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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Richard Arrington, July 18, 1974. Interview A-0001. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Civic group helps Birmingham

Arrington reflects on the role of a civic group, Operation New Birmingham, in his city council race. Although he believes the group used subtly racist appeals to push for the incumbents, he thinks it has helped revitalize the city's image and even integrate African Americans into Birmingham's power structure.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Richard Arrington, July 18, 1974. Interview A-0001. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACK BASS:
How do you assess Operation New Birmingham?
RICHARD ARRINGTON:
Well, I think it has done some good things here. I alluded to that a moment ago when I was talking about the CAC committee. Operation New Birmingham, of course, is unquestionably a powerful organization here because it has the leading civic figures and businessmen and so forth in the community on Operation New Birmingham. So I think it has done some good things here. I think it has been . . . I think it has made a few awkward moves that it should not have made and it has put a sort of bitter taste in the mouths of some of the citizens, particularly in the minority community. I tend to think that if you try to weigh the pluses and the minuses, the negatives, that Operation New Birmingham certainly has done more good for the city than it has done harm. I think right now . . . a couple of things that people dislike. A number of people, particularly blacks, dislike about Operation New Birmingham. One was the role that Operation New Birmingham played in the last city election. Through the organization called . . . the acronym was BAG . . . I can't even remember what that stands for. . . .
JACK BASS:
Birmingham Action Group.
RICHARD ARRINGTON:
Yeah, Birmingham Action Group. And despite all the denials that have been made by officials of Operation New Birmingham about their role, I think it is pretty obvious to anybody who bothers to look into it that Operation New Birmingham did indeed play a role in re-electing the incumbents. Now that, in and of itself, was not so bad, but I think it was the tactics that were used. Which was in a very subtle sense an appeal back to, you know, the racist appeal, racist feelings or emotions. And people resent that about Operation New Birmingham and I think that resentment was reflected in the demand a citizen made recently that Operation New Birmingham be taken out of the community participation plan the city government had come up with, or the mayor's office had come up with. But I think that Operation New Birmingham has played an important role in helping this city to move along. Now, again, the problem with Operation New Birmingham is that I think it wants to define when, where and at what pace progress and change will be made in this community. And it has been composed, largely, of people of upper income. Some middle income people. But mainly people who are identified as being in the power structure. So it has not, in the past, been inclusive enough. I think it's taken some steps to try to correct that. Secondly, I think it's overly sensitive to criticism. Apparently so many people, in Operation New Birmingham, feel that they never do anything wrong. Whatever Operation New Birmingham supports, that's it. That is obviously not true.
JACK BASS:
How valid is the criticism that Operation New Birmingham is overly concerned with image as opposed to substance?
RICHARD ARRINGTON:
I think number one priority is image. It has done some things of substance, but Operation New Birmingham had, first of all, to try to change the image of this city. And it has done that. And it has worked to do that. So I think that's a valid criticism. Now, I think if also you look at the progress we've made, you'll see that there are certainly some positive things—
JACK BASS:
What would be some of these positive things?
RICHARD ARRINGTON:
Well, I feel that, to a large extent, we have opened our . . . first of all . . . communication. Operation New Birmingham honestly gets the credit, I think, for that. And Operation New Birmingham did take the lead, at the request of the black citizens, the black citizens group that was called 21 concerned citizens, to set up some mechanism whereby there could be some discussions held, problems. That in itself, for Birmingham, represented a significant change in posture. Secondly, Operation New Birmingham has worked to help getting blacks placed on boards, some of the boards. Now here I must say that I think Operation New Birmingham takes too much of the credit. In some of its literature it takes credit for just about every black that was appointed to a board. And being a member of the Birmingham city council, I know that that is not the case at all. We have a council that's sensitive to blacks being on boards because of the black political power here in this community. But Operation New Birmingham has certainly moved to support the efforts to get the black judge in the city of Birmingham and I don't question that it did swing some votes on the council that were necessary to get a black judge elected. Places like the personnel board, a three member board that's very powerful in this city, controlling personnel policy for cities over 5,000 in this county. Operation New Birmingham got the first black appointed there and I think this was really as a direct result of Operation New Birmingham. Operation New Birmingham has gone out to try to involve the community, at least provide a channel through which members of the community, particularly in minority community, could at least present problems to city government or present problems to, say, Operation New Birmingham. For example, concern about food stamps, distribution of food stamps to the poor. Operation New Birmingham has certainly worked in that area. It is working some in the area of education. It has not done a lot there, but it is beginning to work there. It has worked some in the area of police-community relations and trying to get black police officers employed in . . . more particularly, recruiting them to take the examination to increase the number of blacks on the Birmingham police force. I think Operation New Birmingham has played an important role in that. So things of that sort, Operation New Birmingham certainly has helped in work in this area.