Living the Dream: Birmingham Mayor William Bell

Bell credits the civil rights movement with his rise to the top of a once notoriously racist city.

Posted: 08/23/2013 12:00 AM EDT
Living the dream: William Bell

Being followed in a store, stopped and frisked on the street or hearing locks click as you innocently approach are major indignities. But imagine being denied entry to a store because of your skin color, having to walk an uncomfortable distance to the "Colored Only" restroom or spending a splendid summer's night indoors because the Ku Klux Klan is planning a drive-through in your neighborhood.

Those were everyday realities in the Deep South when William Bell, now mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, was a boy.

It was a period that he describes as both the best and worst of times: Frightening because of all the bombings taking place, most notably the one at the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four little girls, and "exhilarating" because of civil rights leaders like Fred Shuttlesworth, Martin Luther King Jr. and others who encouraged Blacks to believe they shouldn't have to live that way.

Bell's grandmother, whom he describes as "militant" for her day, left Alabama for New York to escape Jim Crow, but would return in the summer. One Thursday afternoon when he was about 13, she took him to the New Pilgrim Baptist Church, where King was the featured speaker.

"I didn't fully understand the racial issues, but to hear him speak with the power and passion that he did and the tone of his voice sent chills down my spine and made the hair stand up on the back of my neck," Bell recalls of the first of many times he would hear the charismatic leader speak.

That night, he became a part of the movement and at the request of his grandmother, was taken under wing by Tommy Wren, a young man in charge of mobilizing students.

Marching was the primary form of youthful protest, and Bell and his friends longed to get arrested for the cause, which to them was a badge of honor.

In April 1963, when King was arrested and held in the Birmingham jail, Bell and other youths marched from New Pilgrim to a park across from the jail where they gathered to pray for King's release.

"Eugene 'Bull' Connor, the infamous police commissioner, came up and we all thought he was getting ready to arrest us," Bell recalls. "He just looked at us, mumbled a few words and then got into his vehicle and left. We were very disappointed."

On Aug. 28 that same year, too young to attend the March on Washington, Bell "glued" himself to the television, watching it unfold on CBS, the only station that would cover the event.

"I remember very vividly watching every minute of it and wishing I was there," he said. "Now I have a chance to commemorate that march as mayor of the city."

It's an opportunity he says would have been impossible if not for the courage of King and other leaders.

"At 13 or 14 during the movement, I never would have dreamed that in my lifetime any African-American would be mayor of this city or president of the United States," said Bell, who was expected to go to college but had no dreams. "One of the depressing effects of segregation is you knew your place and had no aspirations to go beyond that."

Following changes in civil rights laws and the desegregation of educational institutions and workplaces, he was part of a group of Black students who integrated the Catholic John Carroll High School, where he discovered he could compete with the best students, and later attended the University of Alabama in Birmingham, whose doors had previously been closed to him.

"Too often people [equate] Birmingham with the black-and-white footage of dogs and hoses" attacking African-Americans, Bell said. "I am grateful for the opportunity to showcase the city, the changes we've made and how far we've come."

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(Photo: Mark Almond/AL.COM /Landov)

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