When we lose our way, as we seem to have done, we rely on words to help us find our way back to the pursuit of our ideals. Our Constitution, separation of powers and rule of law are primary reasons our democracy has weathered so many storms and has survived for well over 200 years. Another document that we should revisit is The Birmingham Pledge, a statement about racial reconciliation that people around the globe have adopted as part of efforts to engage in a civil dialogue on social issues caused by racial prejudice.

The Birmingham Pledge was created by Jim Rotch, a Fort Payne native who grew up in the segregated south and was puzzled as a boy by the way people of a different race were treated. On the ride home from a Leadership Alabama retreat in Mobile in 1997, he put the heartfelt words to paper that would go on to inspire so many others. Birmingham city leaders encouraged Rotch to share the commitment widely, soliciting signatures as part of grassroots efforts to “eliminate racial prejudice one person at a time.”

In January 1998, the Pledge was introduced with its first public reading at the Martin Luther King Unity Breakfast. More than 2,000 Birmingham residents joined in reciting the pledge together.

The Birmingham Pledge reads:

“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 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.”

Historical Context

To fully grasp the importance of these words, we have to confront our painful and shameful past. In the 1950s and 1960s, Birmingham gained international attention as a center of activity during the Civil Rights Movement. Whites unhappy with social changes for integration or the lessening of Jim Crow laws committed racially motivated bombings of the houses of black families who moved into new neighborhoods or who were politically active.

In 1963, Americans watched in horror as non-violent demonstrations were met with police repression, tear gas, attack dogs, fire hoses, and arrests. More than 3,000 people were arrested during these protests, many of them children. On a Sunday in September 1963, a bomb went off at the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four black girls.

The national outrage about the police and KKK violence contributed to the ultimate desegregation of public accommodations in Birmingham and also passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It’s been a long, uphill struggle with more recent conflicts to remind us how far we still have to go before we can realize Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

The Impact of the Birmingham Pledge

The Birmingham Pledge was cited when the Alabama House and Senate in 2007 passed a historic state apology for slavery. By 2008, when the pledge celebrated its 10th anniversary, more than 120,000 individuals had returned signed copies of the pledge or had signed the pledge online, including Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and former South African prime minister F. W. DeKlerk, former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Birmingham bombing survivor Carolyn McKinstry, author Harper Lee, General Colin L. Powell, Governor Bob Riley, and many others.

The 2011 class of Leadership Birmingham chose to renew efforts to publicize the pledge, with a goal of achieving 500,000 signatures before September 15, 2013, the 50th anniversary of the 1963 church bombing. When visiting downtown Birmingham, you’ll find a giant mural covering the east side of the Birmingham Police Headquarters building on First Avenue North.

What a great (and hopefully enduring) legacy for a kind and admirable man like Jim Rotch. I feel privileged to share the same hometown with a figure who has earned a place in the history books as a contributor to Alabama’s monumental Civil Rights story.

I first met Mr. Rotch in the 1990s when I was hired to photograph his mother’s birthday party. I’ve followed his story with interest and the utmost respect. I’ve also gotten to know his wife Darlene, who is so brilliant and accomplished as a public relations expert. We are so fortunate to have their creativity and energy in our community.

Dedicating ourselves to a statement of principles

The words delivered by Jim Rotch in 1998 remain critically important as black people stand up and demand better treatment today.

We’re seeing this struggle for social justice expressed in massive international protests in response to the May 26, 2020 killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died during an arrest. The unrest was ignited by video showing Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis Police officer, as he knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as three other officers looked on.

The Black Lives Matter protests have led to numerous legislative proposals on all levels intended to combat police misconduct, systemic racism and police brutality in the United States. In reaction, I see a good bit of backsliding to old prejudiced thinking, rising to meet tough questions with justifications and whataboutisms. Our default when our heritage is challenged by calls for introspection is to get defensive and become stubbornly resistant to change.

The Pledge serves as a powerful reminder that attacking racial prejudice requires each of us to control our thoughts and actions and to speak up in defense of the dignity and respect of every person, regardless of his or her race or color.

The Promise of Change

There is reason to believe that despite its troubled past, things are changing for the better in the Deep South. Mississippi just voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from their state flag, which will no doubt increase that state’s public image for the better. Here in Alabama, the last of the 16th Street Church bombers has died, having been convicted at last in 2001 by prosecutor Doug Jones, who became one of our two U.S. senators in 2017.

Sign it? Live it. Share it.

When we officially commit to something in writing, we invite criticism if we fall short of what others have witnessed us vowing to do. When we attach our name, there’s no ambiguity about where we stand. However you commit to the Birmingham Pledge, I invite you to take these words to heart and let them guide you through all of your days.

— Steven Stiefel is a staff writer at the Times-Journal. His column appears in Saturday editions. Email: steven.stiefel@times-journal.com.

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