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The red brick chapel of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, has served Collegeville, a predominantly Black neighborhood, for 115 years.
During the civil rights movement, the church served as a hub for nonviolent organizing under the legendary Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and it’s now being considered as a World Heritage site.
Today, the church is dealing with a new era of injustice: Its historic neighborhood sits on toxic land.
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Surrounded by steel mills, a cement plant and two major producers of coke, a high-carbon fuel made by baking coal, Collegeville is one of three neighborhoods in the 35th Avenue Superfund site, an area that the Environmental Protection Agency designated for cleanup after testing in 2009 revealed unsafe levels of arsenic, lead and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons like benzo(a)pyrene in the soil.
In the 10 years since, taxpayers have spent $25 million on a cleanup that is still underway. The effort has been complicated by a corporate and political plot to mislead residents to distrust the EPA, which led to convictions against the leaders of that scandal. Residents continue to seek answers about their health and their future as polluting industries continue to operate nearby.
The Rev. Thomas Wilder, who has led Bethel Baptist Church for 31 years, said he wants industry to be “good corporate citizens.” Ever the preacher, he’s asked industry leaders during community meetings, “If your mom or your dad were out here, would you have the same standards that you have now? I don’t think you would.”
The industry that built this city hasn’t been able to sustain it, Wilder said. Once a hub for steel production, only a handful of plants, mills and factories remain ― operating under lax and often corrupt regulatory boards.
Now, communities of color are the hardest hit both economically and environmentally by the industrial collapse and failing environmental regulations on polluting industries. With the support of faith leaders, those communities bear the burden of seeking environmental justice.
In Birmingham, the history of civil rights and the history of industry are inextricable.
Nestled on the northern ridge of Red Mountain, Birmingham was born during Reconstruction in the South in 1871, when prospectors discovered coal, limestone and iron ore in the surrounding hills. The key ingredients for steel were here in one place.
For the next century, the steel industry sustained Birmingham, providing jobs for many and making a few families very wealthy, all the while covering most of the city with pollution.
Stories of the past are full of dusty laundry lines and windshield wipers that ran rain or shine to clear soot away. Families with means moved south, over Red Mountain, while working-class families remained close to their source of income ― the same industries polluting their neighborhoods.
These new “over-the-mountain communities,” as they’re known by locals, grew in the 1950s with white flight in reaction to the civil rights movement and again when the steel industry collapsed in the 1970s.
I can’t fight for the right to live, if I can’t fight for the right to breathe.Rev. Michael Malcom
Today, Birmingham is 72 percent Black and is one of the most segregated cities in the nation. In recent years, Birmingham has been called the “comeback town” and praised for a “dazzling” revival as urban renewal brings pocket growth to predominantly white neighborhoods.
Progress has not extended to many communities of color, where the results of decades of disinvestment are evident in the city’s rampant blight, crime, overwhelmed schools and food deserts.
And progress certainly hasn’t extended to meaningful environmental restoration. Residents of the Superfund site said pollution in North Birmingham is a symptom of neglect seen citywide.
The Rev. Michael Malcom is founding director of Alabama Interfaith Power and Light, a faith-based environmental organization collaborating with Superfund site residents. One of its goals is to connect modern grassroots social justice efforts to environmentalism.
Whether it’s homicide reduction or electing a new wave of progressive leaders, social justice efforts in Birmingham have recently been very grassroots, centered on the enfranchisement of long-exploited communities rather than relying on nonprofits or corporations with ties to polluting industries.
As antipollution efforts continue to be undermined by corporate influence on policy, Malcom said environmental activism must be centered as the most important modern justice movement. Otherwise, the push for equality in other realms will be fruitless.
“I can’t fight for the right to be equal if I can’t fight for the right to see the ecology as equal,” Malcom said. “I can’t fight for the right to live, if I can’t fight for the right to breathe.”
Activist Keisha Brown, a lifelong North Birmingham resident, said things would be different if the Superfund site looked like an “over-the-mountain community.”
“Can you imagine people ignoring all this if we were white?” she asked.
Brown has spent 10 years advocating on behalf of her neighborhood’s community health ― galvanized by her own chronic asthma, a condition she believes is caused by the coke factory plaguing her neighborhood.
There’s good reason for people outside North Birmingham to pay better attention, Brown said.
Metro Birmingham is routinely ranked one of the worst places in the nation for air quality by the American Lung Association. A representative from the Jefferson County Health Department said the county meets federal air quality standards.
Malcom said he hopes to educate the broader city on what’s happening in North Birmingham, taking lessons from the nonviolent movements that made history here.
“What if residents of the Superfund site marched wearing masks?” Malcom asked during a meeting with Brown, who said most residents are too elderly or ill for such a demonstration. They were brainstorming ways to get the attention of people who have the financial means and political connections to enact change.
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Mountain Brook is one such city. One of the wealthiest and whitest cities in the South, Mountain Brook sits just on the other side of Red Mountain from Birmingham. From the ridge’s crest, there’s a clear view of North Birmingham’s smokestacks less than 5 miles away.
“People who live over the mountain are crazy if they think this mess isn’t affecting them,” Brown said. “You might move a little farther away, but you can’t escape.”
North Birmingham activists have different visions for justice.
Charlie Powell, the founding director for resident activist group People Against Neighborhood Industrial Contamination, or PANIC, which meets monthly at St. Paul’s Baptist Church in North Birmingham, wants money to relocate residents.
Wilder is hoping to save the land around Bethel Baptist in an effort to preserve its history. The church has acquired more than 30 abandoned properties in Collegeville, he said. Wilder is worried as elderly residents of the Superfund site die, the neighborhood will either be overrun by industrial companies or gentrified by the city’s urban renewal.
He’s worried about what will be lost if longtime residents abandon this historic site where Bethel Baptist has served for more than a century.
Standing on a roadside in North Birmingham near what was once U.S. Pipe and Steel, looking toward the city skyline a mile to the south, Malcom asked, “How long will this community be segregated?”
He said it should ultimately be up to residents whether they want to move, but if they do, they deserve the money to get out.
“How long do these people have to suffer?” he asked.
Brown said her neighbors have to hold out hope that change will happen.
She continues to educate people on what’s happening in North Birmingham, attending government meetings to speak on behalf of residents and seeking partnerships with organizations that have more agency and influence than her small neighborhood.
“We have to work together,” she said. “We have to be persistent.”