Monday, October 19, 2009

Civil Rights on Main Street

I went to Raleigh, NC, a while back, and to Birmingham last week. The two cities have this in common: they have a black Main Street parallel to the white Main Street. In decades past these were flourishing streets, home to an array of businesses and cultural institutions. Much of the strength has drained away, as commerce has shifted to other sites. But the streets remain a vital part of the history, including the history of the struggle for civil rights. My visit to Birmingham was led by two veterans of the civil rights movement there. As young people, they had faced the fire hoses and been to jail. They remembered the police coming down black Main Street and every spot in the days of confrontation. "We were having a ball," remembered one. His sister had more somber reflections. She pointed to a photograph of one of the girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church and said, "That was my best friend." The others who died were also part of her world, and the seriousness of her experience weighed in her voice. The struggle to undo segregation was essential for survival, and it meant that the side-by-side Main Streets would face a new future. Desegregating the lunch counters, the movie theaters, and the clothes stores eliminated the need for redundancy which fell hardest on the black side. But that it did was a failure of the commercial sector -- the Chamber of Commerce and City Hall -- to envision how to reorganize and repurpose existing stores and experienced business people. This is a sad pattern in our nation's economy. White Main Street faced a similar crisis when malls drew commerce from downtowns. The current downsizing is revisiting that problem, albeit that China is taking over, not white Main Street. How does that which is redundant by one yardstick come to have new usefulness by another? This is a fundamental question that we should ask and answer throughout our nation.

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