The Birmingham Pledge turns 15

It has been 15 years since a Birmingham attorney named James E. Rotch authored the Birmingham Pledge and offered it to the attendees of a Martin Luther King, Jr. Unity Breakfast in Birmingham. His personal statement of commitment to end prejudice has now been signed by more than 115,000 people, including Desmond Tutu and Bill and Hillary Clinton.

“What happened then was that a small group of citizens of Birmingham set out to eliminate racism from the world, one person at a time,” Rotch explains. He describes his words as a “focal point for bringing about discussion.”
These are the words he wrote:

The Birmingham Pledge
I believe that every person has worth as an individual.
I believe that every person is entitled to dignity and respect, regardless of race or color.
I believe that every thought and every act of racial prejudice is harmful; if it is my thought or act, then it is harmful to me as well as to others.
Therefore, from this day forward I will strive daily to eliminate racial prejudice from my thoughts and actions.
I will discourage racial prejudice by others at every opportunity.
I will treat all people with dignity and respect; and I will strive daily to honor this pledge, knowing that the world will be a better place because of my effort.

The language of the pledge is simple. It is not filled with superlatives or soaring rhetoric, though it is reminiscent of a statement of faith (the repetition of “I believe,” specifically, is similar to the traditional Nicene Creed). The repetition of “I will strive daily” is a reminder that stomping out prejudice requires a daily commitment. But the pledge makes only a few simple assumptions: that prejudice exists, that eliminating prejudice is necessary and that doing so requires effort.

“We’ve had 10 years to accomplish our goal, and we haven’t accomplished it because unfortunately racism still exists today,” Rotch says. “It exists in a different form than it did in the ‘50s and ‘60s when we had people in the streets standing up for their rights, but it still exists.

“As an example you can look at Anniston, what happened in their mayoral race,” Rotch says, referring to newly elected Anniston Mayor Gene Robinson, who admitted that he paid to get Anniston blacks to go to the polls for him. “And clearly, it’s an undercurrent — that’s probably not the right word, it’s a current — in the presidential race. It’s being talked about in very, very, very, careful terms.

“We’re going to keep on pursuing our mission until it doesn’t exist anywhere.”
One person that has helped Rotch in his mission is Carolyn McKinstry, a local minister, a board member of the Birmingham Pledge Foundation and the President of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Foundation.

“The first time that I read the pledge, I thought it was one of the most wonderful documents that I’d ever seen,” she says. McKinstry has a special appreciation for the Birmingham Pledge, as she is a survivor of the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing.

“I lived through what we sometimes call ‘the dark days of Birmingham,’” McKinstry says. She found that the pledge’s emphasis on a daily effort fit easily into her ministry, which focuses on reconciliation.

“The Birmingham Pledge, I think, represents where we could be,” McKinstry says. “Birmingham has come a long way since the ‘60s, but it certainly still has work to do. I think all cities would agree that there’s always a way to improve what they have. I think that the pledge is one of the best expressions of how we can arrive at our destination.”

People from other parts of the United States — and even around the world —might be surprised that this pledge would originate in Birmingham. The images of the four girls killed at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, or Eugene “Bull” Connor and his dogs and fire hoses are strong ones — all too often, they are the images most associated with Birmingham and the Civil Rights Movement. But McKinstry thinks the pledge can change that image.

“People of the United States look to the city of Birmingham so much in the way of leadership,” she says. “They know Birmingham has arisen from kind of a city of darkness now to a city of light. When they come [to Birmingham], they want to hear the story, they want to know how we’re getting along. One of the things we say to them is that every day we make a conscious effort, every day we consciously remind ourselves of the Birmingham Pledge.

“I think it is a document worth carrying all over the world,” McKinstry says.
McKinstry is called upon frequently to address civic groups throughout the state and around the nation, and she brings the pledge with her, as part of her message, wherever she goes. Due to her efforts and those of others, including Rotch and Pledge Foundation board member Wade Black, the Birmingham Pledge has spread far and wide. Black says that schools or civic groups in all 50 states and dozens of countries have used the Birmingham Pledge in their curricula or meetings. The annual Birmingham Pledge Teen Summit draws students from 40 area high schools every year (the ninth annual summit begins Monday, Sept. 15).

The image broadcasted to the thousands of pledge signees throughout the world is of a city that acknowledges its history and is committed to learning its lessons. Even when that image is paired with those from the civil rights protests of the early 1960s, it suggests healing, and a step forward for our Magic City.
The Birmingham Pledge was placed in the national spotlight in January 2000, when Congress passed a joint resolution recognizing the Birmingham Pledge, which President Bill Clinton signed into law. President George W. Bush followed up on that initial recognition when he declared National Birmingham Pledge Week. Unfortunately, that proclamation was filed with the Office of the Federal Register at 9:02 am on September 11, 2001. The first National Birmingham Pledge Week was understandably lost amongst orders to put flags at half-mast, declarations of a national emergency and a national day of prayer (there have since been other Birmingham Pledge weeks).

Interestingly, Bush’s proclamation of National Birmingham Pledge Week contained many words and phrases that our nation would hear often in the months and years following 9/11. The document called for a “continued vigilance” against hatred (which is echoed twice in the text of the pledge itself, “I will strive daily…”) and recognized the way we can unite despite the “different religions, cultures, ethnic groups, and backgrounds” of our citizenry. And Bush’s proclamation recollected one of our “darkest days,” – in September, no less – when four girls were killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing, an event that “ultimately demonstrated the tragic human costs of … intolerance.”

The fact that those two acts of terrorism evoked similar rhetoric is no fluke. Proper reactions to both include a sense of righteous struggle — a courageous fight for ideals that one believes to be valuable — backed up by a united movement.

Birmingham’s movement will make itself clear in this coming week. The Pledge Foundation has planned its 10th anniversary events so that they coincide with the 45th anniversary of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. That event is the seminal one in Birmingham’s civil rights history, and it is one that helped tag our city with the moniker “Bombingham.” The Birmingham Pledge Foundation will honor the girls by presenting them with a lifetime achievement award. The award will be accepted by Sarah Rudolph, who was blinded by the blast and lost her sister, Addie Mae Collins, in the Sunday morning attack. The Pledge Foundation will also present a lifetime achievement award to former Auburn history professor and author Wayne Flynt, who will offer a historical perspective on the church bombing.

“We’re honoring Wayne Flynt for the many contributions he’s made for the cause of equality among people,” Rotch says. “If you’ve ever read any of his books, like Poor But Proud, you know that he’s known as the conscience of Alabama and that he’s taken a stand at times when it wasn’t popular to take a stand, and the cause was equal justice for people and equal treatment for people.”

The event, which begins at 5 p.m. Monday at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church will also include McKinstry’s testimony about the events of September 15, 1963, and attorney Doug Jones (who prosecuted two of the church bombers) will speak on the happenings of the last 45 years.

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is also hosting some events this week, as the church has just completed major renovations funded largely by donations. The church will host a memorial service Sunday at 11 a.m. and an open house at 3 pm.

“This is not a victory celebration,” Rotch says of the 10th anniversary of the Birmingham Pledge. “This is just the beginning. We’ve spent 10 years laying foundations, building relationships all around the world in this struggle to eliminate racism.

“And this struggle’s going to continue as long as necessary.”
To learn more or to sign the Birmingham Pledge, visit www.birminghampledge.org