Blessed is he who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness.
'97 Thomas Carlyle
Birmingham is a hard town. For virtually the entire 137 years of its existence, the city has been defined by dichotomy. Absentee ownership versus local prerogative, management versus labor, city versus suburb, black versus white '97 the tension of opposition has never been resolved here, with the result that we'92ve never been quite able to determine just who we are or where we want to go.
This has been, and is, especially true when it comes to matters of race. Having succumbed to integration as opposed to accepting it, Birmingham remains segregated psychologically and spiritually. When it comes to the pivotal role of our city in the Civil Rights Movement, the answer to the question of whether we have done too little or too much to acknowledge, embrace, and build upon that singular history depends too often upon the race of the respondent.
For all of the economic and social progress Birmingham has made over the past 40-plus years, we continue to tiptoe around issues related to race rather than confront them head-on '97 and those unresolved issues continue to undermine every significant effort to articulate and effect an overarching vision for our community. The storm clouds of racial mistrust are gathered always on our horizon, threatening our tenuous state of civic equilibrium.
In such an atmosphere, Abraham Lincoln Woods was a lightning rod. To most white people in Birmingham, he was little more than a racial grievance looking for a place to happen and a television camera to record it.
To many younger blacks, he was a man who had outlived his times, due his just recognition and reward for services rendered, but irrelevant to their own daily lives in the twenty-first century. To those of his own vanishing generation of Civil Rights warriors, he was a leader and spokesman of the ongoing struggle for equality and justice.
Through it all, Woods was simply himself. The dulcet tone of his sermonizing '97 characteristic of the oratory style of the African-American church, and yet inimitably his own, a mellifluous blend of brotherly entreaty and righteous proclamation '97 was his calling card, and he never hesitated to give voice to protest whenever and wherever he thought it to be necessary. That his position as a Civil Rights leader in the post-Civil Rights era exposed him to the adoration of some, the scorn of others and the indifference of many was not a matter with which he occupied his mind. As he saw it, he was just doing his job, the same as anyone else fortunate enough to rise each morning and do the kind of work that makes them feel purposeful and productive.
'93I have been vilified as much as anyone in Birmingham,'94 Reverend Woods told me once. '93It certainly is not my intention to be the villain in anyone'92s narrative, but if there are those who object to my doing what I believe God has led me to do, then so be it.'94
Ministers of the Gospel are supposed to believe that they are called by God, but Woods'92 own conviction in this regard was redoubled by his close association with Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth '97 the leader of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham '97 and the winning in America'92s Most Segregated City of a victory that, in his view, could only have been the product of divine guidance. Woods spoke of this in 2004, when I interviewed him, along with Shuttlesworth and other local Movement veterans, for the audio tour of Kelly Ingram Park that is available to visitors to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
'93The Movement was undergirded by religious fervor, religious inspiration, religious empowerment,'94 said Woods. '93This was the thing that kept us going, and we ministers used our pulpits as forums. We believed that we were the vessels, that God was using us as he used Moses, to free an oppressed people. We believed that it was not our movement nor our victory, but that the victory belonged to God.'94
From the late 1960s onward, Woods was a near-constant presence in the civic life of Birmingham, using his position as head of the local Southern Christian Leadership Conference to draw attention to racial injustices both real and perceived. He was instrumental in advancing the political career of Richard Arrington, who became Birmingham'92s first African-American mayor, and his role as an unofficial adviser to Arrington only advanced his status as the '93official'94 voice of the city'92s black community. In the years after Arrington left office in 1999, Woods'92 political influence waned, but he continued to raise his voice and marshal his troops up to and beyond the point when ill health began to dissipate him physically.
The last real conversation I had with Reverend Woods took place in 2005, when I interviewed him for a long profile of Arrington to run in the Weekly. Woods had greeted me cordially, and was gracious with his time and thoughtful in his responses to my questions. Wrapping up, I asked offhandedly if he cared to add anything to what had been an extensive interchange. He said he had nothing more for the record, but had something he wanted to say to me personally.
'93You have written some things over the years that have been very critical of me, and which I think were not very well informed,'94 Woods began. He was referring to my work as a reporter for Black & White in the late 1990s, when I spent a good deal of time documenting the last years of Arrington'92s two decades as mayor. I had, indeed, been critical of Woods at times, generally portraying him as a divisive force in a community that cried out for unity.
Rather than attack what I had written, however, Woods spent several minutes quietly talking about his life '97 the world in which he was born and came of age, the changes through which he had lived, decisions he had made, actions he had taken, the intertwining of his religious faith and his social and political activism. Finishing his remarks, Woods leaned forward in his seat and placed a hand on my knee.
'93I respect the work that you do, and that I believe you will do,'94 he said. '93But I just wanted you to know something about me, and that perhaps I am not the person you have thought me to be.'94
I have thought about those words often '97 and, as I'92m sure Woods intended, they have influenced the way I go about my work, particularly when dealing with controversial people and issues. I thought of them again on hearing of Reverend Woods'92 death last week, and then thought of something else he once said to me, something about the troubled city to which he gave his life and work.
'93One would have to have his head in the sand like an ostrich to say that Birmingham is not a better city than it was,'94 Woods said. '93Whenever my mind goes back to that time, there is something that moves in me, something that makes me thankful for the distance we have been able to travel. I love Birmingham, and all I have done, whether others view it as right or wrong, has been toward making it the city I believe we all want it to be.'94