts from one particular engineering firm, Cecil Jones and Associates, I wrote Mr. Jones with as kind a letter as I could, explaining that these gratuities would no longer be accepted and were unnecessary to obtain business from the County. They were, in fact, harmful to a fair process for awarding work. Cecil was not happy after so much effort to successfully master the art of gift-giving with things like bottles of liquor with commissioners’ names engraved on them or desk sets likewise personalized and not returnable. He was already predisposed to dislike me, having always supported my political opponents in City races and this did not help. I had no objection, however, to his and Jerry Drake continuing to play golf and maintaining their long-standing friendship and association. Unfortunately, every time his company’s name appeared on a road engineering contract, I became paranoid and paid particular attention to make certain the amount being paid was appropriate to the amount of work being rendered. It wasn’t an easy process, especially since I was the only commissioner who seemed to have any concern or problems with unbid contracts or gifts from contractors and vendors.
Cecil Jones wasn’t alone in relying on gifts to pave the way for special favors from Commissioners. I remember well receiving an expensive Mont Blanc pen from O.Z. Hall, the tax collector, for inexplicable reasons. He followed this up with an envelope containing five-hundred-dollar bills. It was allegedly a Christmas present from a colleague and other commissioners said I would hurt his feelings if I made a big deal out of it. His gifts were especially puzzling to me as it was well known that Mr. Hall had no love for me. He blamed me for his son’s loss in the Republican primary after Sheriff Mel Bailey revealed that he had been arrested on drug distribution charges while a student at Mountain Brook High School. Despite this revelation, O.Z. Jr. used his father’s name identification to inch into a run-off election with me where I had missed winning outright by just a handful of votes. I tried to persuade the young O.Z. that his race against me was a waste of time and money and a distraction from beating the Democrat Chriss Doss in the general election. He did not seem to care and got trounced, leaving his father very unhappy over this setback in his attempts to build the Hall dynasty. Returning his money would not help our working relationship.
Several years later, the Sheriff also leaked to the press details of an extortion plot where two young men who Mr. Hall had solicited for sex tried to blackmail him for money to remain silent. They had found his business card in his pants which he had removed for the occasion and thought they had hit the jackpot. The money he had paid them was apparently not enough and they wanted $10,000 from a guy who seemed to have deep pockets.
When Sheriff Bailey told this story to commissioners, all I could think of was the scene in 1971 classic film, Harold and Maude, where Harold’s priest counsels him about his bizarre relationship with an octogenarian and expresses, in graphic terms, his disgust at the thought of Harold’s supple young body pressed against Maude’s 80- year-old sagging frame.
O.Z.’s story rivaled this one and was one no one, even with a wild imagination, could have invented. This incident forever changed Mr. Hall’s relationship with the Sheriff who at that time was the most popular politician in the County.
Mel Bailey was what Matt Dillon wished he could have been. His opinion mattered and influenced commissioners who expressed disgust and shock at the revelations. But, in fact, there had been many hints about O.Z’s proclivities. In fact, it had been obvious that under his guidance, the Tax Collector’s office had become a haven of always attractive young men who served as drivers and errand boys for him. But the extortion details were just too disturbing for Sheriff Bailey who became adamant about the disgust he felt for this self-proclaimed pillar of the community who had made a name for himself in the car business before becoming Tax Collector. It was a powerful position where he regularly gave favor to large landowners and friends. (A delay of collection of tax payments of millions would earn money for the favored businesses.) He liked the job and its power and would have been there until he died if these enterprising hustlers had not discovered his business card.
This incident occurred well after his attempts to gain favor with Commissioners. Fully aware that he would be angry, I bit the bullet, made copies of the currency he left in my office and my note refusing the money and hand-delivered them to his office. It made no sense to me for an independently elected public official to be making these types of gifts to Commissioners, even if we did control the air conditioning in his offices or whether he got new carpet or a budget increase to hire more boys. But why?
Weeks later, the real reason for his generosity became clear when he appeared with some of his Mountain Brook friends to lobby the Commission for money for a cause they were promoting. The group wanted the County to subsidize the salaries of doctors who delivered services to the indigent at Cooper Green Hospital and elsewhere. Billy Hulsey, a wealthy businessman and the principal spokesman for the group, refused to answer a question I posed to him about whether anyone from the County was being paid or given anything of value to assist in this effort to lobby commissioners. I already knew the answer, having learned quite by accident that Mr. Hall was driving a new car provided to him for his services to this group. His County car was being driven by one of the young men in his office while he sported around in a new Mercury Marquis provided by his wealthy benefactors. I think it fair to say, his motives in promoting the cause of allegedly underpaid doctors were not entirely altruistic, unselfish, or honest.
The same was true when he used his stretch limo leftover from his car business to take Commissioners to lunch at Shoal Creek with Hall Thompson, the founder of the elite golf club which had seen its fair share of negative publicity for its racially discriminatory practices. We were ushered to a very private basement room where we were served lunch and given large elaborately framed prints of Lee Trevino on the 18th green at Shoal Creek, signed by Mr. Trevino himself. O.Z. told delighted commissioners that the prints were selling for about $1500 each.
Mr. Thomson, with O.Z.’s help and guidance, finally revealed why we were there. It wasn’t just a social event to get gifts and lunch. The reason we were receiving this royal treatment was that they wanted the Commissioners to fund retiring the debt of a couple of hundred thousand dollars on the Harbert Center, located in downtown Birmingham. Mr. Hall had been a very close friend of John Harbert and they had collaborated to build a building so their Rotary Club would have a suitable place to regularly meet. It was now called the Harbert Center in honor of John Harbert, its principal benefactor.
I was involved in the original request by Mr. Harbert to the City to help with its initial seed money to get the project off the ground. My meetings with him on the topic came rushing back to mind as we chomped on steak and potatoes. The City was inclined to help, but a condition of its contribution was unfettered use of the building without charge to community groups. “You mean, you want me to allow niggers to use my building?” Mr. Harbert exclaimed in alarm. “Exactly”, I said, “but maybe without the derogatory terms ”. “OK”, he said, “but it’s going to cost you more money and they can only use it if they pay the going rate.” After months of my shuttling back and forth between City Hall and the rust palace, he finally agreed to drop the conditions and accept the City’s money, allowing minority civic groups to meet there for free. He even made a trip to City Hall to appear before a fawning City Council. finance committee, chaired by William Bell to make his case. Without uttering a word, he got everything he asked for as no one on the Council challenged him on his racist views which everyone acknowledged as part of his persona and unchangeable.
Now Hall Thompson wanted funds from the County to pay off the building’s debt and the Commissioners were feeling generous, armed with a new special gift and proximity to one of the community’s richest and powerful and philanthropic citizens.
I openly expressed misgivings about the contribution as other commissioners pressed me to agree to the funding. “Alright,” I said after being badgered for fifteen minutes, “But if we agree to leave Chris and Reuben home the next time, can we be allowed to eat upstairs in the main dining room with the white people?” Commissioners squirmed in their seats thinking that their new acquired, signed prints might not make it to the limo.
Later, Mr. Thomson called me at my office, after he got the money, to tell me what an “asshole” I was. He also objected to my telling the story of John Harbert’s regular use of the “N” word which he also deemed appropriate on regular occasions. I pleaded guilty and did not argue with him.
Chris McNair came to my office later and told me I was either crazy or the bravest white boy he had ever known to confront Mr. Hall in this way. When I asked him why he supported this generous gift from the County which we really could not afford, especially in light of the well-known racism of Mr. Hall, he responded that he was used to attitudes like his and besides, he added, he (Chris) was the first minority member of the Rotary Club for which the building had been built. He was going to enjoy it.
Meanwhile, O.Z. Hall took credit for having convinced the Commission to make the donation of taxpayer money so the Rotary Club could keep meeting in semi-regal splendor without the worry of how to pay for it. Meanwhile, back in Sherman Heights, Wylam, Ensley, Tarrant, West End, etc., life went on as usual with poverty, crime and despair rising and no funds to meet basic needs. In fairness, however, the building gets lots of use for community functions and now serves the entire community. Mr. Harbert might be proud to have his name on it, even in a majority Black city.
Mr. Hall eventually wound up under investigation by the U.S. Attorney when he fired one of the County’s insurance bond underwriters after that business refused to make a substantial contribution to Gary White, a former Homewood Councilman and state representative, who was opposing me in the Republican primary. O.Z. used his office to raise other monies for Gary, personally accompanying him on visits to vendors to extort whatever he could from them, making the case that I had to go and I was unfit for office because of my “lifestyle”. I laughed when one businessman on whom they called told me they said they thought I might be “queer”. Really? Coming from O.Z Hall, a concern that someone might be homosexual?
The case against O.Z. was settled after the election (which I lost to Gary in one of the nastiest campaigns ever run in Jefferson County) when he agreed to resign. It came too late to correct the damage and injustice that was done to me. But no one, including me, really wanted to see O.Z. Hall do prison time at his advanced age no matter how disgusting his personal and political life was.
The corrupt patronage system was ingrained in other ways and difficult to end with other commissioners supporting doing business as usual and accepting whatever they could get to supplement their income and enjoy a better lifestyle. They viewed the Commission as part-time work which did not pay a fair wage, so taking advantage of opportunities when they presented themselves seemed rational, Besides, no one seemed to be paying close attention or really give a damn, especially the Birmingham News; at least until things were well out of control.
In the sewer division, run by Chris McNair, tens of millions of dollars were handed out to engineering firms like Engineering Services Associates in Homewood, run by Frank Lindstrom. Chris objected to my attempts to end no-bid contracts, even in the area of County auctions of “surplus” equipment over which I had sole control as part of my Commission responsibilities. I was shocked when I reviewed the auction process dominated by Mike Acton, an auctioneer. (See my previous post on him and his cozy relationship with Jabbo Waggoner). We were literally giving away valuable heavy equipment and trucks and vehicles with significant useful life as they were auctioned for pennies on the dollar to favored individuals, companies, and municipalities which depended on the County to regularly replace their worn-out equipment through this flawed process.
My attempts to open up this process and make it fair prompted Chris to invite me to a meeting in his office where I was shocked to find Mike Acton sitting at the conference table as Chris excused himself because of some emergency at his photography studio, which was his priority business. Being a Commissioner was almost a hobby to him and he devoted as little attention to it as possible.
During the meeting to persuade me not to open up the auction process to competition, Acton showed me a handsome Rolex watch and offered it to me “at his cost” which I assume would have been minimal. I politely refused the offer and became more convinced that I was right to try and break up the monopoly he held on County business. But people like Jabbo Waggoner, the dean of the Jefferson County legislative delegation and “respected” Republican leader, made it near impossible with their longstanding and close relationships with Acton and others like him. For him, things like this were just politics as usual in Alabama. Jabbo had no ostensible skills and every job he ever held that paid a reasonable wage was given to him because of his influence in the Alabama Legislature. Without his senate position, he would have been under-qualified to get work at McDonald’s. A disgusting womanizer, he hit on every skirt that moved. But he’s now an icon in Local Republican circles where his behavior has become the norm.
There was little I could do about some of the other benefits Commissioners routinely received from vendors and lobbyists. First, one had to know about them and that was hard although, occasionally, I would glean some disturbing information from an unexpected source. At a social event attended by Frank Lindstrom who was related to friends of mine by marriage, I learned he had taken Chris to the Caribbean on a vacation for which Lindstrom had paid. This came as a surprise to me, even though I was aware of his penny-pinching ways. Chris always carried an ironing board in his van so he could iron his own shirts to save money. Still, it more than irritated when he would always oppose improvements to City of Birmingham facilities or properties, under the guise of saving taxpayer money. He even opposed my paving the lot of the Western Mental Health Center which was eventually renamed in his honor. Seriously!. But it was hard to imagine that he was accepting gifts like this and even harder to prove this trip and others like it had anything to do with influencing his awarding of no-bid contracts to Frank’s firm, ESA in Homewood. Moreover, attacking the integrity of a Commissioner and public figure who had made a supreme sacrifice to the cause of civil and human rights when his daughter had tragically died in the Sixteenth Street church bombing would take more courage (or stupidity) than I was capable of mustering.
Despite his failings, Chris was a very likable guy. The Birmingham News and most white conservatives loved him while reviling me as the agitator who was never satisfied until there were chaos and trouble. They even blamed me for simply abstaining on a vote to elect the Commission president when the choice between David Orange and McNair had tied at two votes apiece. There was a blistering editorial attacking me even though simple logic and math dictated that any Commissioner changing his vote would have broken the tie. I was not essential to the process and did not want to be.
It was hard to imagine David Orange and Chris McNair colluding after their bitter race for the presidency of the Commission. David was a former aid to the Sheriff and proud of the fact that he was the last person to arrest Martin Luther King when they booked him at the Bessemer Courthouse. After he was elected to the Commission, he was a continuous thorn in the side of Sheriff Bailey, prompting me, one day, to ask him why his grudge was so bitter. He fought the Sheriff on every issue, no matter how small. It was a mistake to ask him if the Sheriff had slept with his wife, but his opposition was so personal I could not imagine anything on par that would have prompted his vitriol and one-sided feud. Of course, while throwing rocks and hiding his hand, Commissioner Orange became an active minister of the Gospel and continued to preach after his defeat for re-election by Mary Buckelew who exploited his advocacy of the hated County occupational tax. But somehow Chris and David made peace and voted lockstep on every issue, especially if I were on the other side.
While I generically warned of the corruption that might come from lack of full Commission oversight of contracts and accountability, I could not have remotely imagined the depth of the corruption that was festering and would eventually cause the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history when the County was forced to face the consequences of the Commissioners’ willing ignorance of ,and refusal to challenge, what was happening in the “Environmental Services” division. There was certainly plenty of blame to go around, but the record, at the Courthouse and in the morgue of the Birmingham News, will show that I regularly and loudly warned of what might happen if this system that provided no oversight or accountability was allowed to go unchecked. And I was regularly criticized for it.
The sewer disaster came years after I had left the Commission, defeated by Gary White who acted at the direction of Bill Slaughter, the principal architect of the sewer mess and the financial arrangements to correct an artificial problem. (See my previous posts that explain this issue in more detail and how corporations like Haskell Slaughter, USX Realty, and others benefited.) Mr. Slaughter was aided and abetted by the County Attorney, Andy Strickland, who retired with a taxpayer-funded pension of over $25,000 a month. (Not a misprint.)
The tale of Roger Bass’ influence is slightly different but no less insidious. The County owned paving equipment and regularly paved roads, but apparently, there were times when it was economically advantageous to use an outside company. In these instances, it was always the low bidder who got the contract, though there may have been some exceptions in special situations and there could be change orders which drove up the price after acceptance of a low bid. I don’t remember the details of every contract, but I think it is likely that any non-bid road contracts would have gone to Dunn Construction. They were local, did good work and at, what I was told by professionals, was a fair price. But the fact that Roger was known to all Commissioners, had made political contributions to some of us, and was ostensibly a personal friend of mine would not have hurt his chances at County business.
On more than one occasion I had been forced to stop sweetheart deals negotiated with vendors that employees in the Roads and Transportation division assumed were friends of mine and held some sway with me. That impression was often influenced by one of my staff assistants, Joey Sanders, who had been an aide to Senator Jeremiah Denton. I had hired him against the advice of other respected Republicans because l was anxious to prove I was a team player and good Republican and I was committed to helping Senator Denton place his staff after he lost re-election. I also reasoned that Joey’s well-known ultra-conservatism could act as a foil to my tendencies to lean toward the middle, if not left of center. If not progressive, I was definitely not regressive and it apparently showed. It was a bitter battle between conservatives and moderate Republicans when I was elected secretary of the Alabama Republican Party by a narrow margin after Emory Folmar used the full weight of his influence as a former chair of the Party to help me. You know you’re in conservative hell, and trouble, when you’re in a place where Emory Folmar is the most liberal guy in the room.
I mentioned to Mayor Folmar my problems with Albert Lee Smith, the arch-conservative Republican congressman who had replaced John Buchanan, a Baptist preacher who had held the post for many years until he was defeated by Smith because he had become too liberal. He was actually a thoroughly decent and rational guy who had served the community well,m especially as a member of the Steel Caucus, protecting Birmingham’s steel industry. But that didn’t matter. He must have failed some litmus test administered by the Right-wing of the Party and he had to go.
Albert Lee had interviewed me in my commission race as he allegedly was trying to make up his mind about who to support. After hours of answering questions about abortion and Star Wars, where I was dismayed while wondering what these things had to do with service on the Commission, he told me he was leaning toward Stuart Gaines, the head of the Moral Majority in Alabama. I was frustrated that I had valuable wasted time with someone who had a closed mind and limited intellectual capacity. He was a demonstrator for stupid.
So Mayor Folmar said this, “You know, I satisfied the Catholic Archbishop of Mobile with my position on abortion when I was running for governor. But I could not satisfy Albert Lee Smith. There’s only one way to handle him. Call him up and tell him to kiss your ass.”
So the next day I did just that. My only regret is that I did not include his wife Eunie in the insult. As evangelicals and other Regressives try to paint her as some sort of secular saint, I see her as a force for ignorance, hatred, and stupidity as she crusades against abortion and moralizes about how others should live. Her husband fell off a ladder and was killed. Would it be mean to say, he was brain dead before he hit the ground? Probably, but the pain this comment may cause is nothing compared to the pain and suffering their ignorant position on many personal issues have caused many others.
My trust and confidence in Joey diminished when he was caught joyriding in a County vehicle with a couple of state legislator friends of his and caused damage to the vehicle. He was generally a good guy, but perhaps at the time, a little immature and self-serving. I overlooked his youthful indiscretions but drew the line at awarding contracts to his, or my, friends. He was competent and did many good things for the community from my office and in other positions, he held in Republican circles. He was actively involved in the Young Republicans which held a fundraiser by “roasting” me. I turned the tables a little by inviting to the event the head of the Communist Youth Organization in Russia who was visiting Alabama on some State Department-sponsored program. But the people in attendance evened the score when they all donned glasses and mustaches to mimic my ethnic (Carlos Santana) look before I became a Republican.
Joey was the driving force in the effort to establish City Stages and without his influence, this music festival would never have received seed money from the County or gotten off the ground. Aside from approving County money, he persuaded me to allow the County bridge crews to help construct the various performance stages, saving the organization, eventually headed by his cousin George McMillan, tens of thousands of dollars. Of course, this did not offset the thousands wasted on security details and other positions for attractive young men that George insisted upon hiring. He and Joey eventually parted company over George’s predilections, which shared much in common with O.Z. Hall’s. Many have forgotten the story in the news media of the recovery of George’s wallet from some young male drifters he had met at the Trailways bus station and invited back to his law office for coffee. Misusing City Stages as a personal harem of sorts contributed to its eventual demise. It was a shame as many people loved this music festival that gave people something to do in downtown Birmingham in the summer.
Obviously, Peyton Place had nothing on Birmingham. I know, I know; I can hear it now as people remember the stories in the Birmingham News about my hiring a porn star on a charity’s dime that suggest I might be a huge hypocrite. In another of my blog piece’s about Ryan Idol, aka Marc Anthony Donais, my oldest Godchild, I try to set the record straight with the facts which really don’t matter to people who always look for scandal and the worst dirt they can find to prove that no one is better than they are. But Anthony, who had been an internationally famous adult film star in his youth, was financially well off when he volunteered to help get Computer Help for Kids off the ground, helping renovate the Pita Stop Building in which it and other charities were housed with his physical labor and a loan of $35,000 to get the charity off the ground. We had previously worked together on other projects and this one was one in which he believed and thought he might be of help. He and I speak regularly and are still working on projects together and I have watched his evolution into a decent, caring person through the years with a past he deeply regrets.
He wrote Joey Kennedy of the Birmingham News to correct their slanderous articles implying that he was hired by me as a boy toy and did no work. They even published a cartoon of me in heart covered underwear doing a pole dance at a gay strip club which seemed like a new low, even for the Birmingham News. Commissioner Jim Carns called me the morning it appeared and suggested I not look at the newspaper and the cartoon because it was so revolting. My only comment was how did they know I had boxer shorts with hearts on them? They’re next to my moose and penguin underwear from Sweden. But it really wasn’t funny.
He did not know my history with what I often called the “Fourth Avenue Rag” or he would not have been shocked by anything they printed. Their Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, John Archibald once secretly taped me in an interview with his editors, the normally prudent and professional journalist, Tom Scarritt, among them. He then published selected excerpts from the tape while lying about it being surreptitiously recorded. There was nothing there that I found particularly embarrassing or disturbing, but it was the principle of the thing that an allegedly professional and noble journalist would outright lie about his underhanded tactics. Apparently, you don’t have to write particularly well or have character to win a Pulitzer. Depending on how this tome is received, I may apply myself. Or should I hold out for a Nobel? Ever since I saw Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn receive his Nobel Prize in Literature while I studied in Sweden in the mid-’70s, I’ve really wanted one. I still have the ticket and program framed on the wall of my study. So I’m halfway there.
Of course, the Birmingham News publisher, Victor Hanson the Second, was as devout Christian as was Victor the Third, his successor. But he uncharitably and viciously attacked me after he was thrown off the board of directors of the School of Fine Arts. He blamed me for his demise, but it was actually John Harbert who told Governor James that Victor Hanson II was useless and needed to be replaced. He was also miffed at my opposition to using taxpayer money to fund a parking lot on Fifth Avenue near their new building for the News’ almost exclusive use. Councilman Russell Yarbrough had warned me years earlier to never cross anyone who had a “warehouse full of paper and bought ink by the barrel.” Another time I should have listened.
But I don’t fully blame the Birmingham News for printing what they were leaked by Bradley Arant. The rumor that I was having an affair with a porn star was actually begun by Hope Cannon, the previously mentioned surrogate attorney with Bradley Arant, who was grasping at straws to prove her case in a lawsuit between me and HealthSouth over the fate of the “Pita Stop” and nearby historic Methodist Church buildings. The properties had been pledged to charities to preserve them and used them for community purposes by Richard Scrushy before he was abruptly removed as chairman and CEO of HealthSouth. He intended to transfer the properties, which were in a REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust) when the new digital hospital on Highway 280 finally opened.
Hope made a case that Anthony had no technical computer skills and therefore should never have been used by the charity after I readily admitted that I did not know of any special training or skills he had with computers. In fact, he did have computer skills, but that was really not the issue, He was completely irrelevant to the case and every dollar he had been paid for helping renovate the building and refurbish old computers was simply the repayment of his well-documented loan. But like many lawyers, winning is everything to her and her colleagues; reputations and the truth be damned. She clearly knew the truth and it did not matter. Her client had deep pockets and when you are billing them tens of thousands of dollars a month, success means everything to your firm’s pocketbook and your utility to the firm. I’m sure she did not want to disappoint Julia Cooper who was still seething from my attempts to have Bradley recuse themselves from the case.
Oddly, I took some consolation in a final meeting with Ms. Cannon and other attorneys in the courtroom of Scott Vowell when she could not look me in the eye while we discussed her firm’s conflict of interest in representing HealthSouth against me. I sometimes wonder how she rationalizes all that happened to me since she helped lay a foundation of sleaze and poisoned the air with a theory and storyline she knew was false. I doubt it bothers her as she continues to spend HealthSouth’s money and enjoy the opulent surroundings of Bradley, Arant, Boult, Cummings and the prestige that comes working for a venerable law firm, once Birmingham’s largest.
It was a particularly sad moment for me to realize how sleazy the firm could act because I had for many years called a number of attorneys at this firm, friends. Among them were John Adams, Mabry Rogers, and Jodie Smith who I helped with an application to law school. He impressed me in our meeting where he reviewed my resume as a template for designing his. He commented that he was amazed when he read I had won Harvard’s Sheldon Prize as a graduate student. He is the only person in my entire life, other than the people who awarded it to me in 1974, who knew what that was, much less that T.S. Elliott had also won it. I was impressed with him and believe he may be one of the only entirely ethical attorneys still working at Bradley. I would have thought this even if he did not know what the Sheldon Prize is.
I did get a few laughs out of the lawsuit ordeal, especially in arbitration with Judge Art Hanes, Jr. who said all this talk about a gay porn star was going to hurt me in Judge Vowell’s Court. “Really?” I asked. “How so?” He argued that Judge Vowell was a “straight arrow” and would hate all this sleazy stuff. “Interesting”, I responded. I then began to relate a story to him in confidence that seemed to only mildly surprise him.
While visiting my friend Al Troncalli during his illness, he had shown me a photo album of better times with his friends. His closest friend was an openly gay and very successful man in Atlanta whom I had met several times, named Ian Waters. He pointed to one picture and asked me if I knew who it was? It was hard to recognize Ian as a physically fit young man with hair, in contrast to how he looked the day Al showed me the picture. . “So who is that with his arm around him,”I asked. “Scott Vowell”, he said.”They were a couple for many years”.
I have always liked Scott Vowell and think he is a fair and decent man and was a good judge. His personal life was no one’s business. And it certainly had no effect on how he did his job as far as I could tell. But I was not about to be intimidated into settling the case in an unfair way because of what others, without as much information as I had, speculated about his prejudices. I was also still angry over having so much garbage interjected by Ms. Cannon and her colleagues into what should have been a simple breach of contract case. I intended to reveal anything I needed to prevent this.
It really enraged me that my innocent, unselfish, and paternal relationship with Anthony Donais, which never included intimate contact of any kind, was being used to steal from me. Judge Hanes who once represented James Earl Ray, the killer of Dr. Martin Luther King, is likely to still remember this conversation as one of the more interesting ones he had in his long and storied career.
I don’t think Anthony’s letter was ever published after he refused to allow their gutter prone editors to edit its content, unfettered. But it can be read on another of my posts called “Letter from a Porn Star.” When I speak with him, we still laugh at the ludicrous notion that we were ever intimate or ever could be. He and his beautiful Iranian girlfriend, Ellie, to whom he was once engaged, joined friends and other Godchildren like Damien and Danielle Shores-Larkin, on a trip to Italy I sponsored in the mid-Eighties.
One of my favorite pictures is of Anthony and Ellie in St. Peters on each side of Miss Nina Miglionico holding her hands in the archway of St. Peter’s Basilica. And it was fun watching them interact with Damien and Danielle as they hung out together with other young people. Everyone on the trip knew of Anthony’s distant past and no one seemed to care.
I fully understood how Anthony’s childhood led him into a sleazy business where he was easily exploited and abused. It’s interesting and inexplicable how evangelicals can forgive Donald Trump for his association with Stormy Daniels, but jumped on my entirely altruistic relationship with Anthony where I made valiant attempts to help him overcome alcohol and drug abuse and live a decent life, even enrolling him in AA in New York City after he attempted suicide by jumping from a window in his hotel. He spent weeks at the Blake’s summer place at Orange Beach, recovering from serious injuries which still negatively affect his health today. Being dragged into a controversy in Birmingham in which he played no part was very unfair. And judging me by one association out of hundreds I have had in my life is, as well. I would argue that Anthony was in many ways more moral than most of the politicians, and certainly the lawyers, I have known. I may just have a higher tolerance for mistakes people make in their youth. Or perhaps, more likely, a different interpretation of the New Testament and what is commanded of Christians.
In my old age, I have come to a number of conclusions about the God who made me. I’ve decided to reject the God of the Old Testament, always throwing down punishment and wrath about something, wiping out whole tribes of people and smiting those who He deems as not making the cut on any given day. To say He is painted as arbitrary and capricious in the Old Testament is an understatement. No more perversely violent book has ever been written.
Take for example this verse from the book of Samuel:
“David arose and went, along with his men, and killed two hundred of the Philistines. And David brought their foreskins, which were given in full number to the king, that he might become the king’s son-in-law. And Saul gave him his daughter Michal for a wife.”
And here’s another one from Deuteonomy, just one of hundreds to be found in plain sight in the “Good Book”:
“If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.”
Instead, I’m preferring and sticking with the God of the New Testament who is loving and nurturing, and above all, tolerant and forgiving. I think maybe having a son softened him up. Anyway, that’s how I’m rolling until I leave the planet. I’ll let you know how it turns out.
Tolerance takes patience and huge amounts of sympathy, if not empathy. There was the time when a County employee had turned over a County dump truck and admitted he had been smoking marijuana prior to the accident. I’ve never turned over a truck or gotten high on anything, so it was hard to relate. Alcohol makes me sleepy, not high or happy.
In his hearing before me, the staff lined up in favor of firing him. I had never met the guy and he didn’t make the best case in his defense, but when I learned that his wife was eight months pregnant and they would be without health insurance, not to mention income, if he were fired, I decided instead to send him for treatment through an employee assistance program. The problem was that the County did not have one.
I called Hunter Copeland, who had devised an effective employee alcohol and drug rehab program and asked for his help which he readily gave even though the County was not a member of his employee assistance consortium. was a kind and decent man who later gained some minor fame as the stepfather of Courtney Cox of “Friends”. Mr. Copeland gladly helped for free and later was rewarded for his compassion when the County agreed to hire his organization to administer a formal employee assistance program to address increasing abuse of drugs and alcohol by County employees.
I don’t think I ever received thanks from the almost-fired employee or his pregnant wife, and the staff stayed miffed for a few weeks for my being too soft and a “liberal pushover”! But it seemed like the right thing to do at the time and still does in retrospect. I assume the junked truck wound up in the County’s rigged auction which would have made Mike Acton and Jabbo Waggoner happy. An unintended consequence of this particular incident was the popularity I gained with employees in the field when they learned how I had bucked the central office establishment to keep this guy on the payroll. When I left office, they invited me to the Bessemer Work Camp and gave me a plaque they had made and I joked that I hoped it had been made with recycled wood on their own time, not the County’s.
The intensity of my casual friendship with Roger Bass changed when a tragic accident took the life of his son Chris, a student at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. While attending a party on a nearby lake, he apparently fell from a boat and went missing. It was a horror beyond words for Roger and his family and my heart broke for him as he obviously suffered waiting for news. I sent a Catholic priest with whom I was close friends to visit him and his wife, Rene, to offer whatever comfort religion could provide. And during that period of painful waiting, I instructed my secretaries to put Roger through to me whenever he called, no matter what I might be doing at the time. I wanted to be available to him to help in any way I could to see him and his family through this tragic and difficult time. Our friendship seemed to grow and continued even after his son’s body was found, bringing what we all prayed would be some closure to this horrific and senseless tragedy.
I believed we had become personal friends and gave no thought to taking a trip with him and Rene and a girlfriend when they suggested we go to the Bahamas to celebrate my birthday that July. The truth is that I hate the sun and avoid beaches whenever I can. (And no one has ever asked to see me in a Speedo!)
On the trip, Roger chartered a small boat and delighted as I turned green from awful seasickness. After he egged it on with comments about the “greasy bacon and greasy eggs” we had had for breakfast, with emphasis on the word greasy, my nausea became violent and I spent the rest of the day lying below deck. My condition was not helped that night at dinner at Greycliff, a favorite restaurant of Winston Churchill when my birthday gift was a severed turtle head that they insisted I blindly pull from a paper sack. My nausea quickly returned and I’m not feeling so great right now as I write about it. The rest of the trip is a blur. It was, after all, over thirty years ago that it took place and remembering any of my birthdays lost appeal years ago.
In honesty, I do not remember the details of the trip; like where we stayed or who paid for what. My hope is that I did not allow my friendship with Roger to cause me to turn a blind eye to maintaining independence from undue influence or allowing him to foot all the bills. Frankly, it would not be characteristic of me. When invited to a dinner or luncheon where someone else is paying, I always intentionally order the cheapest thing on the menu, a habit I was taught as a child. I still do this today along with other childhood quirks, like not eating English peas or raw oysters.
I had made an assumption, apparently incorrect, that first and foremost we were friends and his dealings with the County were separate and apart from that personal friendship. I don’t remember any other gift exchanges except one Christmas when he gave me a funky designer tie of the type of which he was particularly fond. I think it was Japanese. I’m certain I would have given him something in return, although I can’t remember what it might have been. But all this was soon to stop.
Al Troncalli looked on with a sort of astonished look as I continued my story saying that, despite all of our history, I never heard from Roger again from the day I lost my primary election to Gary White until that very moment at Cedar House; not a call, not a note; nothing. But I did reflect that from time to time I would hear from friends of his playing golf with Gary and how close they had become, taking trips together with their current wives and regularly socializing. I also noted large contributions he, Dunn Construction, and the Road Builders made to Gary’s re-election campaigns over the next twenty years Gary held the office until he was defeated by Jim Carns. In my naivete, Roger’s friendship with Gary somehow surprised me and I can only imagine how many times I was trashed for the sake of his economics.
For certain, he was not the only “friend’ who abandoned me when I was no longer in public office and useful to them. John Hawkins, a former state senator and representative who worked for Alabama Power after he retired from the legislature, started regularly courting me after I won election to the Commission. He was a kind and decent soft-spoken man and often invited me to join him and his wife, Betty, at the Vestavia Country Club where they were members or at Joe’s Ranch House, a favorite spot of theirs that also required membership so black people could not dine there. Although they were perfectly acceptable to wait on tables and work in the kitchens, black people could not dine next to white patrons.
I once stirred things up in the City when I suggested we revoke the liquor license of The Club, another well-known segregated private club that would not admit minorities. I argued that a liquor license was a privilege granted by the public and no organization which discriminated against people on the basis of race should be permitted to have one. Without the white power structure suck-ups, Jeff and William, it went nowhere.
Another painful part of dining with the Hawkins was the terrible treatment Betty would give the wait staff, especially if they were a minority. John and Betty both drank way too much. And he would get sentimental and teary while she just got meaner. She drove me crazy with her demands of servers at restaurants, regularly insisting in a loud and irritating voice that they bring her bourbon and water in a tall glass, like it made some major difference. She would send the drink back if it did not come as prescribed. I’ve heard of height discrimination but hating short glasses was new to me. I think she just liked the power she lorded over the staff.
Of course, she joined dozens of other screeching bleached blondes in Republican women’s groups as a leader imposing her views of morality and political correctness on others. One of the best things about losing the commission election was not having to bite my tongue and smile pleasantly as this crass woman insulted anyone and everyone and made a fool of herself on a regular basis. I never heard from them again after losing the primary until my phone rang one night and the caller id identified it as a call from John Hawkins. No one spoke as I answered.
I like to think it was John checking on me because he missed our political discussions and chats, but it may have just been Betty, drunk and misdialing. I finally figured out that I had been nothing more than an assignment from Alabama Power who paid John to entertain me. I am likely just one of hundreds of political figures in the State on whom they kept close watch to prevent anyone from challenging their unchecked rate increases and other deals where ordinary citizens and rate-payers never fare well.
But in the case of Roger Bass, I was willfully delusional and had mistakenly assumed a real bond of friendship existed. Thankfully, unlike Betty Hawkins, he was always well behaved and not demanding so having lunch or dinner occasionally was not an ordeal. I don’t even remember what size glass he preferred or even if he drank alcohol. But he was, nonetheless in retrospect, a false friend who made me his assignment for business purposes and I blame myself for not being more cynical, or at least aware of when I was being used. It’s hard to admit that people don’t really like you for anything other than what they can get from you. It assaults your ego and makes you want to change your mouthwash.
I have never been lacking for friends, but it has taken a lifetime to sort them out and learn who among them were sincere and authentic. I have lucked out over the years with genuine friendships. Currently among them is my dear friend, Rene (pronounced Rainey) who is someone I can always count on, like when I decided to do a plumbing repair and broke the under sink valve spraying water everywhere at 10 o’clock at night. I had no idea where the water cut off for my building was and had run out of solutions to fix the gushing leak. So, i called Rene who showed up in a record 30 minutes since he lives an hour away and handled it as I sat in a pool of water dripping from head to toe. HE wanted to take a picture, but spare me the preserving of the indignity of it all.
Just last April while on a cross-country jaunt in a new car, I could not get it to move after I stopped at a traffic light in Washington, D.C. I was in a panic as angry motorists blew their horns as they were forced to go around me at a slow pace. Some even made obscene hand gestures. The owners manual was in the glove box, but why use it when you can call Rene, my mechanic on call? What’s best about him is he never laughs or makes you feel like a doddering fool even when the solution is simple enough for any idiot to figure out. He calmly suggested I might have hit the parking brake button next to the shift knob and he was, as usual, right. Who knew? One press and I was on my way again thinking I might out to study the owner’s manual before my next trip.
Rene and his wife Kim only had one son, Rylee who married Michelle and they have two amazing children whom we mutually adore. Rene agrees with my new rule that I only want to hang out with people under five feet. The taller humans are more trouble and can’t be trusted.
I had lost other elections, most notably two for mayor of Birmingham without losing many friends or my reputation. In the first case, David Vann was the incumbent and I was one of seven or so candidates opposing him. It was a wild race with Larry Langford and the head of the Alabama KKK, Don Black, among my fellow challengers to the mayor who was widely unpopular for irrational reasons. Most just criticized the way he dressed and his general sloppiness. But had they thought about it more or had more information, they would have really despised him because there was no more “dangerous liberal” in Alabama. He had clerked for Justice Hugo Black and helped shape some of the justice’s opinions that turned this former KKK member into a liberal icon on the Court. David was creative and committed and no one could doubt where his heart was on any issue. He would always be on the side of the downtrodden and oppressed. He was a thoroughly decent and, in some ways, a very unappreciated man who loved the City. But he was definitely going to lose his bid for re-election and I reasoned that I was the next best choice to bring justice to Birmingham and get it moving in a progressive direction.
The race ended in my contesting the results of the close election that edged me out of the run-off. I went to bed winning the slot by three votes and woke up down by 97. There was confusion and incompetence at the polls and things did not seem right. We wanted a re-count which seemed impossible and had never been done before in a mayors’ race. But the esteemed attorney Douglas Arant, now in his mid-seventies and founder of the aforementioned Bradley, Arant, Boult Cummings law firm, volunteered his time to guide a group of young attorneys in making the legal challenge. Many of those young attorneys went on to do great things, some even becoming judges themselves later in life.
Miraculously, they were successful in getting a recount ordered by a judge and I will always be grateful for the work of Steve Salter, Richard Groenendyke, Alton Parker, Gordon Pate, Sam Frazier, Gary Pate, Jim Lloyd, Bill Lloyd, Curtis Gordon, and many others who helped in this endeavor, although our relationships have changed through the years sometimes for the worse and I have not seen any of them in at least a decade. And of course, I remain proud of the role Douglas Arant was willing to play in this effort. He was a prince who, no doubt, has turned over in his grave several times as he has watched the venerable firm he founded, in its current configuration of Bradley, Arant, Boult, Cummings, slide into greed and power plays that make them appear to be just another bunch of sleazy ambulance-chasing lawyers with fancy offices and well-developed greed and situational ethics.
I wonder how he would have viewed the ethics and professionalism of Hope Cannon, Julia Boaz Cooper, and David Hymer. Of particular interest to him might have been Julia Boaz Cooper, the ex-wife of mayoral candidate Patrick Cooper, who I have mentioned earlier. I’m sure she and her current husband are living happily ever after off HealthSouth’s money she recklessly and intentionally gave away. If this had just been a simple wrestling match she had thrown, she’d be in jail. Rich people get away with things like this. The poor must just endure.
Unfortunately, despite the favorable ruling from the judge hearing the case, the voting machines had by now been taken back to the voting machine warehouse on 8th Avenue North and had jostled along the way. The mechanical odometer-like counters had changed so much in the bumpy ride on Birmingham’s neglected streets that it was impossible to get an accurate reading. A recount would be inaccurate and futile. So I accepted my loss and licked my wounds and prepared to fight another day. But I did it without malice or lashing out at anyone, least of all Richard Arrington, who ultimately won the race becoming Birmingham’s first African-American mayor and an important historical figure in a city defined by racial strife for decades.
Years later, before being elected to the County Commission, I was happy to lead the negotiations to acquire the voting warehouse property from the County for the Alabama School of Fine Arts. John Harbert and I met with the then commissioners, Chriss Doss, Ben Erdreich, and Tom Gloor who agreed to sell the property to the newly formed Alabama School of Fine Arts Foundation so we could build a new campus in downtown Birmingham. It was an idea I had hatched when a friend told me of the availability of the Eva Comer Home for girls that was being sold by his church. It had served as a hideaway for unwed mothers in a brick dormitory-style building located on 8th Avenue North adjacent to the County property. After the School acquired most of the block, a deal was cut with the City of Birmingham to move the new school one block east to the property the City-owned to make the school more central to downtown and closer to the Birmingham Museum of Art. It also gave the school a construction staging area where lives of kids were not endangered during the building of the new school. That alone was a good thing.
Having an urban arts school in Birmingham seemed like a great idea to me and I was pleased that Jim Nelson, the director of the State-sponsored arts school located on the Birmingham Southern campus, agreed. So it was my mission to help them locate there and build a suitable facility even before I joined the staff as associate director. Acquiring that property adjacent to the home the school now owned helped me to close that chapter of the “dancing voting machines.” I spent several years handling the politics of the school’s funding, having to annually justify it before the Alabama legislature who referred to it as my “tippy-toe dancing school” in an effort to demean the school’s value and purpose, but as I hear from graduates of the school from time to time, I affirm that they were wrong, like they are on so many other things that could bring progress to Alabama.
John Harbert gave $5 million to jump-start the ASFA project after I argued the case for the release of money he had pledged but was withholding for some unknown reason. I got a clue as to why when he finally released the funds while complaining that the school was almost 40% black because of my recruitment of minority students. I retorted that I had no control over to whom God gave artistic talent. And the school admitted students based on credential and auditions, I argued in my defense. But assured him I would ask that God be more careful and discriminating in the future and give white kids more talent and opportunities. He didn’t appreciate my reasoning.
Every major project on which I have worked over the years started out as a bloody battle. I cut my teeth on EPIC School with board members and parents of deaf children wanting to burn me in effigy over its plans. Now that it has been in operation for decades, people take it for granted and seem to “get the concept. The same is true of the science center I worked long and hard to create that eventually morphed into the McWane Center when Jamie McWane donated 10 million and the McWane was deservedly placed on the complex. But the concept was something Council members could not fathom until I sent half of them to Toronto to see the Science Center there and the other half to San Francisco to tour the Exploratorium. They were junkets to be certain but accomplished my mission. They all reluctantly agreed upon return to put $5 million in an upcoming bond issue to provide seed money for the project. The public was skeptical and it came in last on the ballot, but passed, nonetheless. And that’s the Reader’s Digest version of how McWane Center got started. So the battle for funding of the Alabama School of Fine Arts was not unexpected. It was like the Art of War where one had to always to planning the next move to survive attacks. Cleverly, I added a science and math component to the School which was used as leverage in future debates when legislators said that’s where the public’s money should really be going. That gave rise to a State-supported Science and Mathematics School in Mobile which we happily supported in a trade-off for support of ASFA. Must still be working as the school is still in operation and it would be hard to imagine Birmingham without it.
My sometimes testy relationship with Mr. Harbert had become more comfortable over the years, so much so that he contributed $25,000 to my campaign for mayor earning him some criticism as my “sugar daddy”. He didn’t seem to care, so neither did I. Having a sugar daddy might be a useful thing as long as it was kept in check. We finally learned how to like each other and that made for a better and more productive working relationship. I did my part doing things like giving him a priceless piece of silver from the 15th Century I had owned for many years to partially repay him for his generous contribution to my campaign. He was surprised at my attempts to repay him and seemed to appreciate the gesture, saying he was not accustomed to thanks like this.
Sometime later, after I learned he was going to be hospitalized with eye problems, I gave him the latest music technology, a Sony Walkman, and some Country-Western CDs. Sandy told me he would not be able to read or watch television for a while so I reasoned this would be a good way to keep him from being bored while lying in bed. He apparently loved Country music which somehow surprised me. But it did the trick and he often expressed his gratitude for the thoughtfulness.
He wanted to build the tallest building in Alabama and planned a quality building on the corner of Fifth Avenue North that became the AmSouth-Harbert Plaza, now Regions Tower and Harbert Plaza. He openly stated he would never build the building as long as Richard Arrington was mayor, with whom he stayed unhappy. But I realized that changing his color to satisfy Mr. Harbert might not be something the mayor might want to do, even if he could and this appeared to be the only reason he disliked him. Every time I would say the mayor was doing a good job on something, Mr. Harbert would challenge me. So it was best to talk about other things around him.
He changed his mind about the building after a rare occasion where I was invited to his office and Sandy asked me what kind of wine I preferred. “What, am I being executed? How long do I have?” I joked. As we shared a bottle in his office, I appealed to his better nature and told him the building would be a legacy to his generosity and vision.
He was being crowded by admirers at the dedication of the granite building he built with the with marble balls on top when he saw me approaching. He immediately reached for his belt buckle and started taking off his belt as people looked on, almost horrified. They may have thought he was going to whip me or something worse, but we all were relieved when he proclaimed that he could still wear the alligator belt I had given him as a Christmas present ten years earlier, showing off the belt that had a gold buckle bearing his initials.
Somehow we had turned a corner in our relationship although our politics were never exactly aligned. He sometimes defended me when I was under attack and became a regular adviser, calling me now and then with suggestions. One I never took was his insistence that Sloss Furnaces should be taken down and sold for scrap. He almost beat that horse to death, bringing up over and over again. I could never understand why someone who built a new building with rusting iron could not appreciate the aesthetics of Sloss.
Once, he raised money for me in a fundraiser at his office with many of his rich friends in attendance. At one point, Tom Bradford, the wealthy owner of Bradford and Company in Birmingham, stood up and said he didn’t want to contribute a cent to my campaign. “As far as I’m concerned, there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between him and Arrington”, he said going on in a rant, “One’s a black nigger and the other is a white nigger”. Others int he room groaned and I could only smile a wan grin as I suppressed my urge to slap out his false teeth. I often thought of this moment when the majority-Black City Council named a park after him in the Eastern section of town off Edwards Lake Road. Even Mr. Harbert seemed horrified by the remark and he and Mrs. Bradford apologized to me for years afterward. But I suspect they both were more amused than offended. It surely was not the first or the last time he had used that word in polite company.
When Mr. Harbert died, I intentionally did not attend his funeral when I realized it was being turned into a sort of social event for the who’s who of Alabama. I knew his family would be devastated, especially Jay, his namesake who suffered from a severe intellectual disability. Jay would sometime hang out at his father’s office and we always talked as best we could about things that were happening in his life. He would loudly greet me every time he saw me drawing attention to us both. I would ask about him whenever I saw Mr. Harbert and it was clear as his face lit up how much he loved Jay. He bragged on his Jay’s every accomplishment, no matter how small. But for a man of John Harbert’s drive and ego, there must have been a lot of private pain knowing his oldest son would never have the capacity to inherit or run his empire. Even the most powerful among us have secret burdens to bear.
At one time, Mr. Harbert talked to me about running the private foundation he intended to create to give way some of his fortune. He mentioned the idea to his accountant, and my friend, Sam diPiazzo of Coopers and Lybrand who also did accounting work for me. Sam and I discussed all the good we could do if we were involved together in this developing Mr. Harbert’s idea. But ultimately, I decided that it would never work. Mr. Harbert enjoyed handing out his money to various causes like the Boy Scouts and it was a pleasure that should not be constrained by bureaucracy and interlopers like me. Sam accepted a new challenge from me to run a City advisory group on the proposed science center and as a consequence of his involvement in this project, also got tapped for leadership positions with the Alabama Symphony and Alabama Ballet, fundraising and helping them to achieve financial stability. He deserves much of the credit for MacWane Center as he raised money for it, chose the location, and developed the initial plans. the group he chaired to study this project morphed into what became the Metropolitan Arts Council.
A few years later, my disappointment in losing him to the Chicago office of his accounting firm, was tempered when he invited me to lunch at his offices while I visited relatives there. He told me if it had not been for my insisting that he get involved with the City, he would not have been offered his current position. When I visited him again a couple of years later, he was in New York and now the global president of Price Waterhouse Coopers and one of the most influential accountants in the country, if not the world with clients like Coca Cola and At &T. Not bad for an Italian boy who grew up with his father running a grocery warehouse in Tarrant City.
Four years after losing to Richard Arrington in our first race for mayor, I ran again against him again. It was a really dumb idea. Some may find it hard to believe, but I did so knowing my chances of winning were negligible. I loved Birmingham and could not stand the thought of another vicious election where race-baiting would play a prominent role as candidates tried to motivate their bases. So I intentionally and systematically forced other candidates to bow out, convincing them that I was the only one who had any real chance of beating Arrington.
The former police chief and Councilman Bill Myers reluctantly agreed, but Jim Parsons, also a former police chief, allowed his inflated ego to keep him the race until the last minute, draining resources and wasting valuable time. Fortunately, he was not without talent and had other irons in the fire, eventually landing the job of police chief in New Orleans, where my friend Councilman Mike Early, a former Catholic priest, often reminds me of what a disaster he had been and chides me for not warning him before Parsons was hired. “It could have been worse”, I often retorted, “He could have been mayor of Birmingham and would have done anything necessary to be elected by motivating his white base. So we owe New Orleans a big one.” Parson had many attributes, but I think most would agree that he would definitely have been a disaster for race relations and peace in our community. He was, however, a likable and colorful character and decidedly better than some, like Artie Deutsch, who succeeded him in the role of police chief.
After his election in 1979, Arrington did a very respectable job as mayor and expanded his base into white, liberal Southside, my home base, while annexing large groups of African-American voters from unincorporated areas of the County. I joked to the media when asked why the Council was being called into emergency session by the mayor on one occasion to de-annex some territory that had been mistakenly been captured in a blanket annexation. “He must have discovered that the property in question has white voters”, I said. In hindsight, this sounds a little racist, but it was funny (and true) at the time. It would have taken a miracle for me to win that race in 1983 and they are few and far between in politics.
And so I lost to Arrington for the second time. But the effort was not without a silver lining. The Mayor and I had pledged to prevent “the bloody shirt of racism”, as Vann had called it, from being waved in our race and we conducted ourselves as civilized people ought to. The notion that two guys with earned doctorates were running against each other in Birmingham garnered national attention. I was especially pleased when the New York Times wrote an editorial lauding the quality of the race and quoting my impromptu concession speech as a sign of a “new day in Birmingham”.
After the election ended, the Mayor and I were honored with a brotherhood award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews. It was an optimistic time. Moreover, it was a time of more civility and decency in politics which dramatically changed when New Gingrich and Roger Ailes invented the new Republican norm of negative ads and the scorched earth politics of destruction in the ’80s. It did not take long for the slime to trickle down to the local elections where this new breed of amoral Republicans was involved.
If I had known then when I met him at a Harvard function, what I know now about Mr. Ailes and Fox News, I doubt I would have been smiling.
After his loss to Arrington, David Vann went to work for him as one of the City’s attorneys. His brilliance would have been welcomed in any law firm, but he was dedicated to Birmingham and chose to continue to serve the City in this lesser paying position. He and I worked together on a number of city projects, as well as political ones. And despite a perception in the general public that Dr. Arrington and I were bitter enemies, we continued to cooperate on projects of mutual interest until I voluntarily retired from the Council after learning that my close friend and icon, Miss Nina Miglionico, intended to retire. In my “exit” interview with the mayor, I offered a few suggestions and criticism of his not having groomed any young Black leader to succeed him. I also lamented that of all the projects on which I had worked or played a leadership role, I was most disappointed when I was not even invited to the opening ceremony for the McWane Center. He agreed that it had been my constant pushing of the project and persuasion to include it in the bond issue that had created it. But after he shared a few slights he had endured as mayor, I decided my complaint was trivial.
After serving a term as Council President and running twice for mayor I had achieved a wider bully pulpit and the highest name identification of any white boy in Birmingham.I was named to the Top 40 Under 40 list and given other accolades as I tried to depart the scene. But my name was so well known and my popularity so great at that time that I was recruited by the Democratic Party to run for Congress. I studied their polls and decided against the move. In retrospect, I should have taken the opportunity, although I suspect I would not have lasted long with my opposition to the death penalty and reasonable positions on other issues that were out of step with the majority of voters in Alabama. The FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) which had been staunch supporters in my council and mayoral bids, vowed that they would never let me go to Congress, or even Montgomery, because of my views on the death penalty and the criminal justice system.
I went to Ben Erdreich armed with the poll data and my analysis and convinced him he might win with the right campaign. His name was not well known, but those who did know him really liked him. He decided to run and called me one day with a dilemma. “What should I do about this abortion thing?”, he asked, “It’s just such a difficult issue.” “I know”, I responded. “I’m Catholic and against it on religious grounds, but I’ve met so many people in my political career that should have been aborted, I think I’d be for it if they raised the age limit.” He said he didn’t think he could use that answer and won despite a fuzzy position on this issue becoming the first Jewish Congressman from the State, only to lose down the line to a Republican after the district was gerrymandered in their favor.
In 1986 when I ran successfully for the County Commission after being personally recruited by Mary Connors, the executive director of the Alabama Republican Party. It was a difficult race to say the least. Chriss Doss the entrenched Democrat was an intelligent and reasonable man, but politics can test one’s integrity and judgment like no other activity and he wanted to be re-elected very badly. When the polls showed my winning, he encouraged and permitted some of the vilest tactics used to date in any commission race. They were normally quiet affairs without debates or significant issues. Most people did not even know what the Jefferson County Commission did. It’s profile changed, however, when federal Judge U.W. Clemon ordered that commissioners be elected by districts to allow for African-Americans to be elected to the previously all-white body. He expanded the three-member commission to five members and defined the single-member districts. He did not, however, define how the new commission was to be structured or operate.
The district in which I lived included a part of Southside and all of the over the mountain communities to the Shelby County line, including the cities of Homewood, Vestavia, Hoover, and Mountain Brook, the most affluent areas of the County. My campaign was positive, as all my previous ones had been, trying to focus on a vision for the County and the mechanics of making the government work better.
But I knew things must be going too well when a barrage of ads targeting me and using language that was decidedly racist was unleashed by the Doss campaign. Another sign that I might be winning came when hundreds of packets of smear sheets were delivered to every barber and beauty shop in the County, accusing me of everything under the sun. Among the main charges were that I had broken up the marriage of Angie Grooms Proctor, had prevented the promotion of my priest to bishop by sleeping with him, and had also done cocaine and marijuana parties with Richard Groenendyke and his wife on a regular basis and probably sleeping with them too. I was apparently a very busy guy.
He also charged that Harvard had no record that I had studied there and I had faked my doctorate. In response, my attorney Mike Renniker, the brother-in-law of the greediest attorney in Alabama, Bill Slaughter, released my college transcripts from Harvard, proving at least this claim to be false. The others were harder to disprove, though equally false. Mr. Doss, a lawyer, Baptist minister, and member of the faculty at Samford University had no problem attempting to ruin the reputations of many other people in a ploy to stop my campaign from succeeding. Clearly, he had thought unsigned smear sheets an effective way to disseminate gossip and slander. Most decent people were outraged and it only helped me in my race against him. And I did get a lot of offers for dates after that! ( Just joking).
Years later, his public relations man who had created the smear sheets, Cy Steiner, came to my Commission office seeking to make peace. He obliquely asked for forgiveness. My response was that, as a Catholic, I truly believed in forgiveness;it was fundamental to our theology. But there were a couple of steps before absolution could be given. The first was to admit the sin by confessing it; then asking for forgiveness and doing some penance. Then, and only then, could absolution be given. So if he wanted forgiveness, he had to go through those steps. He left dejected.
I was disturbed and saddened when I learned that months later he had killed himself. Clearly, he had problems that went well beyond his advocacy of sleazy political tactics. Nonetheless, I always felt regretful that I had not been more forthcoming with my forgiveness of his sins against me. When a close friend I had not heard from in years, called me from an EST seminar out west, saying as part of the touchy-feely program he had to call someone he had hurt in the past to apologize, I quickly accepted his apology. But after I hung up, I regretted it and realized I was still pissed and am to this day over things he did to me. So maybe i was just being honest when I told Mr. Steiner I could not forgive him at that time. His motive, like that of many others, was to win at any cost. And to make money off the office of the person he helped elect. Hmm, sounds a little like old Roger Bass.
It was a highlight of the campaign for me when Mr. Doss and I were invited to appear before the CAC (Community Affairs Committee), established by Operation New Birmingham to tamp down racial conflicts in Birmingham politics and keep elections fair. They were for me no more than an arm of the Democratic party, supporting only those they viewed as like-minded liberals. And somehow my graduating from Harvard, living in Socialist Sweden, and desegregating schools did not qualify me as a liberal by their standards.
It was my chance to personally and honestly confront all the trash the Doss campaign had strewn all over the County. Luther Smith, Brigadier General of the local Salvation Army, and the group, clearly fans of Dodd, nodded in agreement as he spoke in his labored, distinctive twang, clinging to his every word. Then I stood and played one of his racist radio commercials from the boom box I brought with me, claiming that if I won the elections, “they” would take over the County and ruin it like “they” had done the City. The meaning was clear. I minced no words as I denounced the ad for what it was, thinly veiled racism.
And then I chastised the CAC for their silence, not condemning these ads and told them I understood how it felt to find out that their gods have clay feet, but their obligation was to the larger community. I went on to say that I did not want their biased endorsement and after winning, the group would have no influence with me, so not to ever seek it. They had also remained silent in my campaign for mayor of Birmingham when cartoons of me standing atop City Hall cracking a whip over Black people were widely circulated. Another professionally drawn cartoon showed me holding the reins on a pack of police dogs straining to be released on Black children. Somehow these were so outrageous that they were ignored by most voters, but they were personally offensive and stinging. The subtle racism of the Doss campaign was more insidious and vile; so much so that even the Birmingham News took note of his nasty campaign. I often thank God that he was restrained by his deep faith as a Baptist minister, or it could have been so much worse.
After lots of hard work, including doing something never before attempted; personally calling thousands of voters by phone to ask for their vote. I won. I was exhausted by the race and sitting for hours hooked up to a telephone headset dialing one voter after another with the same pitch almost wrecked me. If it had not been for Snickers and Diet Cokes, I would not have made it! But voters seemed to really appreciate hearing from me and were often shocked to hear my voice in real-time. Of course, there was the occasional nasty response or hang up, but for the most part if was encouraging to hear people pledge their support or, at least, listen to my pitch.
My election to the Commission made me one of two of the first Republicans elected to County government and the first former official of the City of Birmingham to take a seat on the Commission. Until then there has been some untested notion that the County and City interests were far apart and no one associated with Birmingham city government could be elected to County office. With hard work and determination, I proved it wrong.
While on the Commission, I used things I had learned in my previous eight years on the Birmingham City Council and my training at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard to try and bring positive change to the County. I was determined to dispel old ways and theories, like the one that County services were reserved only for unincorporated areas of the County. Cities were supposed to take care of cities and the County would handle the unincorporated areas. Never mind that citizens of those cities paid County taxes and, in fact, residents of the City of Birmingham, as the largest population center in the State, paid taxes that made up the bulk of County revenues. It made no sense for them to forego services to which they were entitled and were paying. I set about to do things like pave parking lots at municipal schools and build the lake and parking lot at the Botanical Gardens so City taxpayers could recoup some of their money.
I even had the underutilized County bridge crew build boat ramps on the Cahaba River and an overhead walk across deadly Highway 78 highway to allow Forestdale school children to cross safely. City politicians like Jeff Germany, who lived in the nearby Daniel Payne neighborhood, lined up to take credit, but it was the County that accomplished this long-needed improvement. I did similar things for smaller municipalities across the County winning favor and support from their political leaders. They were especially grateful for the help I gave North and Western mayors in support of the completion of the Northern Beltline, taking them to Washington to meet with our senators and representatives to discuss its importance to the region’s future.
The other commissioners, even Chris McNair, did not share my zeal for helping the City. I heard later that he still smarted from not being tapped to be the first African-American mayor of Birmingham and wanted to make Dr. Arrington look bad whenever he could, But somehow I doubt this. I think it was just his conservative nature to oppose anything that looked progressive.
I sincerely felt I had done a good job in a difficult role as County Commissioner trying to make progress while dragging along the community and fighting other politicians who liked things just as they were. Change was not going to come easily to the Commission, even with new players and a new structure we designed. I say we, but it was actually Don Ammons, the County finance director, and I who designed the new departments by tasks, trying to even the responsibilities of each of the commissioners who were to serve as administrators of the various departments, along with being a member of the legislative body. Despite our best efforts, the structure was seriously flawed with commissioners having administrative, legislative and judicial powers in one officeholder. I pressed for a county manager, but Chris McNair argued with some validity that it was only after Blacks were elected to the Commission that this idea was floated. After the sewer debacle and bankruptcy, the County hired a county manager and I’m sure Steve Ammons, a current commissioner, and son of Don Ammons who was the principal architect of the previous design, finds the job more manageable under this arrangement which should have been done at the beginning.
It was a difficult job to layout an acceptable new structure, and from the outset, there were squabbles and conflicts among commissioners over what the pie, previously divided by three, should look like divided by five. Especially thorny was the issue of who would head each division. My suggestion that commissioners-elect submit resumes showing relevant experience to the tasks of each proposed department of County government they wanted to run, was met with stone-cold silence and some hostility. They even rejected the idea that just some statement of what they intended to do with the department would suffice. So they insisted on being handed complex administrative tasks and millions of dollars without any rationale for why they were best equipped to handle it. The Birmingham News again took note as we tried to work it out.
Despite the hassles and the fact that I developed severe, life-threatening allergies that a world-class allergist at NYU diagnosed as a likely reaction to extreme stress, I wanted to be re-elected for several reasons. For one, I had unfinished work on things like the Shades Valley Plan where I was proposing to use the old school property to create a gateway to the Birmingham Zoo and its expansion as the area’s number one tourist attraction. I also wanted to finish my plans for Highway 280 improvements to relieve the intolerable congestion. And I was committed to seeing the County contribute its fair share to supporting MAXX, to create a more viable public transit system.
And there were many other unfinished projects as well. But overriding this was my ambition to use my personal friendship with George Bush, Jr. to get myself appointed as ambassador to Sweden. I reasoned that it made sense with my degrees from Harvard and Swedish language facility and government experience. The political component was an important part of this and it helped that I had been a delegate for his father, twice elected state-wide. and I was currently Secretary of the Alabama Republican Party and a dependable advocate for the Party.
There were also very personal reasons for wanting this job. And it seemed like a good way to gracefully get me out of elective politics and the sheer horror it sometimes brought. I hated the glad-handing and constant scrutiny and second-guessing. Mostly I hated the people who criticized my ideas but never offered any solutions of their own. They always knew exactly how it should have been done, after the fact.
There were many unpleasant aspects of the job that left me with mixed emotions, but re-election was essential to my long term career plans and I was still young at 44. I was only 27 when I was elected to the Birmingham City Council and 31 when I became its president. And I was a young 39 when elected to the County Commission. Under normal circumstances, with or without the title of Commissioner, a bright future would still have lain before me.
I had worked hard and served the public with integrity and vision and youthful energy, actually trying to accomplish something in every position I had held. But in Alabama, that is not enough. One can be totally incompetent and corrupt as long as you are pure of heart and anointed of the Spirit, as determined by under-educated, mostly ignorant, right-wing Regressives or those seeking to make millions from the position.
The onslaught of negative campaign ads, fueled by the greed of Bill Slaughter, a bond attorney, who needed a compliant puppet in my seat on the Commission and designed by Jeff Pitts and Matrix, were impossible to overcome in my 1990 race for re-election. Slaughter conservatively spread about $200,000 among several Montgomery PACS to disguise how much he was personally spending to win the race against me. Though it was an unheard-of amount of money at that time to spend on a commission race, for Mr. Slaughter it was a good investment where he intended to get a return of millions and ultimately did with me out of the way.
I simply did not have the energy or will to respond in kind with negative ads and mudslinging that would be needed to win the Republican primary. I had never run a negative campaign and did not intend to start with this race no matter what the consequences. It was a huge mistake in terms of the future I hoped for and my peace and security.
I had overestimated the voting public, assuming they would reject these tactics and see through them. They did not. Complicating things further was the fact that there was a hotly contested governor’s race happening at the same time and many Republicans were anxious to crossover and vote in this race. Some political observers believed it would have been impossible to defeat me in the general election where both Democrats and Republicans would be voting. But in the narrow primary, where only devoted Republican ideologues were voting, I would have a hard time surviving a well-organized smear campaign. The death of my close friend Cecil Roberts, for whom the fountain at Five Points is dedicated, in the days before the election was a major distraction for me. I was in grief at her unexpected death. But mostly, to win I would also have had to become someone I was not, telling people what they wanted to hear, instead of the truth and selling my soul in the process. It was just not in my character.
I had made no friends in the Eagle Forum by refusing to play semantic games about abortion and supporting the establishment of a Robert Wood Johnson school-based health clinic at Ensley High School. Eunie Smith and other neo-Puritans like her were afraid the kids in a school with the highest teen pregnancy rate, number of out-of-wedlock abortions and incidence of STDs in the State might learn about birth control. And God forbid that someone mentions condoms. Somehow this was against the moral code they wished to impose on others.
My just being against abortion was not enough for these nutcases. They wanted some kind of blood oath that I would oppose it in every case and somehow personally stop others from ending unwanted pregnancies. They worked hard to defeat me for this and my general disdain for their bogus causes with crocodile tears and pious utterances. None of them had ever adopted an unwanted child or supported any program to sustain a decent quality of life for them. But they were experts on how other people should behave and, more disturbingly, think.
Frances Wideman was one of those neo-Puritans that railed loudest. Her husband Gil was a respected and well-liked doctor. Frances was the daughter of Alice deBardleben, who after working for him as a secretary had married the president of Birmingham’s richest bank. Thus, she married into one of Birmingham’s wealthiest and most socially prominent families. It gave Frances advantages of money and position and she used both for her causes.
But she was a truly miserable woman. In fact, the only time Frances was tolerable was when she was drunk. On one occasion at her home, she entertained me and other guests with a spot-on imitation of Tiny Tim, complete with long frizzy hair, ukulele, and a high pitched falsetto voice, signing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”. It was the only time I remember laughing in her presence. She was normally very stern about her moralizing and did not invite humor.
To put up with her, Gilder took a mistress and ensconced her in the Park Tower apartments on Southside along with her young child. Sandra and her remarkable five-year-old were friends of mine and often visited me as we lived only a block from each other. She was, without doubt, one of the most beautiful women I had ever known and it was easy to see why Gil was attracted to her rare beauty and lively spirit and made her, sadly, a kept woman. Armed with this secret, I can’t count on my hands and toes how many times I wanted to respond to Frances’ public rants about family values with an admonition that charity begins at home and she should get her own house in order before lecturing others. But despite his double life, Gil was too nice of a guy to punish in this way. He called me after my election loss to Gary White saying how sick he was about it. “We just wanted to slap your hand,” he said, “not kill you.” Too late.
Gary White was a dull, unimaginative, and mediocre politician at best, but he had made a name for himself by helping to indict a number of black legislators ( mostly women) in the early Eighties for alleged corruption and was popular among white conservatives. I’m sure the irony of his conviction and long prison term was not lost on those he sent to jail years earlier. But he trounced me in the primary as I was haplessly stunned into inaction from the shock of his negative and slanderous campaign. I truly thought he was not capable of such a thing.
Joe Perkins and Jeff Pitts of a company that specialized in this type of campaign, Matrix, proudly ran one of the nastiest political campaigns ever conducted in Jefferson County. It was disgusting but effective. Ironically, I was called on to work with Jeff in Larry Langford’s commission and mayoral campaigns and decided to let his role in my earlier commission loss go without mention. But I had not forgotten it and how despicable the campaign became, at his direction. It’s a sort of schizophrenia that many otherwise nice and decent people experience in politics where they toss out all ethics and the morality they have valued in their lives as soon as the need to win at any cost takes over. I’m not certain there is an effective treatment for it. And winning with mudslinging and lies just reinforces them that they were right to do what they did to achieve their goal.
Jeff is a likable, energetic, and persuasive advocate for his clients and it helped that his company was funded primarily by Alabama Power who have perfected the art of buying politicians in Alabama. As their surrogate hatchet man he played an important role; one that almost destroyed his career in later scandals involving the indictment and conviction of lawyers at Balch Bingham, Alabama Power’s law firm of choice for many, many years. Jeff makes no value judgments as he designs campaigns. He just does what has to be done to win; damn the consequences. In fairness, he was always kind to me after he had destroyed my career and in different circumstances, I would have liked having him and his wife as friends.
In anticipation of winning the race, Gary White had substantially jacked up the salary of commissioners with his bill in the Legislature, giving him another incentive to win. His side was motivated. Mine was tired. The salary while I served was $49,000. Try Googling what commissioners make today. With new, swank offices and other perks, and lots of free time if you are not motivated to accomplish anything, it may be the best public office job anywhere.
In the race against me, Jeff and Gary’s other handlers mastered the art of taking a little bit of the truth and twisting it into something diabolical and sinister. Here is just one example:
I was surprised one day to find a young black woman waiting in my office to meet with me. She lived in Ensley, which was not in my commission district. She was not looking for a job and didn’t seem to need a road paved so I was anxious to hear why she was there.
She told me of having a lifelong dream of wanting to live and study abroad, but her family did not have the financial means to help her. She told me she had devised a plan and had discovered a program through the Institute for International Education for which she qualified. But there was an obstacle. The program required that she find a sponsor in the United States who would take a foreign student in exchange.
“So why have you come to me, ” I asked. “Why not meet with Reuben David or Chris McNair? I think you live in Commissioner Davis’ district and I’m sure he would be happy to help”, I continued hoping to get out from under this potential burden.
” I thought of that”, she replied, “But my mother said you were the one who would get it done”. I laughed as I responded, “Always listen to your mother. She has wisdom and is right. I will get it done for you.”
So I set about persuading the Commission to join the IIE and then created a temporary low-level job to offer the foreign student. The exchange was made and the young woman wrote me a note thanking me as she left the Country. The student we took was a young man, who I believe was from Switzerland, who would work in at the County engineer’s office. To make thing simpler, because the student would only be in Alabama for a few months and it would be hard to find him a decent place to live for that short a period, I arranged for him to stay in one of the apartments in my building I owned; without charge. I told him he could use the money he saved to travel and see as much of America as he could while here. When he asked why I was being so generous, I responded that I was just repaying some of the kindnesses that had been shown to me when I was studying on my scholarships to Sweden. Many people, total strangers, had been very kind to me in that dark and lonely place when I was so young. without them, I would have been suicidal.
The program was so successful that we continued it through the year, affording other local minority kids the opportunity to go abroad, while we accepted two more foreign students who also used my vacant, furnished guest apartment.
That was it, the whole story. But when Gary’s campaign looked for things on which to attack me, it became an issue. He told the story in a misleading and slanderous way saying, “John used County money to hire young boys who were living with him”, And the Republicans, especially the religious ones, loved it.
Do you get his point? I don’t even remember any of the student’s names and had no social connection to them, whatsoever. My penchant to help in this case is no different from the example sent to me by Jacqueline Lockhard on Facebook a week or so ago. Here is what she wrote:
“Hi Mr. katopodis I am writing you because over 40 years ago you came to my elementary school, West Center Street in Bham., AL. I was performing in a play I wrote or reciting a poem. However, you recommended I attend ASFA. Needless to say I did and have gone on to amazing opportunities. Even more amazing my children are in the arts. I sent you a picture of my daughter, Rachel Lockhart who graduated from ASFA this year and will start Juilliard in the Fall. I want to thank you and share with you the seed you helped to cultivate is still growing. I pray all is well with you. Sincerely, Jacqueline Lockhard”
A week ago Ms. Lockhard accompanied her beautiful daughter as she enrolled at Julliard. I am now giving thought to how I can help her succeed there. It’s what I have done all my life and will to the end. It’s hard to change habits at my age.
But once again, in the usual Alabama Yahoo politics, I was expected to respond to innuendo and slander with just a shred of twisted truth. It was sleazy, insulting, and disgusting, but just one small instance of this type of nasty, mudslinging Gary seemed to relish. Over and over again I was met with undeserved personal attacks on my character and assaults on my integrity. But there was little of substance to criticize about my performance as a commissioner. I had done my job. The Ronald Reagan rule of not speaking ill of a fellow Republican did not matter as supposedly decent Republicans said nothing about his vile, unfounded assaults and distortions.
I decided to ignore them. I was better than that and had nothing to apologize for. And still do not. But who in their right mind would tolerate this type of crap for $50,000 a year and a case of hives? And we wonder why decent, capable people won’t offer for public office and we’re left with what we are? This is why.
So I was involuntarily retired from public elected office at the age of 44, at the height of my productivity, connections, and effectiveness. In some ways, it was a relief. My allergies and hives went away and I no longer had to smile when I did not feel like it or suffer nasty idiots who felt they had sway over me because they had a vote. But I missed the opportunities to solve other problems in a more direct way and some of the great people in the City and County with whom I had worked on so many worthwhile projects.
I was not idle for long after Dr. Arrington saw opportunities for the City in an idea I had fostered to create a secondary airport in Alabama to relieve Atlanta’s Hartsfield and connect our cities by high-speed rail. He courageously bucked advisers to create the Council of Cooperating Governments and offered me the position of executive director. We gave it a good run and had some successes; most notable in creating the federally-recognized Southern High-Speed Corridor that included Birmingham as a key hub. There was no anticipated high-speed rail connection between Atlanta, Birmingham, Meridian, and New Orleans until we successfully lobbied the Federal Rail Administration for it. the plan had been to eventually connect to Dallas and then on to Los Angeles. And I still believe the day will come when that happens, especially as fossil fuel energy sources are depleted and ensuing devastating climate change make alternatives imperative.
There were other benefits of the Council as communities came together to cooperate on special projects. It was here that Larry Langford formed his idea for Visionland and bound together western communities to make it a reality. We can debate its history, but Visionland got off to a grand start through municipal cooperation, heretofore unheard of, and created a sense of optimism about the future of western Jefferson County that was sorely needed.
I would argue that racism like it does on may things in Birmingham and elsewhere, played a significant role in the downfall of the water park. White parents simply did not support an integrated water theme park in the projected numbers, greatly reducing revenues and leading to the eventual financial collapse of Visionland. White folks were simply not going to let their kids swim in a contained pool with Black kids on the other side of town no matter how much their kids begged them.
The public seemed to understand this as they went on to elect Larry to the County Commission and as Mayor of Birmingham in a remarkable race against the incumbent, the ever pompous, insincere and grudge-holding Bernard Kincaid, and ten others, including Valerie Abbott, where he won without a runoff. It was a miraculous win and I was brought to tears election night as we watched his astonishing win and contemplated the thought of all Larry could accomplish in that position. His slogan was “Let’s Do Something.” And he took off running and did a lot, a whole lot, in a short period of time. It was downright amazing.
Jeff Pitts ran the mayoral campaign and I am still disgusted over the $100,000 he paid from campaign coffers to the ever sleazy Jesse Lewis, publisher of the Birmingham Times, who constantly uses his race to extort money from politicians while claiming to speak for all Black people. He became a multi-millionaire from City, County, and State campaigns regularly using this technique on intimidated candidates not wishing to take a chance on offending Black voters he claimed to control.
You might be surprised to know that at one time I owned a third of his newspaper, The Birmingham Times, but sold it to his son, Jesse Jr., for a pittance when it became clear I would never collect a dividend from the investment.
While Jesse, Jr. visited my apartment, unannounced and uninvited, to make a pitch for my relinquishing my shares, he toured my place, making comments about various things, especially my Bang and Olufsen stereo I had purchased while studying in Sweden. A few days later, an enterprising young black man picked my apartment from all others on Southside and robbed it. Among the many valuable and sentimental things stolen, was the stereo. Jesse Jr. had admired. they caught the guy and I was able to identify the tennis shoes he was wearing from the red paint on them that I had spilled while painting my dining room. I asked the judge to be lenient with him as I was ceratin he was not the mastermind of the crime and was just following orders. Jesse Jr. died some months later in a car accident so it is unfair to connect him to the robbery. But I have always believed that his penchant for loose white women and cocaine had a connection to this robbery and the need to fuel his wanton lifestyle.
One of my great regrets is that I helped Jesse Sr. become president of Lawson State College after my close friend Helen Shores Lee and her father asked me to endorse him to the governor. Helen had been chair of my campaign for the Council in 1977 in a move that had been unheard of prior to my naming a Black woman as chair of a campaign for a white man. And we had grown close through the years, often traveling together and working on various projects. I was also close to her sister Barbara whose twins were two of my Godchildren. So when she and her father asked for my help, I gave it.
But Jesse turned out to be a disaster in that post and almost wrecked the college. He had a limited education, giving himself an honorary doctorate, and no significant experience to qualify for the job, other than being a token in the Wallace administration. By contrast, Perry Ward, who was a Birmingham school administrator whose promotions were advocated by me and Dr. Paul Houston while we worked together at the Board of Education, has done an excellent job moving the school forward. When Dr. Ward asked me to help Lawson secure a donation from Richard Scrushy to build the school’s technology center, I met with Richard to present the request. At the school’s graduation ceremony a few weeks later, Richard announced he was giving them a million dollars, the largest donation ever to a community college in Alabama. It was a gift that was very much appreciated.
It must have been embarrassing for Jesse and his step-son James, to always be attacking me on the front page of a newspaper I partly owned, just because I was white. But the Patriarch of the Lewis family showed long ago he has no conscience and a well-developed sense of privilege. That’s why he never flinched after a long day on the Highland Golf course of parking in the handicapped spot at the MAXX board meeting where he also collected a huge fee for doing nothing. Maybe he though mental disability qualified him. I keep thinking that because he is now in his 90’s, he can’t last much longer, but when all you do is play golf and extort money, you apparently don’t wear out easily.
Mayor Arrington and I worked together for several years fighting the prejudice against the City that slowed our progress at the Council of Cooperating Governments. Unfortunately, 911 and the World Trade Center attack brought the desire to expand air travel to a temporary halt and put projects like funding high-speed rail corridors, which has been a priority of the Clinton administration, on a back burner. Of course, it’s more complicated than just this, but it is a story for another time and is off point, as is much of this missive!
It is notable, however, that the Council of Cooperating Governments had twenty-six member governments, including Birmingham, Atlanta, Memphis, New Orleans, and two dozen smaller municipal and county governments across the Southeast. Heretofore, this level of cooperation among governments was unheard of and should have garnered praise from the Birmingham News and all civic leaders with good sense who understood the value of regional cooperation and elimination of duplicate services. It did not.
At Gary White’s insistence, Jefferson County withdrew from membership in the Council, once again demonstrating how petty, short-sighted, and vindictive he could be. Mary Buckelew who had been an initial ardent supporter went along under pressure from him, as she did in other matters that eventually bankrupted the County and led her to almost being indicted along with Gary.
Everyone knew, if I were not involved in this project, the County would resume its membership in the Council. I considered resigning for the sake of what was an important undertaking but was persuaded to stay on despite Gary”s opposition. Somehow, it seemed that he could never get over winning the election.(Similar to Trump!) He did everything he could to continue to damage my reputation and prevent me from ever running again for public office. Most notably, he led the successful effort to gerrymander me out of my old Commission district with no other purpose than to exclude me as a potential opponent. And he sought to undo many of the policies and practices I had instituted at the County.
He did all of this with the implicit blessing of friends like Roger Bass, aiding and abetting him with unfounded praise and contributions to continue him in office. His unchallenged power corrupted him further and set the stage for the massive sewer debacle that bankrupted the County and saddled Jefferson County citizens with unimaginable debt for decades to come. All the while he handed out lucrative, unbid, and in some cases, nonsensical, contracts to buddies like Bill Slaughter, Jeff Pitts, and Roger Bass and others.
Prior to the sewer debacle in which he was a major pawn for Bill Slaughter, Gary and the other commissioners, including Bettye Fine Collins, went on a drunken spending spree with the new revenues from the County occupational tax Jim Gunter and I had opposed. They built themselves new, lavish offices at the other end of the Courthouse. (Bettye’s had a make-up room so she could always look her best for television appearances). They were in the same suite so they could collude more easily without being seen walking between each other’s offices. And to top off the “improvements’ befitting rulers of their importance, they installed a massive bronze facade to the 19th Street entrance to the Courthouse under the guise of needed tighter security. Millions were spent at the direction of Republicans whose conservative constituents did not yell until the sewer rates hit an all-time high and their monthly bills reminded them of the excesses and ineptitude of these wanna-be royals.
But now Roger wants to banter on Facebook as if I should respect his opinions which are neither original, accurate, nor intelligent. Seriously? it’s just too tedious to deal with him and I plan to drop him as a Facebook “friend” as soon as I know he has had time to find its link to this blog piece. I don’t want him to miss it after his weeks of trolling me for no good reason.
I have tried my best to forget the outright lie and his feigned regret at allegedly not hearing from me that day at the Cedar House. And I even ignored the fact that he apparently is an ardent devotee and sycophant ( I call them MAGAites ) of the most incompetent, crass, and corrupt president in the history of the United States. But somehow, his observation, devoid of facts or proof, that most of my comments in a previous blog piece about Gary White’s release from prison were “bullshit” crossed a line and hit a nerve.
I have grown weary of nasty, wacko opinions without facts to support them; and especially weary of people who will use any connections and betray friends, and their grandmother if necessary, to line their pockets. It would be interesting to have a full accounting of the total amount of money Roger and his ventures have gleaned from his well established personal connection to Commissioner White. This taxpayer money, generously allowed for bogus work, has apparently helped make him the prosperous guy he is today; able to afford yet another trophy bride and live abroad, albeit in Russia which is not exactly Monaco or the French Riviera. Though they do have free dental care.
Moreover, he now proudly takes credit for using his influence with Washington politicians to make certain Gary White did not feel the full impact of his prison sentence for public corruption by having him transferred to Maxwell AFB to complete his sentence closer to his wife and friends in very favorable conditions. Roger’s deficient ego, similar to that of his national hero’s that demands they always have some adoring beauty hanging on their arms, required that he take credit for this success in getting Gary White special treatment he did not deserve. I don’t think he realized he was revealing just how corrupt he had become by doing this. It wasn’t so much an act of friendship or compassion as it was just an IOU being repaid. Here’s why:
After years of receiving favorable unbid contracts for Dunn from Gary and the County, in 2006, Roger formed a new company with Jeff Pitts, the campaign manager for Larry Langford’s successful commission race (and later Larry’s mayoral bid), previously mentioned as a principle in Matrix, the nasty campaign experts. The company was incorporated as Strada Materials. I think this was probably a nod to Vulcan Materials which has been one of Birmingham’s most successful companies. Of course, Strada which means “street” in Italian sounds much better than a company named “Street Materials”.
It is a well-documented fact that Roger and his company received a number of no-bid, lucrative contracts from the County, fostered and approved by Gary White. One of these apparently involved counting sewer manhole covers. It must have been harder than might be thought to cost $100,000 for this task. He, no doubt, sloshed some of this money toward other campaigns to maintain the influence he had with Shelby or Sessions, or both, to gain Gary favorable treatment by the federal Bureau of Prisons and Justice Department. Seems like I remember some guy from Alabama used to run that department.
Laughably, Roger took strong exception to my assertion that it was Gary’s long-suffering second or third wife, Judy, who had successfully lobbied to have him moved to Maxwell within shouting distance to Birmingham. He wanted full credit for having pulled off this feat, an anomaly in the federal prison system. And he offered an insult which I am certain Judy will not take lightly as he made his case that he alone deserved credit for this feat.
Meanwhile, Larry Langford, dying from cancer, was left to languish and suffer seven hours away from his family, for whom it was a financial burden to visit, requiring overnight stays. In his last days, Larry was allowed to come home on compassionate release in December 2018, only to die a few days after his arrival, never to leave a hospital or see his home again. It assaults my sense of justice and will always be an example of how terribly unfair life can be. Some, while claiming to be devout, practicing Christians, say he should have been made to die in prison for his crimes. These people universally use their Bibles as doorstops.
So it’s fair to say that Roger and Gary’s friendship was symbiotic. Like in most political relationships, they regularly scratched each other’s backs with considerable success and Roger was just thanking his friend Gary for his considerable unearned financial windfalls from the County when he pulled strings not available to ordinary citizens without lucrative contracts and resources, or access to power. What’s wrong with this is that it wasn’t Gary’s money he was generously awarding. It was the public’s. And all the while he was giving it away, he was lining his own pockets and enjoying the high life with his convivial friend, Roger. Here are his own words in an exchange with me from a post in early July:
Roger Bass: There is a lot of truth in what you have spent many words to say my old friend. And there is also a lot of bullshit.
Katopodis: You tend to use many glittering generalities in your comments and posts without substantiating details to validate your opinions
Roger Bass: Good. That’s the reason they are called opinions. However, I have some important facts about this subject that would fill in some of the gaps in John’s story. One this is certain, I will not be posting those facts on Facebook.
Katopodis: Would you please elaborate on the parts that are “bullshit” so I might correct them?
Roger Bass: Here is one of many parts. I asked a friend in Washington to move Gary to Maxwell. He called and told me it was done. Judy then demanded to ride with the marshals in the transport. It damn near ended the transfer.
Katopodis: Oh yea that’s big one.
Katopodis: So I guess I owe Judy White an apology for being so naive and blaming her continuous yapping for getting an indefensible transfer of Gary White to Maxwell. If I had given it more thought I should have realized that in your capacity as president of the Alabama Roadbuilders Association you would have garnered lots of IOUs, especially with senators and congressmen from Alabama looking for campaign funds. And as a close friend of Gary’s, it was only logical for you to use these in his behalf. In fact, the Roadbuilders Association has publicly bragged that “individually and collectively, our industry makes significant contributions to the advancement of … Richard Shelby”. A call from you to him or one of those accepting large contributions would have certainly done the trick. But as I said, I’ m naive.”
Make no mistake, Roger Bass is not alone in using the system to his advantage. But he may be unique, or at least in a much smaller group, in his willingness to throw friends under the bus and use hie resources to give respectability and cover to those who don’t deserve it. I suspect sadly, that he probably does not have many friends today and that is why it has been so easy to locate in Moscow after decades in Alabama.
I doubt his valiant and successful effort to make Gary as comfortable as possible may not sit well with those still facing outrageous sewer bills every month for the rest of their lives because they live in Jefferson County and were blind to what he and other commissioners were doing, lining their pockets and those of their friends. But I doubt Roger cares much living in Moscow, likely without a sewer bill.
In one of his recent posts, Roger explains to his Facebook friend who said he had always “wondered” about me (whatever that means) that I am now “an angry old man”. He’s right. For certain, there’s no question that I am old at age 72 and I definitely have lots of obvious and well-documented reasons to be angry. I definitely think I have the right to be angry that my life was turned upside down and my long history of dedicated public service that I have tried to outline in the many preceding pages was dashed in a few weeks of slander and lies for the sake of obscene greed by people who were already well off. It’s easier to forgive the guy who steals to feed his family than the one who steals to be able to afford more Dom Perignon and a Mercedes.
I am indeed prejudiced about many things, as you have read in these pages, but as I see it, my life was significantly altered and almost ruined as I was handed many days of needless, undeserved suffering for the sake of the wanton and unbridled greed of people like him, Bill Slaughter, Gary White, and sadly, Jeff Pitts. It was not enough to just defeat me in the election; it was important for them to destroy me personally and poison the air in such as way as to pave the way for negative things that were to come which affected my life which was on a positive, contributing trajectory, in unimaginable ways. Bill Slaughter was joined by Gary White in often boasting of wanting to see me homeless on the streets. He came close to achieving the goal, but, thankfully, not quite.
I would hate for him to know that the changes he helped make in my life gave me the chance to escape any obligation I may have felt to Birmingham and I am finding the last chapter in my life to be the most satisfying and enjoyable as I focus on various charitable projects and the children of families with whom I am close.
The saddest part for me is the amount of work left unfinished that I was uniquely positioned to accomplish as they employed a vile and disgusting campaign that destroyed any possibility of my ever returning to public life. For sure, people forget, just as they have the many good things I did for my community without ever seeking acknowledgment. Among them are EPIC School, the Alabama School of Fine Arts and McWane Center, projects in which I played a decisive leadership role. But I also fought other battles like the ones for historic preservation, personally suing at my own expense to save several historic downtown buildings. If I had been around at the time, I can assure you that the Terminal Station would not have been destroyed. And personal projects restored buildings like my Southside apartment building and preserved other landmarks like the Pita Stop Building. The waited until I was gone to teach down the Methodist Church on 11th Avenue South after lying about an intention to preserve it.
And I regularly fought zoning battles on the City Council and the County Commission to protect residential neighborhoods, although in one instance I engaged an attorney to fight for the right of a Mormon Church to create a new “stake”, or congregation, in my district after the usual forces of ignorance opposed the church’s right to locate on land they owned because they considered them to be a “cult”.
One of the best zoning attorneys in the State, Doug Coretti helped me protect the First Amendment rights of the church in federal court where I testified in their behalf. This angered many in the neighborhood and they raised money to defeat me. Ten years later, however,I received a letter of apology saying they had been wrong and the Mormons had been the best neighbors they had ever had. They wanted me to run again. Sure. Hope no one held their breath.
And then there were issues like the fluoridation of the community’s water supply, my personal favorite accomplishment, to bring dental health to children, especially from low-income families.If your children and grandchildren have no cavities, did you think this happened by accident? I was watching a PBS special on a coal mining feud in West Virginia and had always wondered why people in those days always seemed to pose for photographs without smiling. Then in one newsreel, one of the miners, a Mr. Hatfield of the feud with the McCoys, had a close-up while he was grinning. His teeth were black and a number of them, missing. And the same was true for many others in the film. I did not want this happening in Birmingham and, thankfully, it does not, thanks to the prudent use of fluoride.
I waged a huge battle to provide this medical aide to Birmingham, with my focus on disadvantaged children who could not afford regular dental treatment, if any at all. I used my influence as a school administrator with Bessie Estell who was a former school principal to change her vote to become the decisive vote in adding fluoride in trace amounts, parts per million, to the City’s water supply. Some years later, after she died, I pressed to name a park adjacent to EPIC School in her honor because of her vote.
Dr. Bill Roper, chief medical director of the Jefferson County Health Department and I teamed up while I was a Councilman to devise a plan to accomplish this, but I was the one who got the death threats from the crazies that opposed it. One of the great things that came from this battle was my friendship with Bill and his wife Maryann. I was pleased to be able to help him in his quest for the White House Fellowship that had been denied me two years earlier because of my firing by the Board of Education. This honor launched his career as head of Medicare and Medicaid, as well as the director of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. Roger Porter, a professor at the Kennedy School who made this happen, and I recently discussed Bill’s latest accomplishment when he was called out of retirement as dean of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine to take the reins as president of their college and university system. He has made Pleasant Grove proud with his singular accomplishments.
There are other things for which I have more than willing to allow others to take political credit with relative silence about my key role. But I have seen first hand that people really don’t pay attention and I may never be judged fairly without mention of those accomplishments people now take for granted as part of the landscape. For example, Karen Bowdre, in denying me bond and holding me for over nine months in one of the worst county jails in Alabama, argued that I had “no ties to Alabama”. Seriously? Other than two homes, an office, my only remaining relative from my mother’s family, and my name on several buildings, she was right. I have no ties to the prejudice, ignorance, stupidity, racism and flat out meanness she and others like her seem to appreciate.
Aside from Computer Help for Kids which refurbished hundreds of HealthSouth computers, replaced in Y2K, for re-use by disadvantaged children, most notable among them was the One Laptop Per Child program, which for a brief moment in Birmingham’s history provided free laptops to every elementary school child in the City. I actually enrolled in a class at MIT to convince the head of the Media Lab there, Nicholas Negroponte, to make Birmingham the only city in America to do this. After I laid the foundation and designed a framework, Larry came to Cambridge to seal the deal and followed up to make it happen. He definitely deserves political credit for the program, but not for the concept or the actual work to make it happen. I’m certain he would agree with this if he were here to speak.
As I learned from our early days of serving together on the Birmingham City Council in 1977, Larry had a talent for recognizing and appreciating a good idea. We were fast friends for many many years with him often referring to me as closer to him than his brothers. He definitely was not insecure about his role or mine in many projects and neither of us ever felt threatened or demeaned by the other. But my role in this project and many others was significant. whether or not I received, or took, any public credit at the time. A little research will confirm that part I played in all of these things I have mentioned. But who care? The good these projects have done in people’s lives is sufficient.
What a shame that William Bell was always more interested in his hedonism as a serial philanderer with an active extra-marital sex life than the education of Birmingham’s disadvantaged children. I can give you a list of them, if pressed. He ended the program for unspecified reasons and terminated Bob McKenna who was the City’s liaison to MIT. In doing so, William ignored Bob’s competence and popularity and his inspiring representation of the disabled community as someone who uses a wheelchair from a spinal cord injury in his youth. I have no doubt, whatsoever, that William replaced Bob was replaced by someone with a short skirt.
Because of William, who should have been removed from office when he committed domestic abuse against his long-suffering wife, Sharon, aka Shelly, the technology gap between the rich and poor has likely only widened. In that respect, he has contributed to keeping Birmingham’s children lagging behind the rest of the community and at a competitive disadvantage.
Miss Nina Miglionico was Sharon’s attorney when she filed a complaint against him for physical battery. It all went away quietly but had it happened in today’s “Me Too” climate, he would not have survived the ensuing scandal. Years later, Nina shared the full story with me at one of our many dinners. It made me regret the years of support and friendship I had given him. Emotional battery is bad and hard to confront, but the physical battery of any woman or child can never be tolerated. For that matter, battery of anyone is wrong.
Larry counted on me for many things, especially if they related to education. We worked together to save Holy Family High School, one of his and Melva’s favorite causes, along with the affiliated elementary schools. While in Boston for a Kennedy School meeting, I learned of the Cristo Rey program from my friend Mary Truong’s brother, Van, and the possibility of making Holy Family a Cristo Rey school. I introduced the concept to Larry and Melva who followed up and the rest is, as they say, history. This program saved the high school, without a doubt.
Saving the Catholic elementary schools proved more problematic. Oddly, we were sealing these schools’ fate by working to significantly improve the public schools. Why would parents choose an expensive parochial school over a free public one if the quality of the education was equal of better in the public school?
The final nail in the coffin came after I persuaded Larry to pass the 1 % sales tax increase to fund refurbishing or replacing every public school in the County. The revenues generated were used to float bonds in the tens of millions to build some of the finest physical plants of any public schools, anywhere. Larry stoically took the political heat with me constantly assuring him that his personal and political sacrifice would be worth it. I reasoned that without substandard facilities, the community could now focus on other things to make the schools the best anywhere. He did this while on the County Commission. But as Mayor of Birmingham, he took it a step further wanting to find a way to pay for college educations for every high school graduate in the City. He enlisted my help and that of Dr. Neal Berte of Birmingham Southern to devise a plan, but was removed from office before any workable plan could be implemented. He would be pleased to see the current efforts of Mayor Woodfin to make this happen. He would, as I do, wish the young mayor the best in this important endeavor.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. I have no apologies whatsoever to make for my long history of unblemished service to my community. I served with vision and integrity, often sacrificing to make things happen. I defy anyone to prove otherwise. There is not a hint of impropriety, theft, or scandal during any of my years of service in elective office. My troubles began only after I had been out of office for almost 20 years and only after I refused an outrageous demand that I help unethical and overly ambitious federal prosecutors entrap their targets of Larry Langford, Richard Scrushy, and Milton McGregor.
I will die believing I deserved better than I got from Birmingham and “friends” like Roger Bass. Unlike Roger’s, my claims are well documented in the Birmingham Public Library records and the archives of the Birmingham News, wherever they are now that Al.com has replaced them. If you are that interested in proving me wrong, you can do the research.
It’s probably past time to tell the story of my brush with the feds from my point of view with a some of the facts that might alter public perception of my case and the fairness of my conviction. Frankly, it has not been important to me to correct the record and tell what some might find a fascinating saga, especially in light of the Supreme Court ruling in Skilling which suggested the charges should never have been filed in the first place. But when you become a target of the feds, any charge and indictment will do. If it had not been this, it would have been something else to force my cooperation. After a five year investigation by the IRS and nothing that was chargeable, they came up with their theft of honest services” BS. Had the situation been delayed a year, they could not have used it. All in all, i have delayed telling the full story because it is a very complicated one that cannot be told without possibly casting aspersions on some politicians and businessmen I liked. But not that Larry and Milton are gone, it may be possible. But I suspect that it may be a little too much for me to ask Richard Scrushy to kick off so I can tell the story, completely unfettered. (Just joking, Richard…live as long as you can).
It is undeniable that I could have avoided my legal troubles had I been willing to throw these community leaders under the bus. George Martin, the mousy and diabolical ( a bad combination) Assistant U.S. Attorney for Northern Alabama, and his crony, Matt Hart, wanted me to wear a wire and “help design the crime” by which these guys would be convicted…of something; anything would have done. George wanted to bring them down no matter what it took or what law was trampled.
It was an outrageous demand of me and I adamantly refused, fully aware of the consequences for my future. Did I know things that they could have used and which would have prevented my prosecution on scurrilous charges? I seriously will never tell. But we all know the answer. I learned in Catholic school to always pay close attention. Despite my advanced age, I still remember things that some might still fear being revealed. A warning: don’t be like Roger and tick me off or I might just tell all I know about you, at least until the dementia sets in.
People like Ken Livesay of HealthSouth fame cut deals to save their assets and asses, while gleefully pointing fingers at others. Judge Bowdre, as just and impartial as she claims to be, only gave him six months in jail for his pivotal role in the HealthSouth fraud that resulted in Richard Scrushy’s criminal indictment and almost destroyed the company, costing hundreds of innocent, unsuspecting people their jobs and thousands of trusting investors, millions of dollars. I have wondered from time to time how Ken lives with himself, but I’m sure he has rationalized his actions, as he still enjoys large sums of undeserved money from his profitable association with HealthSouth. But I would not recommend him as a friend or even an acquaintance. He’s a dangerous coward who owes many, including me, an apology.
Unlike him, I refused to cooperate in destroying others and willingly paid the heavy price. And unlike Roger, I remain loyal to friends, even when they might be wrong. Right or wrong, I would never knowingly participate in anyone’s destruction no matter how much money, security or pleasure I might garner. And I certainly wasn’t going to do it to satisfy George Martin. Has anyone ever seen his name on anything in the community that might demonstrate his love of our city and devotion to its improvement? Let me know when you find something.
I often think of all the good Richard Scrushy did for our community and the enormously unfair price he and Gov. Siegelman paid for something they absolutely did not do. With inside information from a close friend of mine involved in the matter, I knew what had happened and was convinced early on that Richard Scrushy never paid anyone to be appointed to a board in which he had no interest and that held no sway over his multi-billion dollar business. As the president and CEO of the largest rehabilitation company in the world, he was doing the State a favor by agreeing to serve, although he seldom personally attended meetings of the State Healthcare Planning Agency. Moreover, I think of all Richard and Don could, and would, have done to make Birmingham and Alabama better if it were not for people like Ken Livesay and others whose names history will not remember. Somehow I doubt they will even be a footnote.
Now, what is the point of all this meandering and admittedly self-serving rambling missive, for which I am bound to be criticized?
Clearly, I could have made my point about Roger being a lousy friend and greedy trough feeding lobbyist with a penchant for young women in a couple of paragraphs. But I thought it would be particularly annoying for him to have to wade through the entire trope that borders on being a novel to get to the parts where he, no doubt, will claim he has been slandered. Frankly, in my acknowledged old age, it is gratifying to vent my spleen and place on the Internet where, unlike me, it will live forever, the story of the greed and excesses of those like Roger which have affected the progress of Alabama and the lives of people like me.
Unlike Al Troncalli, who just wanted a better community, nothing more, Roger Bass has always been motivated to be politically involved by greed to fuel his hedonistic lifestyle. We all make mistake in our youth and have less lofty values than usually come with age But many of us spiritually and morally mature as we age.
Interestingly, in his old age at almost 75, Roger has taken a Russian bride who I mistook for his granddaughter when I first saw her photograph. He has also become enamored with all things Russian. As a major supporter and defender of Trump, with whom he shares, like Jeffrey Epstein, an appreciation for “younger women”, he opposes socialist ideas like Medicare for all, except apparently where it applies to him and his teeth (and his wife’s). Here is one of his recent posts about the Russian health system he admires.
Posted to Facebook 08/18/2019 by Roger Bass:
“ I have been taking Tatiana to the dentist two times a week for a while. It was my suggestion. Yes, I know about checking a horse’s teeth before buying it! The cost of an excellent dentist here is about 20% of the typical US cost.
The picture of the waiting room I am posting shows a rather spartan space. However, all other facilities are the latest technology.
Tatiana’s dentist speaks excellent English. I have a little dental issue that has me concerned about being abroad. I had a conversation with him. I asked him if he would see me in case of a dental emergency. He said, “Of course.” He then asked me to have a panoramic X-ray made. He wanted to start a file. He spent 15 minutes with me. He charged me nothing.
I understand this isn’t an exciting post. But, it might help my friends understand a little more about this very misunderstood country. I hope so, because the people here are different and some of the customs are a little weird, but there are good people almost everywhere. Almost.”
I’m not a psychiatrist and I normally don’t try to play one, although I did major in experimental psychology in college, but this post is revealing in many ways. (BTW, in experimental college the focus is on behaviors and uses a lot of mice and rats in experiments so it may have been more relevant than I realized at the time for a career in politics.)
I really don’t think I would have mentioned buying the horse before checking her teeth as the buying part seems like it might hit a little closer to home than is comfortable. Nor would I have made the case that Russia is misunderstood. Rational and informed people understand full well what Russia’s intentions in the world are and have always been. The people of Ukraine and Crimea might have a different take on Russia, especially her leaders. And the protesters in the streets of Moscow on a regular basis in recent weeks, crying for democracy and fair elections, might as well.
I have never told this before but in 1973, while studying as a Fulbright Scholar in Sweden, I was recruited by USIA, the U.S. Information Agency, to carry a book to a Russian woman in the Soviet Union. I had visited Russia several times and often took the overnight steamer from Stockholm to Finland and then to Leningrad to visit the Hermitage, one of the world’s great museums, built on the backs of Russian peasants. I also liked to visit the summer palace of Peter the Great. Leningrad was one of the world’s most beautiful cities, but Moscow not so much and I only visited there once and left in a hurry.
No one explained why I was to go to Russia on this mission and I never asked. I had worked at the embassy part-time, doing a number of tasks assigned to me and was well known there as I regularly lectured in Swedish schools about the American education system. Of particular interest to Swedes was the racial strife in the American South and I showed the Cecily Tyson film, the Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, with considerable effect to large Swedish audiences at the lectures. I still get chills when I think of her drinking from that all-white fountain in front of the Courthouse. It reminded me of the segregated fountains at the Sumter County, Georgia Courthouse when I was there in 1970, prior to Harvard, working on school desegregation. This may be a topic for a good second book if I get through this one. With Jimmy Carter as chairman of the school board, the tale might attract some interest, but my monograph, “Re-segregation in the South: The Case of Sumter County, Georgia” can be found online and in the archives of the libraries at Harvard. You can also find my dissertation, ” Pre-school in Sweden: The Formation and Implementation of a National Policy” in the same place. I hope you get the idea that my commitment to the well-being of children is not new or an affectation.
Still, I was surprised when I was given this mysterious assignment which was easily accomplished and seemed mundane. But months afterward, when I continued to communicate with the woman who received the book, Helena Kotomkina, whose address I still have, I was politely reprimanded and taken off the courier list.
For years after returning to Alabama, I would mail her books, not all of which made it through the Soviet censors. I took to sending books not easily translated or understood like, “A Member of the Wedding” by Carson McCullars. Sometimes she would get them, sometimes she would not.
This is Roger’s Russia, even today. But I often reflect on the incomparable beauty of Russia and the many days I spent visiting her museums, the ballet, and her historical sites. But unlike Roger who seems to be enamored like some tourist that has never visited abroad, (which I know is not true), I have no illusions about their political system and strong-arm, underhanded tactics. Even with a young bride by your side, it cannot be a warm and inviting place. So I assume he will soon grow weary of it when the novelty wears off and return to America.
More recently and perhaps more relatable for Roger is my experience with one of my Godchildren, a retired Lt. Commander in the Navy (U.S.) who met a young Russian woman on the Internet and married her weeks later. He was totally smitten and thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He had divorced his third wife and essentially abandoned his three children by her before meeting his Russian babushka. It was his fourth marriage and her second. Her first husband had met her when she was 20 and he was 69. Willard Summers told his wife he wanted a divorce on their 50th wedding anniversary, shocking their families and friends and the whole community who still talk about it. While I was there helping Polina refurbish Willard’s home, which is now a bed and breakfast, I used to hate going to the post office in Ramer, Tennessee to pick up letters or pay taxes in her name for fear people were thinking I was the next old man on the list of her potential husband-victims. Dateline, are you listening?
It made more sense for me as to why Willard had married Polina after I made a shocking discovery while cleaning out a closet in his home during some renovations and found what could have been a lifetime supply of Viagra. There was literally a king’s ransom of maybe a thousand blue tablets. It boggled the mind. But it only became clear as to why Polina married Willard when he died a couple of years later and left her all his property and assets that she had not already had transferred to her name.
It is well known that many Russian women are anxious to come to the United States to escape the oppressive life in Russia, even today, years after the collapse of the Soviet regime. You can literally buy a Russian bride on the Internet. And I suppose if you are in your declining years and need an ego boost, this is as good a way as any to do it. In fact, to satisfy your insecurity, why not buy two or three as backups?
People certainly have the right to pursue happiness wherever they can find it no matter how ridiculous it makes them look. But assuming people will view it as normal marrying someone a third of your age and expecting them to pretend it is and swoon over her alleged beauty as anything other than a vacuous trophy wife ( see Melania Knauss Trump) is ludicrous and absurd. And it is especially true for those, like Roger, who have enthusiastically embraced and encouraged the age of Trump where manners, civility, and decorum have been obliterated and made passé.
There is no subject that is off-limits. So please don’t tell me that commenting on Roger’s latest hedonistic indulgence should be taboo. Unless, of course, he wants to disavow and condemn every crass, demeaning, hurtful thing Trump has hurled at women, the handicapped, war heroes, etc. in the last three years. I would wait, but it won’t be forthcoming. MAGAites never apologize. So I won’t either for thinking and saying that seeking intimacy with someone so young is sick and reveals either a personality disorder, a character flaw, or deep-seated loneliness…or maybe, all of the aforementioned.
Honestly, if a woman aged 74 married a man in his twenties what would the reaction of the community likely be? (Insert giggles and whispers here.) So why is it totally acceptable for a dirty old man to take a young bride and expect anything less?
In fairness, It’s hard to know what private pain people may have secretly suffered that encourages them to seek whatever happiness they can, wherever and whenever they can, even in inappropriate or odd places. We all deserve happiness and no one should argue otherwise. But when you set yourself up as a critic of others’ beliefs and values, you become fair game for criticism and judgment. I have no problem being judged. Fire away. But I also reserve the right to dispel illusions and offer facts to support my opinions without gratuitous personal attacks or a response. One of the things people seem to like about Trump is that he fires back when attacked. If that’s the new rule, I will play by it, even at the risk of sounding like a spurned lover. Did something happen on that romantic Bahamas trip between me and Roger that I may have suppressed?
And as much as I’d like to avoid the discomfort of reserving judgment on Roger’s personal lifestyle which taxpayers have helped fund, I won’t. At the least, he looks like a foolish old hypocrite as he anxiously waits for his wife’s visa to come to America while supporting Trump’s anti-immigration policies for everyone else. I’d delay it as long a possible. Armed with a valid visa, even with a pre-nup, the marriage might be not as secure. While he’s marking time waiting for the visa for his new wife, it angers me when he groans about the feds dragging their feet, but ignores the plight of other real and deserving refugees, languishing in detention centers waiting for their turn to make their case for entry into the Country. If I were a good Republican who thinks like he does, I’d say, “Tough. Get in line and wait your turn.” Of course, she may have some special skills that are needed here, but your Chosen One will tell you that chain migration, even from Russia, should not be allowed.
Moreover, I feel sorry for anyone who is so twisted as to think this that any marriage like this is one made in heaven that should be blessed by adoring fans on Facebook. Did anyone think that by friending someone on Facebook they would you lose all discernment and join a chorus of ass-kissing friends to laud the incomparable beauty of any store-bought bride? Everyone is cute when they’re young. Check back with me in 30 years but I’m unlikely to be able to comment further.
In case you may have missed it, I have nothing but disdain for Roger Bass and dropping him from Facebook, like I have done others of his ilk so I don’t have to be further subjected to ignorant, insipid comments, and frankly, stupid posts, will be a pleasure, if not a relief.
Let me acknowledge that I may have this all wrong and owe everybody involved a heartfelt and sincere apology. It is entirely possible that Roger and Tatiana met at a world conference on climate change where Tatiana was a featured speaker with expertise in fossils. And perhaps they married after they found amazingly similar interests and intellectual compatibility. But maybe not.
A good thing to come from all this is that Roger’s posts have made clear to me that we have nothing in common and share no values and likely never did. Wasting more time watching him try to regain his youth and act relevant to anything, even from a long distance, is futile and counterproductive and slightly painful. I’m sure he will have an appropriate response to my evaluation of his worth, and self-serving politics, which are antithetical to mine. In one of his posts, he derided my education for which I also have no intention of apologizing. And his assessment that my political arguments are “weak” is without supporting evidence.
But does it really matter? I have no regard for his opinions, lifestyle, values. And his existence is irrelevant to mine. I only regret that I did not discover this in the ’80s and act accordingly. But I encourage him, like the most famous trophy wife of all, Melania, might do, to be best or at least try your best, although I cannot imagine what further damage he might do to me or my reputation which his dollars from the County have already helped besmirch and nearly destroy.
In all the examples of things I did to try and make Birmingham better during my public career there, I only briefly referenced something more important to me. During it all, I tried to use what resources and gifts God afforded me to help as many people as possible with their very real problems. And I have never, ever, expected anything in return. Whether it was a scholarship for a child at Holy Family Elementary, or a letter of recommendation to Harvard, or refurbishing a computer for a kid who needed one or giving some a job who needed it desperately, I have gone about my business without vanity or need for recognition or praise. But I damn sure never expected to rewarded with sarcasm, hatred, and actions to destroy me.
From time to time, I am reminded, sometimes on Facebook, that I have helped a lot of people in my life, especially children, achieve their dreams. And in many ways, it makes some of the slings and arrows I have endured worth it. And I am blessed that I have survived all of them, knowing who I am and have always been and happy in my old age, without too many regrets.
While Roger and company were busy doing things to make themselves richer to support lives of self-indulgence and pleasure-seeking, I was working as hard as I could to make life better for others, especially the poor and powerless in Birmingham. And while he was sucking up to Gary White and other self-serving jerks, I was quietly working, without pay, for children in need at various non-profit community agencies.
I chose a different path fro my life but could have easily used my training and education to get rich or better serve my own interests. So in my declining years, no matter how self-serving it may sound, I have decided to reclaim my history and spell out in unvarnished detail some of the reasons I abhor many of the characters I have encountered and endured along the way. To be sure, I have only mentioned a small number of them here. And I apologize to those friends not mentioned or given short shrift in this piece. Let me know and I’ll be sure to include you in the next one.
I started this rambling free association talking about Al Troncalli for a reason. As a new devotee to Russia, Roger might want to read House of Matryona by Solzhenitzen. In it, he describes, in tedious and grueling detail, the life of a peasant woman who was so humble that she helped to push the trailer carrying a segment of her pathetic house with which she was being forced to part. Even in the pain of her loss, she did was not angry and did what she always had done and offered to help. She died when the trailer was hit by a train. In short order, her neighbors rushed to her house to claim her meager belongings, including her prized sweet potato plant.
Solzhenitzen intended this short story to be a commentary on post-war Communism, but it assumes a deeper meaning when his narrator proclaims that Matryona was the one righteous (perhaps Christian in today’s lingo) person without whom no civilization can long stand.
In contrast to Roger Bass, and those like him, this is what Al represented for me. The one person who never harmed anyone never sought anything in return for his friendship but gave as much as he could to make his community a better place. There are thousands more like him in Birmingham. But Roger and others are not among them. There may be a lesson here for Roger, Jeff, Bill Slaughter, and others as they move forward in life, at least what remains to us at our ages. But as we know, leopards never change their spots and the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Their values, like mine, were set long ago and unlikely to change.
So as I part company with any more thoughts about Roger, Gary and much of the crap I endured in Birmingham, I’ll just keep humming an old gospel song that I learned as a child from my aunt and uncle, Bill and Mildred Powell, simple, decent evangelists who sang gospel songs as part of their ministry. It summarizes my feelings about some of the people there whose paths I wish I had not crossed. The song by Dorothy Love Coats goes like this:
There’s always somebody talking about me, Really, I don’t mind. Trying to stop and block my progress, most of the time.
But the mean things you say, don’t make me feel bad, ’cause I CAN’T MISS A FRIEND THAT I NEVER HAD.
Well you may scorn me, turn your back on me
God’s got his arms wrapped all around me
And he fights down the devil till he makes him give up
And that’s enough (that’s enough) that’s enough,
I still have my self-respect and that’s enough.
Also on point are the words in the gospel song by Johnny Cash I also learned in childhood:
I am not quite as destitute as the song laments, but I have not sought riches in this life, confident in many ways that God has my fortune laid away. But even if there is no next life, I am satisfied and the reward has been that I have lived as I chose and may have helped a few people live better lives. That’s enough.
P.S. So ends this long and wandering saga done without the help of anyone, especially and obviously, an editor. The admittedly biased opinions I express are taken from my life experiences and based on facts, some of which can be found in the minutes of the Birmingham City Council and Jefferson County Commission and media reports concerning these governments and my activities while a member of each of them. They are available in files at the Birmingham Public Library, the “morgue” of the Birmingham News and Online. If you see a mistake or some fact that should be corrected, let me know. Or if you can make an argument to change my misguided opinion, let’s hear it.
If I get enough energy, time, or some other pissant like Roger Bass makes me mad enough, I may do another installment. Also, could you be thinking about who ought to play me in the movie? (Just kidding, I already have him picked out!) Thanks for reading, if you made it this far! Amazin!
After almost a decade, Gary White is coming home. Just a few more weeks in a half-way- re-entry house and he will be home and relatively free. At age 73, it may be a hard adjustment from the safe, structured, and orderly environment of the almost cushy low security camp at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery where he spent the last few years of his 10 year sentence for bribery to the challenges and routine of normal life; especially with a continuously yapping wife reminding him daily of how much she did for him while he was incarcerated for helping create one of the largest municipal bankruptcies in history. He wreaked havoc on the lives of many citizens who are still paying monthly for his misdeeds with the most expensive, unaffordable sewer bills in the nation. Like Tammy Wynette, Judy White stood by her man, even in the face of overwhelming evidence he was unworthy of her devotion and strident advocacy which resulted in his transfer to Maxwell to be closer to her, while a grievously ill Larry Langford was kept sever hours away from his family while he lay dying. It would take Freud himself to correctly analyze why Gary garnered such loyalty and constant activism by Judy. It’s certainly a mystery to me. I’ve never heard of an attraction based on a bad toupee fetish, but it may exist and have come into play here. Love is strange.
I would like to break out the champagne and streamers for the welcome home party, but as one of the people whose life was significantly damaged in other ways by this unremarkable and mediocre, little, and follicly challenged creep, I’ll restrain myself. Clearly, I am not unbiased in my opinion about Gary White and his sycophant sidekick Judy. But no matter what I say here that is unflattering or unkind, or even petty, it pales in comparison to the barrage of nasty assaults and character assassinations I endured during his 1990 primary campaign against me and subsequently as he grasped to hold onto the office for over 15 years. (After taking office, he blatantly gerrymandered me out of the district to make certain I could not run again for my old position. The other weak-keened commissioners went along as they cut out their own potential rivals.) But Gary’s pending return to society and respectability has given me the incentive to meditate on the many injustices I suffered because of him and his cronies and the dire consequences for my life as he deliberately and without just cause set about to destroy it. I hope you’ll indulge me as I take the time to remind people of who he really is and create a record for posterity of the truth about him and the mess he created to satisfy his greed and stay in power at any cost. I fully expect that Judy will rise to the defense of this wimp and I look forward to more slings and arrows from her tired and misguided quiver. Better yet, my hope is that she will file a libel suit and allow us a proper place to hash this out with the facts and let the public decide the truth.
Gary’s history is not as exciting as Judy has made it. After a series of failed business ventures and relationships, Gary, a native of Florida, somehow landed in Homewood running a small restaurant alongside Gayle, his wife at the time. His perch at the Anchorage Restaurant gave him the opportunity for contact with lots of folks which he parlayed into a three year stint on the Homewood City Council. From there, he got himself elected to the Alabama legislature where he served without distinction for seven years. He remained unnoticed until he agreed to collude with federal agents to entrap several members of the of the Jefferson County delegation. He was apparently particularly find of bringing down the Black female representatives whose families paid a dear price after they were targeted. He naturally emerged from this drama very popular with Republican voters as he painted himself as an anti-corruption crusader. A clue to his greater ambitions should have been when he lobbied heavily for the passage of a significant pay increase for County Commissioners which would only begin with the next full term. His fellow legislators probably had no clue at the time that he intended to collect the new higher salary by running against me for the now more lucrative commission seat.
The commute between Homewood and Montgomery for legislators was long, boring and expensive when it had to be done almost daily during the time the Legislature was in session and Gary found himself carpooling with fellow representative Bill Slaughter from the neighboring suburb of Mountain Brook. The trips back and forth may not have developed any real friendship between the two misfits with little in common, but they did manage to create a working alliance based on mutual greed and deficient egos.
Bill Slaughter is a mousy attorney with a shock of white hair and birth deformity that left him with a mangled right arm. His obvious disability no doubt played a key role in his early intellectual and emotional development. Like Donald Trump, he prides himself on his “unique genius” which he wraps in an off-putting, almost comical air of elitism. His language is stilted and designed to convey superiority. A devoted Anglophile, his fondness for British history and nobility masks his middle-class upbringing as the son of a tractor salesman. He married well, but sustaining an English manor in Mountain Brook is an expensive proposition that requires money, and lots of it. Developing his legal skills as a municipal financial adviser and bond attorney easily met his needs as he raked in millions of dollars from the City of Birmingham and Jefferson County, participating in multiple rewarding roles on a regular basis in bond issues to finance various public projects. With a few well-placed campaign contributions, he secured a place in every major financing project sponsored by Birmingham and Jefferson County for a couple of decades. Other principled bond lawyers were regularly excluded from the deals where he had a lock on business and operated with impunity and little oversight.
In one instance, a plain ordinary refinance of bonds for Jefferson County that the National Association of Bond Lawyers said ought to have cost no more than $30,000 was billed by his firm at a cost of $300,000 after he argued that his “genius” had saved the County millions of dollars and he was “entitled” to a percentage of those “savings”. Of course no one knew how to calculate those potential “savings” except Mr. Slaughter and no political leader, least of all dimwitted and always sanctimonious Commission president David Orange whose primary existence seemed to be to make war on Sheriff Mel Bailey, had the ability or inclination to challenge his flawed logic much less his numbers, especially since their campaigns had benefited in a major way from his fundraising for them. Bill convinced Mr. Orange that it was legal for him to wear duel hats in this transaction. He would be both bond counsel and financial adviser to the County. It was unprecedented and unethical. He was advising the County and potential bond purchasers on the viability and legality of a transaction in which he was directly benefiting financially. Normally this sort of transaction would be handled by separate entities or law firms, but definitely not by the same person. He got away with it, but not without my stridently and loudly criticizing my fellow Republican for what was a clear ethical violation and a rip off of taxpayers.
His regular wining and dining of brokerage houses like Goldman Sachs, Raymond James, and other investment bankers also resulted in a cozy relationship with funding sources for the campaigns of politicians who made the decisions about the funding teams assembled for new issuance of bonds and routine refinances. It was not uncommon to find Bill huddled with investment bankers at Highlands Bar and Grill sharing $250 bottle of wine as they celebrated the scams they had pulled on gutless politicians who benefited from the crumbs they were routinely tossed at election times. Better to go along than risk that money going to political opponents.
Bill Slaughter’s reach and influence was astounding, especially as it pertained to the City of Birmingham. He was unabashed on one occasion in expressing his belief that integration would never work and his continued objection to it. This was not in the 50’s. It was 1986! I thought he was referring to miscegenation and I had misunderstood his meaning. But he definitely meant racial integration going on to suggest that Apartheid worked well in South Africa and a dual side by side system was preferable to integration of the races. And this was an attorney who was continuing to make millions of dollars from the largest majority black city in Alabama. When I mentioned this outrageous incongruity to Mayor Arrington, he just shrugged.
Bill was not shy about expressing his opinions or his disdain for anyone who disagreed with him. On more than one occasion, I watched in amazement as he held his breath during rants with his face beet red as he contemplated his political enemies and what he wanted to do to them. some who witnessed these tirades thought they were mini-strokes, not imagining they were just tantrums. (Feel free to test this by mentioning my name in his presence. It seems to always produce the desired reaction and can be quite amusing if you are not the target.)
Any respect I may have had for him departed when I had a conversation about him with a relative of his who outlined the emotional misery Bill regularly dealt his long suffering wife. Apparently, despite his significant wealth, he had long ago dispensed with any sort of gift giving to her even on special occasions like birthdays or Christmas. This criticism may be unfair as I suspect he paid for their expensive trip to Europe with the Whites. It’s anybody’s guess as to who paid Gary and Judy’s way. But I suppose courting elected officials with whom you are doing business could be taken as a tax deduction under the right circumstances. Gary was effectively Bill’s employee as he did the dirty work of laying the foundation for the complex and disastrous sewer bond scam to come.
Aside from directly attacking Mr. Slaughter’s greed and lack of ethics, I had openly expressed that should I be re-elected and become Commission president, a good possibility at the time, I intended to terminate Andy Strickland, the County Attorney and highest paid public employee in the state. (When he retired, he began collecting $25,000 a month from the County. ) His outrageous salary was not based on merit, but was set by the Commission at the direction of his supervisor, the Commission president. So his prosperity depended on making the Commission president look good no matter how dumb the position he or she might take. Whatever, the president said was good enough for Andy and he would make the law conform. At no time was this more evident as he habitually rendered legal opinions supporting Reuben Davis, president Oranges’ only ally on the Commission, as he destroyed Cooper Green hospital with one stupid idea after another. I must admit it would have been very entertaining if the consequences for the poor and sick in the County had not been so serious. On one occasion I challenged a $10,000 expenditure the Commissioner wanted to make to put magnets on the pipes at the hospital laundry. Some snake oil salesman had persuaded him that if these magnets were used, it would soften the water and make it unnecessary to use as much soap powder; thus saving the County a fortune. When I insisted that state law be followed and this item be put out for bid because it was $10000 or more, I delighted in watching Mr. Strickland squirm when he was assigned the task of preparing the bid specifications for this bogus nonsense. For $25,000 a month, I believe Andy would have washed and ironed the bloody sheets at home.
With me out of the way raising nasty questions about the appropriateness of unbid sewer contracts being awarded in the millions even before the sewer spill and fussing about other patronage costs, the stage was set for the greatest rape of the public in the history of Jefferson County. I’m sure that the participation of Andy Strickland’s son in the lawsuit by the Cahaba River Society had nothing to do with the ridiculous settlement agreement negotiated by his father which gave political cover for the Commission to raise sewer rates and spend like drunken sailors to make whatever improvements they desired with no bid contracts for engineers and others hired to solve the problem. Ironically, the Commissioner whose negligence in oversight of the Sewer Division had led to the spill was the chief beneficiary of the mess he had created, allowing him to continue his practice of answering to no one as he handed out multi-million dollar contracts, all the while accepting trips to the Caribbean from Frank Lindstrom of Engineering Services Associates and other vendors along with over $300,000 in improvements to his side business.
And guiding the Commission as they issued bonds on top of bonds to finance this debacle was the County’s favorite bond attorney, Bill Slaughter, now more powerful than ever having proved he could destroy any critic, no matter how popular. (In my case he created several political actions committees in Montgomery to funnel about $200,000 into the campaign of Gary White to defeat me in the narrow Republican primary. He correctly reasoned that the millions he would garner in return made the investment well worth it.) And by his side cutting the deals behind closed doors was his carpool buddy, Gary White. Unfettered in any way, they cut questionable deals right and left, the most notorious being the one to bring sewer service to the Liberty Park development of USX Realty ( U.S. Steel, the largest land owner in the county) by digging a tunnel and laying a huge, drive through sewer pipe under the Cahaba River. Only an outraged public, stopped what could have been a real environmental disaster. But the details of the financing deals and the masterminds behind this plot to create the largest political slush fund in history were largely ignored because of its complexity and the apparent imprimatur of a federal judge which seemed to make it mandatory and beyond the control of county officials.
Certainly, it’s possible to go on and on about other misdeeds of this particular Commission of which I ,nor Larry Langford were a part. People forget but it was Bettye Fine Collins, Mary Buckelew, Chriss McNair, Jeff Germany and most notably, Gary White that created the disaster for which rate payers are still paying and will continue to pay for years to come. Larry Langford’s folly was in believing Bill Blount, an attorney and investment banker, when he promised he could lower the rates for those unable to afford them with a questionable re-finance scheme that ultimately proved disastrous. Along the way, he swapped gifts with Mr. Blount and Al LaPierre, the ED of the State Democratic Party, believing them to be close personal friends he could trust. Not surprisingly, after they were indicted, they both quickly cut deals with the feds to nail their friend who effectively died in prison while they enjoyed a return to normalcy in their lives many years earlier.
The repercussions of the “Slaughter Plan to Sustain his Greed” and reputation as the greediest lawyer in America are too numerous to mention. Aside from the four elected Commissioners who went to prison, several County sewer division workers also served prison time, as did some of the contractors who paid them bribes. And the title “Commissioner” did not help my case with the jury in my own trial unrelated to my time in public office. ( I am getting closer to telling this story in complete detail) But Mr. Strickland and Mr. Slaughter managed to keep their reputations and finances in tact, despite their significant roles in creating and fostering the sewer scam. Being a local attorney, with money seems to have great benefits in dealing with the U.S. Attorney in Birmingham.
Now Gary White is about to be released as the last public official still in prison because of this unimaginable criminal enterprise. And soon the details of the matter may fade into distant memory and he may regain some semblance of respectability. But for those who struggle monthly to pay a bill for the gold-plated sewer system he and Mr. Slaughter designed to keep money flowing their way and for those like me who had a lifetime of public service with integrity destroyed by a scurrilous, negative campaign and their connections to the publisher of the now defunct Birmingham News, their names will be remembered and never honored.
Both represent the worst of people seeking to prey on the public without regard to who or what they destroy in the process.
At no time in history has the election of a president been as consequential as it is at this moment. With the institutions that underpin our democracy under virulent attack, our planet being eroded by man-induced climate change, global human misery on the increase, and a myriad of other serious problems facing a world that depends on America for leadership and solutions, who we choose in 2020 to lead us is of manifest importance and deserves more than our casual attention as we decide who will get our votes in November of next year.
I’ve given lots of thought to the qualities of the person I want for president; qualities that will allow him or her to cope with our country’s many problems and help create the world I’d like to see. I’ve relied on my life experiences, especially those in elective politics and development of social policies to guide me. Here are some of my thoughts:
First, I want a president who is smarter than I am and I don’t mean just IQ-wise. I want someone who reads and listens and has the ability to assimilate facts and draw reasonable conclusions from which intelligent and justifiable decisions can be made. I want someone who can create action plans to solve complex and difficult problems. They do not need to be a “stable genius”, but must possess intellectual curiosity and mental capacity that encourages them to ask critical questions and challenge ideas and opinions not based on facts. I want them to able to “walk and chew gum” at the same time.
John Kennedy in famous quote about Nobel laureates assembled at the White House said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Jefferson’s type of brilliance only comes along once in a lifetime, or maybe even several lifetimes, but the person I want for president must have at least adequate intellectual skills and accumulated knowledge of world history, science, and political philosophy to be able to cope with the complexity of competing facts in the Information Age that make decision making extremely difficult. Moreover, they must be smart enough to know there are things they do not know but have the ability to discern where to get those answers quickly and easily.
I also want a president whose principles and standards are well defined and congruent with those espoused by most major world religions which are remarkably similar in their tenets. I want someone who values compassion, decency, and morality above greed, self-service, and hedonism. They need to be the type of person we can hold up to our children and grandchildren as role models and leaders who are headed to greatness because they represent the best of the American values that have guided our country through difficult times. Despite the many criticisms of Jimmy Carter’s administration, there cannot be doubt that his intentions were always good as he tried to de-imperialize the presidency and encourage moderation and restraint in the depletion of energy resources. His character also played a major role in achieving significant progress toward peace in the Middle East with the Camp David Accords. Both sides trusted him. And in retirement, his decency and compassion have been on full display in recent years as Atlanta’s Carter Center has helped to eradicate disease and preserve peace in many parts of the world.
A president cannot always control world events. Carter may have been victimized by his own decency when he exercised restraint and limited his options in trying to solve the Iran hostage crisis. And economic conditions which were not the direct result of his policy decisions also played a major role in his political defeat. But whatever may be said about him, he remained a respected world political figure as he rose above his inadequacies and achieved much good for others when he could have retired to Plains and refused further participation in global problem solving. It would be hard to argue that he was untrue to his Christian values as he led his life and that is not a bad thing.
As stupid as it may have sounded at the time, lusting only in his heart seems like no sin at all compared to the amoral behavior of some of our current leaders. I want a leader that can make a commitment to their spouse or partner and keep it. Their sexual preference says nothing about their character. Their sexual behavior, outside of commitment does. People who cheat on their partners are usually liars and dishonest. We need better.
Courage, especially political courage, is often in short supply. It takes courage to take unpopular positions and lead rather than simply react. Anyone can stick their finger in the wind and gage the safe direction into which to move. But it takes courageous leadership to challenge norms and chart untested waters. No one doubted Theodore Roosevelt’s courage when he took on big business. He certainly was not a socialist or against the role of business in America but one of his central beliefs was that the government had the right to regulate big business to protect the welfare of society and he acted accordingly to break up monopolies and encourage competition. It was not easy to take on people who were from his own social class.
That type of courage is rare when it is not an accident of naivete or ignorance. Knowing all the facts and acting against one’s own interests takes a quality that few of today’s politicians possess. But still, I want a president that will “do the right thing” no matter what political costs he or she might have to pay.
I want a leader who is authentic. I want one who knows who they are and feels comfortable in their own skins. They are not trying to prove anything to anyone, other than history, and go about their job with a sense of confidence and humility. They remember who elected them and why they are where they are. They realize full well that they are temporary custodians of the Office and work tirelessly to accomplish as much as they can with each day that God gives them. This means, they do not rationalize how hard their job is with endless vacations and hours on the golf course. They act with moderation in using their free time, realizing how important their work is to so many American citizens who don’t know where their next family’s next meal or rent is coming from, much less where they plan to vacation.
Lastly, I want a president who fully understands how God has blessed them with the opportunity to serve humanity and acts every day with a sense of importance and urgency with the many tasks before them. Certainly, this was true of Eleanor Roosevelt who fully comprehended that she had a unique place of influence in the world not only as an advisor to her husband in many critical days of economic recovery from the Depression and execution of a war, but afterward when she helped write the Universal Declaration of Human Rights while our representative to the U.N.
There is not enough room on this blog to appropriately state in how many ways our current president as failed to meet any standard of competence and decency as he as flailed through the first two years of his disastrous presidency. Replacing him in 2020 should be a moral imperative for every right thinking American. And there are alternatives in both the Republican and Democratic parties. Certain there is no shortage of candidates on the Democratic side with someone for every political persuasion and taste.
As I sift through those we have come to know in recent weeks, I am persuaded that Pete Buttigieg may come closest to meeting the criteria I have outlined as guiding my thinking on who is best to serve the interests of every American into the future. I can only imagine the enormous political courage it took as a gay man to enter public life on a national stage. It was no doubt no less challenging as he served in the military. He clearly knows himself and is comfortable with who he is. His presence in the race is an important milestone in the latest battle for human rights and true equality. He is helping to foil prejudice and move our society forward toward greater equality.
This alone might be sufficient reason to support his cause and candidacy. Moreover, he appears to have a keen intellect and wide range of knowledge along with executive experience, albeit under challenge from some members of the minority community in South Bend. Much of that criticism seems unfair and needs much more detail and context to be fairly evaluated. At this point, it should not disqualify him.
He in apparently a man of faith and has given articulation to the hypocrisy of Republicans claiming to be Christians on so many critical issues where their views and actions are in direct opposition to the teachings of Christ. His answer that people like Pence who have a problem with his sexuality should take it up with his Creator went to the very heart of many issues wrongly interpreted and used as weapons by Republicans in their nasty culture wars.
There is a humility about the mayor which is both attractive and telling. He does not seem to flaunt his intellectual abilities and maintains a quiet and reserved demeanor even while under attack. He has that unflappable quality that Obama seemed to possess. He will need that quality as much as any if he makes it to the White House.
One telling moment in the Democratic debates was when several candidates, Beto, Booker, Castro, and DeBlasio were all overly anxious to demonstrate their Spanish language fluency, interjecting answers to questions in Spanish. But it took the Telemundo reporter greeting Buttigieg in Spanish to prompt him to respond in that language. It’s a minor thing, but when taken with his behavior while under strident attack about the police shooting in South Bend where he admitted that he had failed in getting the job done to better diversify his police department it is significant. He did not make excuses or cite the many factors that may have prevented him from achieving this objective; he simply “owned” responsibility and he did it with class and dignity without pandering. At no time, have I seen him claim intellectual superiority, though a good case might be made for it, given his record of academic achievement. Nor has he claimed spiritual superiority.
There are many more months and challenges before us before we make decisions in this important race. But as I pray about and contemplate the future of our country, I will keep an open mind as to who might best serve a future I may not even be around to see. It is the future for our young that is at stake and must be our foremost consideration.
As it stands today, however, I plan to support Pete Buttigieg and send him a small contribution to encourage him to keep his clear and intelligent voice in the national dialog and debate on equality and other important issues. His candidacy is very important and he is a breath of fresh air at a time where the atmosphere has been poisoned by the putrid toxicity of Trump.
If America ever held moral high ground and the right to lecture other nations on human rights, it lost it with the shameful abuse of children Trump and his mindless supporters have fostered on the southern border. Of all the many indecent, amoral, and obscene things this president has done with impunity in the last two years, these intentional acts of inhumane cruelty are nothing short of diabolical, sadistic, and sick. And any Christian offering lame excuses for this permanent stain on our collective soul should turn in their crosses. It is they I blame for allowing this loathsome spawn of Satan their acceptance and outright support as some kind of imaginary “instrument” of God. They do this in the face of overwhelming evidence, presented every day from the White House, that he is not remotely a servant of a loving and just God.
Reports from several credible, unbiased sources have detailed not just lack of proper sanitation and adequate food for hundreds of school aged children, including toddlers, but intentional acts to inflict physical and emotional pain. Forcing children to sleep on floors, taking away sheets, blankets, and mattresses as punishment, refusing to dim lights during normal sleeping hours making adequate sleep impossible, and denying access to toilets make things like lack of toothbrushes, baths, and changes of diapers and clothing seem almost benign. One source claims that two thirds of the children being held in detention are suffering from the flu and other illness. A doctor there to examine them described children unwilling to play outside when allowed and the listless, flat affect as children seemed hopeless and resigned to accept any fate after weeks separated from parents and caretakers known to them. What is happening to these innocent children, oblivious of the politics of a misguided and incompetent American president is abuse and torture. The United Nations should investigate what is happening here as a prime example of human rights abuses.
Ask yourselves if this would be happening if these children were blond and blue eyed? Would it be happening if their primary language was English? Or if they were not abjectly poor owning nothing but the filthy clothes on their backs? Make no mistake that racism plays a major role in what is happening to these innocent children and in evangelicals’, especially southern ones, ready acceptance of it. The darker their skin color and eyes, the greater propensity to treat them like soulless animals. I’ll bet the dogs owned by those fostering these acts of cruelty get better treatment.
In a recent broadcast, Frances Swaggart stated “that too much had been made about this slavery thing; there were many worse things occurring at the time that did not get all this attention.” The “pastors” sharing her panel nodded in agreement and made no challenge to her vile stupidity; not even the Black minister on the panel. Make no mistake, she is not an outlier, but a prime example of what I see every day on Fox News and in Facebook posts by alleged Christians, including people claiming to be ministers and religious. Just beneath the surface of their sanctimonious, hypocritical platitudes, especially in defense of the unborn, is a layer of values superiority and white supremacy. They know what is best for the rest of the world, the majority of which is non-white and not Christian.
It’s maddening to think that while you and I go about our daily routines and Congress prepares to recess to celebrate freedom during the 4th of July holiday, children are suffering physically and psychologically separated from parents they have not seen in weeks and months. This on top of their having walked unimaginable distances under dire conditions, across dangerous and in hospitable territory to reach a destination they believed and were told would be a safe harbor and place of peace and freedom. And even if our useless Congress acted immediately to provide funds for immediate amelioration of the conditions at border detention camps, “God’s messenger on earth, Archangel Trump” threatens to veto it for his own political purposes which often have no rationale or substance.
So the suffering goes on and on. And while it does, my anger grows, heightened by the feeling of helplessness in the face of madness. Maybe there is a better way to express this anger, but I will not pledge allegiance to the flag, sing the national anthem or fly an American flag, unless it is upside down, until every child is treated with the dignity they deserve as human beings and returned to their families. Flying the flag upside down, is a “signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property”. That about summarizes where we are in America today thanks to Trump and the closet haters who enable and embolden him.
Lord, we pray you will suffer the little children unto you and save them and forgive us our sins against them.
Joe Domnanovich desperately needs our pity. Born with fewer gifts than God gave most of us, he is the type of guy who would evoke the same compassion and sympathy we might have for a homeless derelict, a pathetic drug addict, or someone with a serious mental defect. But because he is a bully who proudly displays his racism, bigotry, and ignorance with zeal and regularity, often targeting those who do not deserve his uninformed judgment or relentless unkindness, it is not something easily given to him.
At Ensley high school they called him Joe “Dumbsonofabitch” and he was apparently often subjected to bullying and derision. A dim-witted lumbering and unattractive guy; his only attribute was that his father had been a football star at the University of Alabama and that alone could carry a normal kid through life with some respect and affinity from most others who worship Alabama football. But Joe’s mean-spirited and slovenly nature make him the kind of jerk you instinctively dislike and always avoid. He has become the bully we all abhor.
But the social relationships that escaped him in his youth were partially fulfilled when he found acceptance as a perennial “seat filler” at Alabama Republican Party events. Part of the farthest right posse of a group of misfits and wannabees, he contributed nothing positive, but could always be counted on to vote with the extreme elements of the Party. For them, the very conservative and principled Emory Folmar, mayor of Montgomery and chairman of the party when I served as its secretary, was too liberal. A gritty plain-spoken leader from a hard scrabble military background, he once told me the only way to deal with Joe and others like him was to call them once a day and tell them “to kiss your ass”. After reading Joe’s most recent comments, especially one in which he attacked a dying man saying he had “stolen” from children, I know exactly what he meant.
Larry Langford never stole a dime from anyone, much less children. And Joe’s comment is as valid as those he makes about climate change being a hoax and Trump being a great leader. It is based in racism and, like in the case of Barrack Obama, the innate resentment that any black man might actually be capable, decent, and effective. Certainly, like all of us, Larry had faults, but his devotion to children and their future is what makes Joe’s comment, not just stupid and wrong, but sinister and almost evil. Someone who has never done anything for anyone, much less children, uses this device to intentionally evoke a negative reaction and outrage that anyone would “steal from” defenseless, needy children. (He also has stated this about me, ignoring my lifetime of work in behalf of children and the facts in my federal case). As far as I know, Joe has never married, has no children and still lives at home with his mother. But he has mindlessly developed a concern for children speaking often against abortion and abhorring those who “steal” from them. The grandson of Croatian immigrants, he has no problems railing against the current immigrants, many just children, seeking asylum. His alleged distress is disingenuine and disgusting.
As Larry lays dying, Joe’s unfounded statement seems particularly cruel and unkind. Hundred of people have refuted it, some with stories of their own that speak volumes about Larry’s character and devotion to kids. In his public life, he did many things that affected the lives of hundreds of children and will benefit thousands more for years to come.
Here are some of them:
As mayor of Fairfield he made education a priority and had the name of the high school changed to Fairfield High Preparatory School to covey to kids that high school was the beginning, not the end of their education and preparation for life. He was a regular visitor there helping to meet the school’s needs in any way he could.
As a Birmingham City Councilman, he supported adequate funding for the arts and the community schools making certain the Museum of Art provided admission and programs for children, especially those from disadvantaged homes. He also supported community concerts to bring the Symphony into poorer neighborhoods and expose children to more than just current popular music.
As Mayor of Birmingham, he personally traveled to MIT to convince the head of the media lab there, the revered and famous Nicholas Negroponte, to make Birmingham the first city in America to provide free laptops to all of their elementary school children. He was intimidated by no one. As a result, every kid in grade school in the city received the XO laptop helping close the technology gap and giving every child the pride of owning their own personal learning machine. Their early exposure to technology will pay dividends in the future that are immeasurable .
As the first black president of the Jefferson County Commission, he miraculously passed a controversial one cent sales tax devoted solely to education. Using this dedicated funding source to float bonds, school systems across the County were able to raise over a billion dollars to repair and update schools and build new ones, some of which, like Oak Grove and Hueytown, are nothing short of spectacular. Taking away substandard facilities, he also took away any extraneous excuse for schools not performing and providing quality education to every student, no matter what their economic circumstance.
He also put in place, a plan to provide free Wi-Fi to children throughout the City of Birmingham and created a charity to refurbish older, unused computers to any child of any age who needed a computer. Save for opposition from Bellsouth, Council President Valerie Abbott sponsor who employs her to protect their political interests, the plan would have been implemented. They did not want competition for a service they sell.
He persuaded community leaders to fund Holy Family High and Elementary Schools raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep these schools open in a time of crisis where they faced shuttering. He and his wife Melva also organized fundraising events to support scholarships to the schools that featured stars like Bo Jackson and Patti LaBelle. Every important visitor to his office was asked without apology to do something for the community.
He often made special requests of business leaders for equipment and other tools to help children. In one case, he persuaded Richard Scrushy, chairman and CEO of HealthSouth who operated a for- profit hospital in Fairfield to donate new laptops to every graduate of Fairfield High to assist kids headed to college and for job searches and preparation. He gave them out at the graduation ceremony while encouraging other children present to study hard, promising them they would also be rewarded at graduation.
He personally created a computer lab in Fairfield and after receiving funding for it from the County Commission, named it in honor of Betty Fine Collins for whom he had no particular love or political compatibility. But he was fair and thought good work should be rewarded and recognized even if he disagreed with you. He would climb any mountain and ignore any slight to achieve good for children.
He organized a city-wide prayer vigil and programs to reduce crime violence in the community and used his position and popularity with young people to speak to them about the scourge of violence sweeping the community, especially black on black crime. He was derided for wearing sack cloth in penance for the sins of the community, but he used his genius with media to draw public attention to the problem and begin a dialog about a solution.
These are just some of the many public things he did. His record is well-documented and speaks for itself. But here are some of the private things I personally observed:
He and Melva sacrificially funded dozens of scholarships for disadvantaged children so they could stay in school at Holy Family and receive a decent education not otherwise available to them. Doing this, often left him broke, but he never complained. He would regularly reach into his own pocket to hand a kid money to encourage them to always do better. Once, while riding with him through Fairfield, he stopped a teenager on the street who seemed like he was loitering and looking for trouble. He handed him a hundred-dollar bill and said, “Could you do me a favor and maybe pick up some of the trash on the sidewalk and call me if you see any kids your age doing things they shouldn’t be doing? Here’s my phone number. Call me if you need anything.” As we drove away, I asked him if he knew that kid. He responded, “No, but I know a lot like him”.
One day a young black man, Simeon Cole, aka Tony, knocked on my door and said, “Larry Langford said to come see you and you’d give me a computer.” I was slightly annoyed but scrambled to find one in the inventory of those I was repairing. I gave him the best I had. I also gave him a large over-sized monitor. His wife carried the CPU as he struggled to carry the huge monitor dropping it on the street. I rushed out and offered to help. “Where’s your car?”, I asked. “We don’t have no car,” he responded. “We’re going to the bus stop.” I wound up giving him a ride to East Thomas and kept up with him for years afterward sometime meeting him and his wife at Applebee’s in Five Points for lunch to teach him how to use a laptop I later gave him. (Rev. John Killian can attest to this fact after running into us on one of these occasions as we huddled at a back table with the machine. The new president of Samford was with him and Tony was impressed that he had gotten to meet two celebrities.) He later used the laptop to start a CD burning business (probably illegal) and do online sales of computer parts and other junk he collected, although he once had to pawn it because he did not have the money to pay his rent and the ridiculous fee his parole officer demanded each month for “monitoring” him. I retrieved it from the pawn shop and we used it to take the GED online after Tony learned he could stop making payments if he passed. I saw next to him in my dining room table as he took the test to make certain he passed.
Larry and I spent lots of time trying to find him a job, but it was not easy. Tony had gone to prison for 10 years when he was only 17 and had never had the opportunity to learn to drive or develop work skills. He also suffered from seizures that prevented him from driving a car, every young man’s dream. I learned this the hard way when I asked him to help me out and drive to a rental place in Ensley so I could pick up a truck to haul some junk. It took me two minutes and the closest thing to a heart attack to realize he could not drive as the car jerked to a stop while crossing into on-coming traffic. He was too embarrassed to tell me he could not drive and insisted with practice he could master it.
On one occasion, I called Jimmy Blake, and told him Tony needed some work and I had run out of things for him to do. I asked if I could drop him off at his house to help rake leaves or do other chores? I would pay Tony but didn’t want to just hand him money without the dignity that comes with earning it. Jimmy complained that he had many valuable things around his house and might not feel comfortable with a convicted criminal roaming around unsupervised. “Jimmy,” I retorted with indignation, “Tony’s not a thief. He only went to prison for attempted murder. So, it will be okay”. This was the type of person from whom Larry had endless compassion, forgiveness, and substantive help.
And Tony Cole is just one of hundreds of young men Larry tried to guide and assist with more than arm-chair lip service. He advocated for programs that helped kids to avoid drugs and I remember well when he was mayor when a father and two of his sons departed his office as I was entering. “What was that about?”, I asked. Larry explained that both kids had a drug problem and their father was desperate to find them help to get clean and jobs. Larry had agreed to hire them both in the Streets and Sanitation Department but told them they would be regularly drug tested and if they failed, they would be fired. Months later, I asked how they were doing. One was thriving and had been promoted. The other brother failed one of his regular test and Larry ordered him fired.
He also helped launch many minority businesses and mentored any young person seeking his advice or help. Some of those he advised, went on to political careers and should tell their own stories of how he helped them when no one else would. He wanted everyone to succeed and was ahead of his time when he named a female police chief in Fairfield and broke ground in many other ways. He treated everyone, rich and poor, black or white, young or old, powerful or powerless with the same respect and a familiarity that made you think you alone were his best friend.
I am not alone in my assessment of Larry and his good works done in private. Here is just one of many stories about Larry that are being shared as news of his pending death has emerged, this one from Tricia Miller on Facebook:
“I’d like to tell you a little story about Larry when I knew him. We worked together back in the 80’s for a company and Larry was always our top rep, charismatic, stylish, smart, savvy and smooth. He also had a generous compassionate side and he coached kids baseball teams. One summer we kept getting these prank calls in the office daily from these 2 young boys who were home alone while their mom worked. At first it was a little annoying and then it became amusing once my boss and Larry got involved. They started talking to the kids every day, making them call and check in at the office to make sure they were okay, making friends and gradually finding out their situation, talking to their mom to try to arrange getting the boys on a baseball team, she couldn’t afford it so they paid for the kids uniforms and fees and Larry arranged transportation to get them there for practice. This is only one of the many, many times I had seen Larry go out of his way for total strangers. He would talk to me about all the things he saw with the city’s youth not having enough programs and there were so many changes he wanted to make and he was sincere and passionate about it. At this time he had just started running for city council. He genuinely wanted to make a change. That’s the Larry I knew and choose to remember. I believe his heart was in the right place.
Yes, his heart was always in the right place, but I would often cringe when the phone rang, and I saw he was calling because, nine times out of ten, he was calling to give me an assignment to help someone. It always started the same way: “He bro, can you do me a favor?” Then he would tell me of someone who wanted to get into Harvard, needed mentoring before a job interview, needed help writing a grant application or just a ride somewhere a bus could not go. The list and variety of requests was endless. Hours later, I would be covered with work, asking myself why I was doing this. Simply put, it was hard to say no, not because he was important and famous in our community, but because he really cared about these people and knew he alone could not help them without the aid of his friends like me who was privileged to be “like a brother”, in his words, for almost 45 years. We shared many laughs and good times along with some very challenging ones. But life around Larry was never dull or depressing, even without the advantage of alcohol which he refused to even taste!
And I cannot tell you how many Bible lessons and sermons I unwillingly endured along the way. Few people knew the Bible better than Larry. (He would test me after Bible study to make certain I had paid attention). He created a special room in his home where he would engage in hours of daily Bible study surrounded by hundreds of Bibles he had collected over many years. These were the few he had not given away like many other things he would share if he thought it met a need. It was frustrating to me, and likely many others, that something I had given him got passed on to someone else, sometimes strangers in need, on a regular basis. He did not care about things as much as he cared about people, despite what some may say.
Sometimes, his desire to help got me in trouble and caused some hardships. But as I reflect, I would have done it all again for the satisfaction that someone’s life became better and some kid got an opportunity they might not otherwise have had.
Larry Langford was a blessing to many. And he will be blessed in the next life. His sins will be forgiven and his salvation assured. And the memory of his crimes will fade as the glory of what he did for others outshines the mistakes he made in life. But still there will always be those, like Joe Domnanovich who will bitch and moan with continuous sanctimonious whining as they come to realize more and more that they will never be what Larry was; a good and decent person, certainly not without flaws or sinless, but who did not judge others or throw stones while hiding his hand and who lived a genuine life of real service to others.
But I am convinced that not a mountain of facts, myriad stories of Larry’s amazing accomplishments and good works, or Jesus Himself appearing to set the record straight will convince grumpy old, sexually frustrated white men like Joe to lower their rhetoric and display some Christian charity as Larry passes into the next life.
As much as I hate to admit it, Emory was right. So, Joe Dumsonofabitch, “Kiss my ass” as you sit in your small world of which I want no part. Oddly, I now feel better.
In America, you have the right to believe what you believe and worship however your conscience dictates. But by a long shot, you do not have the right to blur the lines of your religious beliefs with your regressive political views and impose them, against our will, on the rest of us. Somehow, this simple message has been lost in current times as we have ceded moral authority, and increasingly, our political freedom to a group of right-wing, self-proclaimed “evangelicals”, hell-bent on creating the closest thing they can to an autocratic theocracy in America based on their grotesquely distorted Christian theology; one that bears no resemblance to the actual teachings of Christ. If they cannot persuade you on how you should think, they will coerce you through political force to act like they want you to act.
Not certain exactly how it happened, but even Billy Graham warned us against it.
Today, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to publicly stand up against the mob of sanctimonious and vocal moralists who currently dominate American political discussion. Certainly, politicians can’t be depended upon to renounce much of the ignorance and intolerance they are spreading. They fear the ballot box consequences, real and imagined, should the Right get fully energized and mobilized. But clear thinking and rational people of faith have a moral obligation, if not a Biblical command, to stand against the false gods they are creating and support those who will expose the “religious right” as neither religious. nor right on the moral issues of our day.
It’s not hard to find these right-wing regressives. They find us as they attempt to shape our laws and impact our daily lives with their flawed judgments and attempts to turn back the clock to a time that is purely a figment of their imaginations. They are best described as flat-earthers and regressives, people who reject facts, even scientific ones and experience as they substitute uneducated opinion for the truth about near everything. Yes, the earth is warming due to human activity. No, Robert E. Lee and others who led 600,000 men to their deaths were not heroes; no, the issue was not states rights, it was slavery; and no, the promotion of greed, inequality and prejudice is not an American value to be preserved and worshiped. Segregation was not a sustainable social order and no, people do not want the government controlling every aspect of their lives, including their reproductive rights.
There is a sort of collective schizophrenia from which they seem to suffer that allows them to ignore the teachings of Christ that do not conform to their political ideology while embracing a modified version of whatever suits their purposes. Imagine American political discourse if abortion and the right to bear arms were not part of it. Despite the fact that there is no part of the Judeo-Christian ethic that supports killing for any reason, evangelicals and the Christian right persists in their support for the death penalty and the war of the month, while decrying the murder of the unborn. Whenever, a Christian claims to be “pro-life”, ask them how they feel about the death penalty. I’ll give you a dollar for everyone you find that is consistently “pro-life”. Simply stated: they may be against abortion, as is every decent person on the planet, but they are decidedly not “pro-life’. They raise no objections to the deaths of dozens annually at the hands of the State; they oppose no American involvement in wars that kill thousands of innocent people each year; they condone, through their silence, the holding of children in cages, separated from their parents as punishment for their trying to enter our country on which white evangelicals think white people alone have a proprietary right. Moreover, while decrying abortion, sex education, and even contraception, they oppose any state supported programs, including those like Head Start, which might provide a basic level of support for unwanted children and give them a chance at equality and equal opportunity. They bury their heads in sands of a theoretical love of the unborn and denial while real children with real problems suffer.
I know these people. My maternal grandmother was a fundamentalist who often dragged me to Sunday and Wednesday services, camp meetings, “dinner on the grounds”, and any other event possible at a small and lively Church of God somewhere in rural Jefferson County, Alabama. It was the only part of my regular visits with her I hated. I loved my doting grandmother and the devoted attention she always showered upon me. But I hated going to church even though it seemed like every woman there delighted in complimenting Bessie, my grandmother, on my cute and angelic looks, neat attire, and impeccable manners for which she took complete credit.
Yes, the preaching seemed like complete gibberish even to my unsophisticated juvenile mind, but it was the passing of the collection plate that perplexed me the most. It seemed to be the focus of every service and I haplessly watched as my grandmother regularly and dutifully pulled paper money from her black nylon change purse with the snap closure or discretely unpinned a larger bill from the lining of her modest slip to devotedly place it in the collection plate. Of course, she always handed me a dollar to do likewise, hoping that in the way the tree was bent, it would grow. Looking back, I realize that church was for her a major form of entertainment, like going to the movies except that it was much more expensive and required endless interaction. Unlike the movies, church provided her with a connection to the community where gossip and “fellowship” took as much of a center stage as did the worship service. So you got to know your neighbors and their faults, some of them salacious, while also serving the command of a perfect God to worship Him. It was a win-win.
The services varied very little. An over-caffeinated and wildly animated preacher with more Vitalis than should have been there in his long duck-tailed hair, would harangue the small flock of mostly women and children, as he panted in a breathless, rhythmic cadence exhorting the crowd to follow Jesus and, of course, give money. He would often use humor to tease the women as they giggled with appropriate demure; some frantically fanning themselves with paper fans supplied by a local funeral home. Every service ended with an altar call. I always felt strangely uncomfortable resisting the need to please my grandmother by hopping up to the front of the church while sappy organ music played off-key and a rag-tag choir sang “Just As I Am” with the congregation often with tears in their eyes, joined in. I sat as still as I could but could sense her disappointment as she silently prayed for some miracle salvation for me. She wanted me to be a preacher when I grew up, and early salvation was a prerequisite. But truth be known, I was less than ten years old and hadn’t yet discovered or accumulated enough sins to warrant being protected from eternal hellfire. On the way home, I would placate her by asking for more prayer as I contemplated accepting the Holy Spirit and maybe even speaking in tongues on some future occasion. She was certain that day would come.
The preacher would stand at the door and greet everyone by name as they left. He seemed especially effusive with “Sister” Alexander, my grandmother, probably because she was faithful in her attendance and in her giving. There also seemed to be some flirting going on as grandma was widowed, still reasonably attractive and available. Of course, with her hair in a bun, no make-up and a very modest dress with a hemline always well below her knees, it was unlikely that anything untoward would happen. Years later, when grandma was on her third husband, being twice widowed, things loosened up and she would often wear light lipstick and a little face powder. But despite outward appearances of “back-sliding”, she never abandoned her fundamentalist beliefs and I think she did these things just to satisfy her last husband who did not put much stock in the church she attended and was well-traveled and more sophisticated than the first two.
My grandmother never gave up on her hope for my salvation. She was in fact, unrelenting. Once she took me to an Oral Roberts tent crusade as I sat there mesmerized hoping to see some authentic and heart-stopping miracle. Didn’t ever see one thought there were loud claims that many hidden illnesses were being cured, cancer most notable among them. Of course, with or without miracles, the ubiquitous collection plate was passed at least twice. Later, when I saw his crusades on black and white television, it didn’t seem quite as exciting as the real thing with the colorful and continuous shuffle of hundreds of people clapping, jumping to their feet, shouting praise, and fumbling for their wallets and purses to meet the call to tithe for the Lord’s work being uniquely done by Brother Roberts. He allegedly was healing the sick and “saving” sinners by the thousands with a dramatic flair often copied by never replicated. It was mesmerizing and at least as good as Soupy Sales or Gene Autry for pure entertainment value. I really wanted to believe in him and also really believed Gene when he sang “Here Comes Santa Claus” , imagining that the rabbit would be coming down the bunny trail at any minute. Oh wait, got that wrong. I get my fables confused sometimes.
Years later, I took a friend of mine and his little girl to an Ernest Angley crusade at Boutwell auditorium in Birmingham. Can’t remember what prompted me to do this; perhaps I was still seeking to be saved or simply bored. Rev. Angley hardly made sense as he rambled on and on with no discernible message, reading random Bible verses in a way that made the whole sermon incoherent. But the experience provided me with great insight into crowd control and manipulation which is the basis for so much of what we see today in fundamentalist Christian “services”. After exhorting the crowd for an hour about the need to support the missions in Africa and other heathen places and his ministry that was serving them and the entire world, the reverend asked how many in the crowd would be willing to give a thousand dollars or more to help him “win the lost”. He asked those who would give at least a thousand dollars to accomplish this to raise their hands. A very few went up in the huge crowd of people, most obviously not wealthy. Over and over again, exhorting them to pledge in the name of Jesus, he asked the same question dropping the amount to $500; then $100; then $50; then $25; then $1 until every hand was raised.
Then he repeated the entire process again, passionately and tearfully pleading for God’s people to help him “win the lost at any cost”. This time, however, he asked the people to stand as a sign of their commitment. As people stood, others squirmed in their seats from the peer pressure as people all around them popped out of their seats with hands raised in enthusiastic fervor. Those who remained seated were no doubt praying from him to call an amount they could actually afford so they could take the pressure off and stand up. Eventually, as he reached a lowly dollar “love offering” level, everyone in the crowded auditorium was standing; everyone, except me and a couple of folks in wheelchairs. I had decided two hours earlier not to give as much as a nickel to this obvious fraud and charlatan. But Lisa, Dr. Paul Houston’s little girl who was maybe four at the time, had stood somewhere around a hundred and Paul, in the spirit of things, stood at $10. He looked over at me crouched in my seat and quietly commented that I ought to pledge something since “there were few things worse than being beaten to death by a Bible with a zipper in it”. I took the chance and stayed seated, but it was awkward and very uncomfortable to be sure.
As soon as everyone was on their feet, Ernest gave the signal and a group of “urshers” with emphasis on the “r”, rushed upon the crowd with buckets with crosses painted on them to collect their pledges made before God and the assembled crowd of witnesses. Pigeons after popcorn could not have done a more thorough job of cleaning out the pockets of the faithful. Of course, it’s a little more sophisticated today but the principle is the same with peer pressure to give until it hurts to promote the work of Jesus. Jimmy Swaggart, Benny Hinn, Paula White, Joyce Meyer, etc.; all the same with the possible exception of the new twist of inserting the “prosperity gospel” where the faithful give with the expectation of getting lots more back after they “sow their seed”. In a service in Birmingham supported by a prominent businessman whose name I won’t mention, the infamous Rev. Myles Munroe delivered the main harangue while a group of self-ordained assistant ministers and deacons primed the pump by each waving a hundred-dollar bill as the most acceptable offering for the evening, encouraging others to follow suit and dig deep to give at least the same. A lady near me, swooned from the excitement of the moment and paramedics had to be called to revive her. I remember them carrying her out on a stretcher with her wig that had become dislodged cradled in her lap. I think she survived and I remember thinking at the time how great her timing was as she had avoided being peer pressured into giving a hundred dollars to this carnival show. Thousands of dollars left town that evening with Brother Myles and I shudder to think what those buckets at the Angley crusade produced. For some reason, Birmingham is an easy mark for con men.
If you’re not able to attend a crusade personally, but want proof of the scams still being run on a gulled faithful, tune into the ION channel any morning at 4 am to watch one of the same four infomercials that have run for the last five years by Inspiration Ministries to teach you about “planting your seed to grow a harvest”. There is no more disgusting group of alleged evangelicals on earth than this group of greedy, greasy, scam artists headed by Mike Murdock and David Cerullo whose father Morris was his mentor and another really creepy fraud. As part of my civic duty, I send off every year for the annual report of the ministry and they send it since it appears to have no negative consequences for their scam. They collect on average about a hundred million a year and spend virtually nothing on programs of any type. Most of their expenses are for the exorbitant salaries of Cerullo and all his family members who perform questionable functions at the “ministry” and for airing the infomercials. Occasionally Rev. Cerullo and his semi-literate wife will take a trip to the Holy Land to give credibility to their message that they are somehow legitimately connected to the Bible and Jesus. Say what you might about him, but at least Jimmy Swaggart and his ministry give out a few bibles and run a seminary of sorts with some of the millions he collects. He is also a very talented guy and the music in every one of his programs might win a Grammy if there were a category for religious pop music, interspersed with crying real tears and quivering lower lips. The music is definitely worth the cost of an occasional donation. Of course, your dollar may also go for prostitutes but that’s another story. We all know, “he has sinned”.
If it were not for the increasingly political nature of his broadcasts, especially the program called Frances and Friends hosted by his long-suffering wife, there might actually be merit in tuning in. But lately, they are off the deep end railing against Democrats, climate change and explaining how God actually intervened in the 2016 presidential election to give us someone anointed to lead our Country. How they know this for certain is beyond me, but apparently God regularly speaks to Jimmy about various political matters.
It was PTL, Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, and Jerry Falwell that paved the road for the current group of televangelist that regularly bilk the believers. But those who are the public face of Christianity today have taken greed and excess to a new high or low, depending on your perspective. I’m sure there are some who really intend good, but they have wrapped themselves in hedonism and theologically deficient rhetoric that almost defies imagination. I personally like watching Joel Osteen who is a lot more palatable than his father was in much the same way as Robert Junior is a lot more hip than was his dad, Robert Shuller, the elder. I usually play a game during the televised service with thousands in attendance at the converted sports stadium in Houston, of course. ( Texas breeds evangelicals). I put a dollar in a jar for every time Joel mentions the name Jesus in his pop psychology group therapy sessions. So far, I haven’t collected enough to buy one of his CDs or books. But I’m still hopeful.
As I have mentioned in a previous piece, I converted to Catholicism when I was in the fifth grade. My dear grandmother was apoplectic advising me not to take communion and to avoid the wine at any cost. She thought it was poison or at least some drug designed to soften my brain and keep me enslaved to this pagan religion. I can only imagine what she would have done if she had known at the time, I was being exposed to the company of possible pedophiles. Of course she was not alone in her fear and loathing of the Catholic Church. Just yesterday, Jimmy Swaggart posted a long list of CDs that are essential to have by any self-respecting Christian. The list includes “The Truth about Mormonism”; the Truth about Islam”: “The Truth about Seventh Day Adventists”; “The Truth about Catholics”, etc. I really don’t need to watch them to make a reasonable guess about their content and the message I’m to receive. But I am tempted. I love a bargain and while each of the shows is retailing for $30, Jimmy is willing to part with them for $10 a piece. I can have the whole collection of diatribes for a mere $120. It’s an almost irresistible opportunity to educate myself.
I once had a date of sorts with Tammy Faye Bakker. She was perhaps the quintessential prototypical televangelist. Although not born in the South, she found fertile ground in South Carolina for her ministry of music and mindless fundamentalism teaming with her unfaithful husband Jim Bakker to found PTL, or Praise the Lord Ministries. We all know their history and how badly this ended for everyone so it need not be repeated here. However, she was, in my opinion a victim of a culture that feeds off ignorance and raw emotion and she was the master of conjuring that emotion often self-hypnotizing as she got into the moment and shared her deeply held religious beliefs which were basic and theologically flawed in many instances. She was not without redemption, doing many good things after Jim went off to prison. But still, her deep-seated insecurities which she freely expressed made her very vulnerable to the adoration of the crowd and the smug sense of superiority that comes with the knowledge that God is speaking directly to you and giving you some special form of truth not being given to others.
I hope I’m not misunderstood. I believe in God and think in many ways I have had a very blessed life. Our devotion to Him is not misplaced and spirituality is an essential part of our existence. But it’s past time to call out those misguided self-proclaimed evangelical Christians who have hijacked the Bible and Jesus as a vehicle for driving their intolerance and narrow-minded view of the world into our lives and daily political discourse. this is not a “war on Christians” as they would have you believe. It is a war on ignorance, hypocrisy and injustice by those who falsely claim to be followers of Christ while ignoring every essential tenet of his teachings.
As I approach the end of the line at age 71, I sometime think about the afterlife. And I shudder to think about it. The heaven these sanctimonious and semi-literate interpreters of the Word are pushing, is not a place I want to spend eternity. Moreover, the world they want to create is not a place I want to spend this life. They are attempting to create a very real hell on earth for the poor, the dispossessed, and those Jesus came to comfort, not condemn. But as long as Christians who got His message right and are doing their best to heed it, stay silent, they will continue to subvert our faith and our hopes for a truly better world. It’s past time for us to challenge them Amen?