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Birmingham — Proudly Falling Behind Selma

The majority of the Birmingham City Council today voted down an inclusion resolution introduced by Councilor Valerie Abbott.  I expected some nasty rhetoric, but I’m shocked that the resolution didn’t pass.  It was clear that the NO votes were prompted by the fact that the resolution condemned discrimination based on race, age, ancestry, creed, religion, gender, income, disability, national origin, and — God forbid — sexual orientation and gender identity.  A copy of the proposed resolution is here.

Mind you, this resolution has been adopted by Aliceville, Talladega, Valley, and Selma.  John Archibald of the Birmingham News, not exactly a liberal rag, wrote a column supporting it.  But that meant nothing to Councilors Joel Montgomery and Roderick Royal, who whispered, snickered behind their hands, and rolled their eyes like a couple of thirteen year old boys throughout the presentation — nor to Councilor Miriam Witherspoon, who appears determined to make any fight against discrimination about racism only.

A lot more is after the flip…Montgomery was open in his disdain and very disrespectful toward Valerie Abbott, who is supposed to be his colleague.  Witherspoon appeared furious that gay people and their allies would dare ask for inclusion, although she couched her objections around the idea that resolutions don’t change anything.  Really, Ms. Witherspoon?  What about the Birmingham Pledge?

And why am I not surprised to see that Joel Montgomery was the only City Council member to vote against a 2002 resolution that condemned Roy Moore’s hateful anti-gay language in a child custody ruling?

The resolution, offered by Councilwoman Valerie Abbott states that Moore’s declaration that a group of human beings are “inherently evil” violates the spirit of the Birmingham Pledge. It expresses “strong disapproval” of Moore’s writings and urges legislators to change state laws that “perpetuate such intolerance.”

The council supported the resolution 7-1 at a committee meeting Thursday. Joel Montgomery voted against it and Carol Reynolds was not present for the vote. Montgomery said the resolution was a political document, not a legislative one and he therefore could not support it.

Ms. Witherspoon is correct that resolutions alone don’t change hearts.  They do, however, bring public attention to issues like discrimination.  Somewhere along the way, public officials across this nation decided to speak out against racism.  Change didn’t come immediately, and racism hasn’t completely disappeared, but even in Birmingham, we’ve come far enough to have a majority-black City Council and a black mayor.

Here are the vote totals:  Abbott, Duncan-Reynolds, and Smitherman voted YES.  Hoyt, Montgomery, Royal, and Witherspoon voted NO. Parker ABSTAINED.  Bell was absent due to illness.

Rep. Patricia Todd (D-Birmingham) spoke in support of the resolution, and she was clearly disappointed with the outcome.

…I happen to be gay and be an elected representative; I’m not the “gay representative”.  There have been many other people who have served our fine city who have been gay  but didn’t feel welcome enough to be open about it.  And I think this vote today demonstrates they have good reason not to be open about that.

…I’m angry; I’m frustrated that we still have to have this conversation and that something that should have been a no-brainer turned out to be controversial.  But we clearly know now who’s with us and who’s against us.

Rev. J. R. Finney, who asked me to point out that he is a black clergyperson, had this exchange with a local reporter:

Rev. Finney:  …in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2007, African-American City Council people voted against inclusion.  That’s devastating…That verdict was carried by African-American City Council people voting against inclusion in the city of Birmingham.  That’s devastating.

Reporter:  Not just African-American Councilors; white counselors voted against it as well.

Rev. Finney:  Well, only one white Councilor [Montgomery] voted against it.  His vote would not have counted for much if our African-American Councilors had voted for inclusion.

Reporter:  In the Bible Belt, though, is this that shocking?

Rev. Finney:  Yes!

Reporter:  Why?

Rev. Finney:  Because if anybody should know about the value of inclusion, it should be African-Americans.  They’re the ones who have been left out so often on the issue of racism, and yet they have made it, by getting elected, and then they turn around and vote against inclusion?  That’s ludicrous…It doesn’t make a difference whether you’re in the Bible Belt or not.  Inclusion means inclusion.”

Preach it, Brother Finney!

In a response to a reporter’s question about Montgomery’s accusation that the resolution was just “political rhetoric” (the reporter implied this was a reference to Ms. Abbott’s possible run for Mayor, but it seems to be a theme with Montgomery when he doesn’t want to come right out with the homophobia — see above), Valerie Abbott replied:

People are going to say what they feel like saying.  These people were all elected to represent the people in their district; unfortunately sometimes elected representatives forget about those people whom they’re representing, and they end up voicing their own personal opinions.  In this case, that may be what was happening….in that resolution that we would not discriminate against people for, certainly sexual orientation was one of probably twelve different items, including age, income, race — you know there were so many other things on that list, but we have people who focus like a laser beam on one issue and decided to vote this resolution down because of what I perceive to be a single issue…I thought it [the resolution] would be a great idea for Birmingham.  I was wrong.  I was wrong about Birmingam.  I was wrong about Birmingham’s elected officials.

My friend Howard Bayless, who has done an amazing job as Board Chair for Equality Alabama, was asked what he thought of the vote.  His response broke my heart, but it also buoyed my spirit to know that he won’t give up.

I have lived in Birmingham most of my life, went to school here, and always never really felt part of the community, and even more so today.  Today I’m really hurt and upset that my government, my City Council, the people I voted into office, do not want me here…I basically need to pack my bags and go…I do not have any faith in this City Council any longer.  I will work very hard in the upcoming elections to make sure that we elect more fair-minded leaders.

Go for it, Howard.  You won’t be alone.  Equality is not a limited commodity.  Working toward inclusion of gay people does not take away the amazing progress made by people of color over the past few decades in the US and elsewhere.  We are all human beings, and we need to start acting like it.

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A little tidbit for follow-up:  a friend of mine thought he saw Joe Reed on the front row, exchanging eye rolls with Roderick Royal and Joel Montgomery.  I doubt Joe has forgiven Patricia Todd for winning a seat that he thinks should be black-only and for overcoming an election challenge that he orchestrated (see my posts on the District 54 race here).  I’m going to check with some other people who attended and see if I can confirm this.  Nope, he wasn’t there.  Thanks, Kyle.

Also, I recorded some of the follow-up commentary, and Zach and I will try to put together a podcast later today.

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