Public Safety

Finding A Way Forward in Birmingham After Violence and Destruction

New Black Lives Matter mural being finished downtown after the killing of George Floyd. (Source: Tom Gordon)

A Confederate monument that stood in a downtown Birmingham’s Linn Park for 115 years is now gone. Crews removed the structure following protests over police treatment of black Americans that turned destructive on Sunday, damaging many buildings. This happened in a city that prides itself on its history of nonviolent protest during the civil rights era.  Rev. Thomas Wilder leads Bethel Baptist Church in Collegeville. It’s the same church Birmingham civil rights leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth once led.  Wilder spoke with WBHM’s Andrew Yeager.

Listen to the Interview

Editor Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Interview Highlights

Why Wilder believes the monument should have stayed:

“The reason why I felt that is not because I agree with what all it stands for, but I think it’s a reminder of where we’ve come from and it’s a reminder of the fact there’s still so much work to be done. The other concern I had is that let’s say the present mayor is not in office anymore and someone comes along who may be different from him and may feel that the civil rights movement was a communist organization or maybe they were citizens that did not want to look at what has been accomplished through the civil rights movement. So then do you go back and dismantle all the civil rights monuments and take them down? I understand those that said that it’s a reminder of oppression. But it is our history.”

Response to the argument it was the violent reaction to peaceful civil rights protests that led to change:

“I would respectfully disagree in some respects … [Former] Mayor David Vann and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth both talked about the fact that it was not the violence that spurred people to act. It was the fact that the business community got together and said we were losing money. That’s what caused them to eventually integrate. I will concede the fact that it was the four little girls, it was the fire hoses, it was the dogs that helped America to see. So I wouldn’t say it was totally the violence. It was just the violence that sort of put a fire under people.”

Whether the Confederate monument would have come down this week without violence:

“More than likely it would not have. That’s unfortunate. Taking down a monument is not going to deal with poverty. It is not going to deal with the single mom who is unemployed. It is not going to deal with the young people who have no hope. It’s not going to deal with the disparities that happen in the marketplace where people doing the same jobs are paid different wages or different salaries. The fact that I’m facing barriers when I played by the rules, that’s what causes people to react violently. It is not a statue in my opinion.”

How to make progress on long-standing issues highlighted by recent protests:

“One of the things that we’re trying to do as a congregation is to buy up some of the land that is around us and start refurbishing homes and try to keep our part of the community clean. I can’t change policy. I can affect policy, but I can’t change policy because I’m not in a political position. But as a pastor I can change what we do. What’s going to matter is what I do with my time. What do I do with the influence that I have?”