Birmingham City Hall is a place where everyone is trying to figure out what will happen next. Most of the people who work there either become skilled at predicting the future or insulated in ambivalence. There aren’t many surprises. Tuesday morning, however, delivered a shock. Birmingham City Council Pro Tempore Miriam Witherspoon had died.
According to friends and coworkers, Witherspoon had said Monday afternoon that she was not feeling well. By Monday evening she felt ill enough to go to the hospital. A friend, Brendette Brown Green, took Witherspoon to St. Vincent’s hospital, where later that night she died. Witherspoon’s aunt had died earlier that day, so when Witherspoon went to the hospital she chose not to trouble her mother with the news.
City councilors and staff learned of her death after arriving for the Tuesday council meeting. State law requires the city to have 50 council meetings per year, so the council convened its meeting long enough for the prayer and pledge of allegiance. Council President Carole Smitherman informed the public of Witherspoon’s death. Mayor Larry Langford spoke briefly, saying that city flags would be flown at half-staff until after the funeral, and then the council adjourned.
Elected in 2005 to represent District 7, Witherspoon’s arrival at City Hall had a greater significance than some others. After being partially paralyzed in a car wreck in 1988, she had spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair. Despite her disability, she finished Miles College Law School and became a practicing attorney. When she ran for city council, she said she didn’t want to be just the councilor in a wheelchair, but once in office she was a councilor with two constituencies — the people of her district and also the disabled.
In political speech, when you hear someone talk about opening doors or making paths for the disenfranchised, that kind of talk is usually metaphorical, even in Birmingham.
However, for Witherspoon, simple things like traversing sidewalks or navigating through doors were real challenges. When she spoke about “access,” it wasn’t the trite political jargon for having clout at City Hall. Instead, she was speaking of things most people never notice, like whether there are curb cuts where the sidewalks end.
When she was elected to the city council in 2005, her arrival changed things at City Hall in real, physical ways as well as abstract, political ones. Doors had to be widened and mechanized, restrooms reconfigured, parking arrangements changed.
The Planning, Engineering and Permits office spends much of its time making private developers abide by these kinds of rules and regulations, making public places accessible for the impaired. However, when Witherspoon arrived at City Hall, that same department had to hold City Hall itself to those standards. City employees gutted the council anteroom to make space for a ramp. In a matter of weeks, the department had to reconfigure the council chambers to accommodate a wheelchair.
There was a nuance to these changes, though — a difference in imperative that’s difficult to explain. The city had already been under increasing political and legal pressure to make more facilities compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. But before Witherspoon’s arrival at City Hall, these requirements were a product of bureaucracy and red tape. The regulations were speculative in nature — in case of … then you have to … etc.
When Witherspoon arrived at City Hall, the motive for these changes was no longer speculative. The city didn’t have to alter City Hall in case a disabled candidate won office. Rather, the city had to change the building because a disabled candidate won office. Accessibility was no longer a matter of legal liability; it was a matter of her daily life.
Witherspoon gave the physically disabled access — the political kind — too. If someone came to a city council meeting with a complaint about accessibility issues, she listened the way no one had before her. Her presence made her colleagues more mindful of the challenges facing the disabled. She insisted developers do more than the legal minimum when making their buildings accessible.
Under the law, the city council has the power to fill a vacancy by appointment. In coming weeks, the councilors must determine how or if it will fill Witherspoon’s seat. Council elections are scheduled for August, subject to Justice Department approval. However, on Tuesday afternoon, replacing Councilor Witherspoon was the farthest thing from the other councilors’ minds.
As of Tuesday afternoon, funeral arrangements had not been announced.