Revolution and Redemption in the Magic City

Revolution and Redemption in the Magic City January 16, 2018
16th St Baptist Church - Photo by Sonja Sadovsky
16th St Baptist Church – Photo by Sonja Sadovsky

I took a trip to Birmingham for business, and had the chance to explore the Magic City.  I was born in southern Alabama, though I did not grow up there.  I had time to kill before work, and I was intrigued because this city hums with power and promise.  I admit I knew little about the place, only that it had been the site of the famous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, in which four girls were killed and 22 others injured.  This proved to be a turning point in the Civil Rights movement, and created the conditions for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  I wanted to go there, to the church, to see the place where it happened.  Even though most witches are nature lovers, I am a city girl at heart.  I am drawn to these places of power, where bricks and steel create the ley lines of human industry.  Cities fascinate me, charged with the history of those who live, love, toil, and die there.  Sometimes the most humble places are the most powerful.  It is important to taste these things in person.  To witness and to wonder.

So I went to the Civil Rights Institute.  I went to the church.  I went to the park across the street.  People stayed with their groups, tour leaders shuffled us from one spot to the next.  It was heavy, but from what I overheard, for most of the folks gathered that day it was an academic exercise.  I knew I would need to get off the beaten path, talk to some locals to find out what is going on in BHAM that gives it that strange vibration?  What are the local thoughts about how far the city has come?  Did any of the struggles make a difference?  So I took a detour, and explored Sloss Furnaces, the single remaining blast furnace in the world, preserved as a historical site in 1981.  The mountains of this area are one of the few places where coal, limestone, and iron occur naturally in this region of the country.  This area was once a Native American trading site, like Tampa Bay and Manhattan. All three of these ancient places of commerce continue to function in that capacity in the present day.  Birmingham grew up post-Civil War around the furnace.  Lebanese, Italian, and Irish immigrants along with Black and White folks from the area came to this company town to work in the mines and furnaces.  Conditions were harsh, but the money was steady, and Birmingham became a center of steel and finance in the South.  It was here that I understood that the racial tensions that predated the Civil Rights movement in this town were rooted in economic inequality.  This is the thing that is so often spoken of, but seldom understood when we speak to these issues.  It is easy to see the injustice, so challenging to get the context for why it happens.  In my experience, intolerance springs from a fight over resources/jobs/housing/commodities.  The hatred is a symptom, but not the cause. Hatred is taught to the young, it is a contagion that spreads.  But the root of it, from what I have gathered, always comes back to scarcity and lack of agency in creating new options.

Sloss Furnace - photo by Sonja Sadovsky
Sloss Furnace – photo by Sonja Sadovsky

So my head was filled with these thoughts as I wandered around town.  I wondered what the residents think of this bloody legacy, where is the city now, and where is it going?  Why does this place taste like this?  I have felt this energy in several spots around the world.  Once, in an amphitheater in Taormina, I was looking out over the island in the rain and it seemed as if my whole body was humming.  The energy is, imperial, for lack of a better term.  Turns out there is a shrine to Vulcan in the middle of the city, the largest cast iron statue in the world.  The god of fire, metalwork, and the forge.  The statue was an entry for the 1904 World’s Fair, and I can attest that it is inspiring.  I went to the top of the statue after dark, with the wind howling around the tower, looking out on the lights of the valley laid out below and it felt electric.  Not like a civic statue commemorating history, but an actual holy site, blessed and hot.  It was invigorating, especially after I read the the dedication at the foot of the tower:

Armored by links of steel on Red Mountain’s Iron Vein; Our Vulcan views a city spread over hills and plain; Built like this tower, by Men whose work and skill; And Birmingham’s best nerve, that helped them to fulfill; The prophecy he made in Nineteen Hundred Four; Our population grown since then to even ten times more; Who plead for Art and Science new victories to reveal; And built a greater city with the onward March of Steel. (JH Adams)

Vulcan - photo by Sonja Sadovsky
Vulcan – photo by Sonja Sadovsky

This encounter boosted my spirits after all of my brooding.  Perhaps the Magic City is full of unrealized potential.  A few days later, I was able to again bug out of corporate world, and started chatting up my driver as we made our way downtown.  We started talking politics, and he confided that in his opinion Birmingham is not totally integrated, that folks are friendly but they stay mostly in separate space.  He said he was saddened by the reputation of “Bombingham” and that the city had so much more to offer the world than a legacy of violence.  The dream may not be here today, but it is on the road there, in his opinion. I thought about these things as I arrived at Books, Beans, and Candles, the only occult bookstore in town.  Actually, one of only two occult bookstores in the entire state of Alabama.  A feeling of peace pervaded the place, and I got the grand tour as I had been in contact with Mitchell (the owner) for a few days.  Tuesday is Witchcraft 101 night and the store was packed.  Must have been at least 20 or so people there, and when class let out it became apparent that at least in this little corner of town, progress is being made.  I have never seen such a diverse group of Pagans turn up in one spot for the same topic.  Asians, Black, White, older, Moms who bring their kids, and a drag queen (showed me a picture all dolled up) all came by to say hi to me, have a cup of coffee, and chat.  Bar tenders, cooks, occupational therapists, all kinds of folks sharing stories and laughter in pursuit of the Science and Art of Magic.  Prophecy fulfilled.  I couldn’t stop smiling.

Books, Beans, and Candles crew - photo by Sonja Sadovsky
Books, Beans, and Candles crew – photo by Sonja Sadovsky

The thing I learned in Birmingham is that we have the potential to harness the the power of our collective history, and to transmute it into something better.  We cannot avoid the terrible truths of our past, what we can do is work to integrate our experience.  Sublimate the negative.  Progress towards the positive.  It is so easy to find examples of hatred and injustice.  We cannot ignore these things, but we can and must look for those pockets of progress and healing if we wish to create more of that in this world.  It’s out there, it’s in us.  Just have to keep looking until we find it.  Or create it when we don’t.  This was the message I received from my journey that I pass on to you.  We can do it.  Just need to get to it.

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