Category Archives: Civil Rights

Jazz Practitioner

Jazz Practitioner

By Ed Reynolds

Dr. Frank “Doc” Adams, the last of the old guard of local jazz musicians who played with legends Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, and Erskine Hawkins, among others, has written a captivating memoir with writer Burgin Mathews entitled Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man, by the University of Alabama Press. Adams is a brilliant story-teller, recounting life as a professional musician and musical instructor in segregated Alabama beginning in the 1950s. One of the first inductees into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, the 83-year-old musician will perform a free concert with the Birmingham Heritage Band on October 25 at 7 p.m. at the Bama Theatre in Tuscaloosa.

Adams was trained at Industrial High School [now known as Parker High School] under the tutelage of John T. “Fess” Whatley, whose discipline and devotion to musical professionalism made an early impression. The young Adams turned down an invitation in the early 1950s to tour with AdamsCount Basie’s orchestra, instead remaining in Birmingham to teach music at Lincoln Elementary. Adams’ family [his brother Oscar was the first black attorney to join the Birmingham Bar Association, as well the first black Alabama Supreme Court Justice] was somewhat prominent. His father published a newspaper, the Birmingham Reporter, in the early 1900s, and also wrote a column for more than 20 years for the Birmingham News entitled “What Negroes Are Doing.”

Black & White chatted with Dr. Adams in his office at the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame on a recent October afternoon.

“I got a chance to [travel] around with my Dad. He was one of those dads that said, ‘Come on. Go with me, boy!’ And I’d go with him,” Adams recalled. “And I found out a lot of things about people. One was that people are more alike than they are different.”

Reflecting on the evolution of musical styles he’s played during his lifetime, Adams grabbed a sax next to his desk to demonstrate different variations on the melody “Tea for Two” during our interview. “The big bands were evolving. First, we had Dixieland,” he explained. “You had a trumpet, maybe a clarinet, maybe a bass and a guitar or mandolin or whatever you had. It was everybody for himself. The clarinet going one way, the bass going one way, the
trumpet going one way. That’s Dixieland. But when you start adding two or three saxophones, you had to have harmony. You had to read music. Everybody couldn’t play what
they wanted to play.”

As a young teen, Adams played sax with Alabama’s Sun Ra. “Sun Ra
was a known character in Birmingham. To some people he’d be frightening because nobody knew where he came from and nobody knew his parents,” said Adams, who
writes in his book that Sun Ra would warn Bull Connor’s henchmen that they would be “paralyzed” if they tried to harm him when the jazz maestro wore his colorful robes on
the street. “Sun Ra lived over by Terminal Station in a raggedy house. He was ‘flower power’ before ‘flower power.’ He was before Dr. King. He was defiant back in the 1930s when
nobody was thinking about civil rights. And he had this thing about where he was from—the Sun or the Moon. And his bands were terrific. He picked up people [to play] that were just unusual folk. They didn’t have the discipline [musically] . . . They never played a place like the Birmingham Country Club. They played little dives and stuff.”

Sun Ra asked Adams’ mother if her son could join his band. “One day he called my Mom, he wanted me to play in his Intergalactic Arkestra. My Mom just said, ‘OK.’ What it was about him was this mystique; He would look at you and say, ‘Well, do this.’ And you might say, ‘I can’t.’ And he would say, ‘You’ve already done it. It’s in your mind.’ Those weird things, you know? He would wear these clothes down on Fourth Avenue and everything. And people admired him for his band. He was just a weird guy. He could play Count Basie but he also had this other weird stuff he was playing. And he talked more than he would really practice.” &

Originally published in Black & White, Oct 18, 2012

A Facelift for Woodlawn

A Facelift for Woodlawn

Once a bustling Birmingham neighborhood, Woodlawn seeks a return to its former status.



August 04, 2011

Vincent Oliver has been cutting hair in downtown Woodlawn for 44 years. Oliver attended kindergarten, elementary, and high school in Woodlawn but left after graduation to attend barber college in Jacksonville, Florida.

“There was no barber college in Alabama when I got out of high school,” he explains. Degree in hand, he eventually returned to his childhood neighborhood and in 1966 opened Vincent Oliver’s Hippodrome Barber Shop. Oliver is one of the few white residents to have resisted relocating due to the urban blight that has gripped Woodlawn for nearly three decades beginning in the late 1970s.

Woodrow Hall, a renovated event facility in Woodlawn available for parties and other events. (click for larger version)



Running a one-barber operation, Vincent Oliver admits that Woodlawn has seen better days. “It was a real busy downtown district in the ’50s and ’60s. It had a Morgan Brothers Department Store. It had about four barber shops, had a Woodlawn bakery, had a shoe-repair shop, had restaurants, a hardware store,” he reminisces, perched in a barber chair after finishing with a customer. “It was a real, real busy hub right here.”

When asked if he has encountered any criminal element in the neighborhood, Oliver replies, “I’ve had no problems, it’s been real safe. People sometimes get the mis-idea about Woodlawn. When I tell people I work in Woodlawn, they say, ‘Oh ain’t you scared to go to Woodlawn?’ But it’s nice, it’s really nice.”

“People from Birmingham fail to see some of the potential that’s right before them.” —Andrew Morrow

Not long ago Woodlawn was not “really nice” or “real safe.” Many will argue that it still isn’t. But thanks to an influx of private and public funding, a revitalization effort that began several years ago has pulled the community together, and Woodlawn appears to be gradually on the rebound.

In 2004 Main Street Birmingham (MSB), a nonprofit organization that contracts with the city of Birmingham to foster public-private partnerships designed to revitalize neighborhood commercial districts, moved to the area. Two years later, the Central YWCA established a presence in Woodlawn when it came to the financial rescue of the Interfaith Hospitality House—a shelter for homeless families. Other nonprofit organizations followed: The Church of the Highlands partnered with Christ Health Center to open a medical clinic; Desert Island Supply Company has established itself as a writing lab for children living in Woodlawn; Cornerstone School is a charter school that has contributed to Woodlawn’s rebirth.

At the center of this revitalization is YWCA Central’s $11 million project to build state-of-the-art shelters for homeless families. Funded by a partnership between the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, the city of Birmingham’s Community Development Department, and private donors, the complex includes four apartment buildings with 58 units of affordable housing (both transitional and permanent), as well as a new facility for an Interfaith Hospitality House that can shelter six homeless families. The house allows intact families to remain together.

“We started out with a small vision just to build a replacement shelter and opportunities and funding kept coming our way,” explains YWCA Central Alabama CEO Suzanne Durham. “We’ve run housing for over a hundred years, we are not new to housing . . . We’re the only shelter in the state that takes homeless dads with kids. We’re one of very few that takes women with teenaged boys in the state, and we’re one of very few in the state that takes two-parent families.”

To take advantage of the Y’s transitional and permanent housing opportunities, occupants must be employed or on retirement or social security income. Criminal background checks are also required.

The YWCA’s project also includes a Family Resource Center. Purchasing the property, which was formerly a convenience store where illegal activities were allegedly taking place, was the catalyst in helping change Woodlawn’s shoddy reputation, Durham says.

“What was once a former convenience store—and I mean ‘convenience’ where a lot of unhealthy activities took place, activities that made folks often afraid to stop at the traffic light—has been transformed into a wonderful activities center for the residents of our apartment complexes, as well as community residents,” Durham said during a ribbon-cutting ceremony in May christening the completion of the current phase of the YWCA complex. “We knew if we didn’t acquire the property, our work for transforming the neighborhood would be for naught.”

Main Street Birmingham, meanwhile, is close to opening an arts incubator in Woodlawn. In March, the Birmingham City Council voted to give $50,000 to 55th Place Arts, a $250,000 project located next door to Main Street Birmingham, which will lease the space to tenants.

Vincent Oliver’s Hippodrome barber shop has operated—largely unchanged—in Woodlawn since 1966. (Photo: Ginger Ann Brook, (click for larger version)



“We’ve occupied this building since 2005, [it] has our office, as well as some space in it that we maintain and is basically to incubate small business or nonprofits at an affordable rate,” says David Fleming, executive director of Main Street Birmingham. “A year ago we acquired the properties next door to us going to the end of the block, which is a total of six different storefronts that were all about only 40 percent occupied. Construction is under way now on renovating those buildings and filling up the vacant spaces with arts business incubation, or what we call ‘creative professionals.’ So it could be somebody involved in some sort of artistic endeavor as their business; it could be a dance studio or maybe a graphic design person.” Fleming said the arts incubator is likely to open in September.

Main Street Birmingham is also partnering with City Meats, located directly across the street from the Hippodrome barber shop. Samuel Crawford, director of business growth for MSB, explains: “The City Meats effort is just one of the overall initiatives. We’re working with individuals, community organizations, and neighborhoods to establish a series of public markets, the target being those communities that are considered by the United States Department of Agriculture, and our study that we had done of Birmingham, that are considered ‘food deserts.’ Those are communities that either lack access to healthy food sources, or access is limited. The overall effort is, how do you get more fresh produce offerings in these communities?”

MSB was also instrumental in the opening of Woodrow Hall, a top-tier events venue, in Woodlawn. “We were involved with Woodrow Hall in that when the new owners came around looking for opportunities, we encouraged them and helped them with the transaction for them to purchase that,” says Fleming. “That’s one of the things we do; If we find people that we can encourage to buy and invest in the area, we will do that and try to help provide incentives for them to do it. They didn’t need any financial incentive; they just needed to see the opportunity and we directed them to that. They’ve done a great job with that building.”

The three-story Woodrow Hall, at 5500 First Avenue North, is a former Masonic Lodge that was built in 1914. Andrew Morrow and his business partners purchased the building, which is currently used as a venue for weddings, parties, and other special events. Morrow has a landscaping and construction business, and has been involved in building lofts in downtown Birmingham.

“People from Birmingham fail to see some of the potential that’s right before them,” Morrow explains, “So I learned how to renovate stuff and I saw the value in taking something that’s old and how you can change it and make it new.” Morrow says that the adage that stipulates “build it and they will come” applies to his reason for opening Woodrow Hall. “You’ve got Crestwood right there [near Woodlawn] with houses that sell for maybe $200,000. But on the other side of this building [Woodrow Hall] a stone’s throw away [from Crestwood], you can buy a lot for 2,000 bucks or a house that needs a ton of work for $15,000. That’s a huge disparity.” Morrow adds that, because of the location, hosting an event at Woodrow Hall is much cheaper than at similar event facilities in the Birmingham area.

Travis Morgan, president of local record label Skybucket Records, says he was not aware that Woodrow Hall existed until he attended a yoga class there recently with his wife. He decided that the facility would be the ideal setting for local band Delicate Cutters to hold their record-release party.

“It wasn’t just another show, so we wanted to kind of up the ante a little bit,” Morgan says. “It’s real elegant; they dress [Woodrow Hall] up.” Morgan admits that it was somewhat risky to have a show in Woodlawn. “I grew up in the suburbs, and Woodlawn, to me, was an area of town that I didn’t go in very often,” he says. “It really is a beautiful area of town. As it slowly becomes revitalized, I’m sure there are some other jewels in Woodlawn that I’m completely unaware of. [So] if I didn’t know about Woodrow Hall, I’m sure there are other buildings and other sights to see.”

One of the YWCA’s recently renovated family residences in the area. (click for larger version)



Smiles for Keeps is a dental practice next to Vincent Oliver’s barber shop opened by Mountain Brook dentist Roger Smith and business partner Mary McSpadden in 2006. Their clientele is primarily children on Medicaid, though other insurance is also accepted.

“We did a demographic study of where the greatest need was, and we found that the Woodlawn area had a huge number of children that were having to travel some distance to get dental care,” explains McSpadden.

McSpadden says the clinic also offers care at reduced rates for those without Medicaid. “Even if somebody doesn’t have insurance or if they have insurance and maybe their copays are higher or whatever, our rates are such that it is much more affordable because of the area that we’re in,” she says. McSpadden admits that she and Dr. Smith took a gamble on opening the operation where they did.

“When we came, it was before Woodlawn was cool. Main Street Birmingham was here but really there wasn’t a lot going on,” she says. “Thirty percent of our children are non-Medicaid, 70 percent are Medicaid. And we find that they come from all different zip codes throughout this city.”

The clinic also treats adults whose children are serviced at Smiles for Keeps. McSpadden points out that the clinic is a for-profit venture.

“A lot of businesses that you see that have come into Woodlawn have been not-for-profits. We do believe that it’s helping the city to a large degree by us paying taxes, whereas your not-for-profits don’t.”

Nancy Tran, a real estate broker for Beautiful South Real Estate, says she is excited about what’s happening in the area. “Things are progressing. There’s a lot of activity going on with new businesses and the non-profit groups,” Tran says. She says she believes that the affordable prices for houses in the adjacent Crestwood neighborhood will be a catalyst prompting others to invest in Woodlawn. “As Crestwood continues to grow, that will pull Woodlawn up, too.” &

Let Freedom Ride, and Ring

Let Freedom Ride, and Ring

A Freedom Ride passenger, still overcome by shock and smoke, remains near the burning bus near Anniston. (Photograph by Joseph Postiglione, courtesy Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.) (click for larger version)



April 28, 2011

In May of 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality, a civil rights organization, sponsored buses carrying interracial passengers on journeys into the South to determine if Southern states were complying with federal interstate transportation laws (earlier Supreme Court decisions ordered the desegregation of interstate travel facilities). Dubbed the Freedom Riders, the trips met with opposition in South Carolina and Georgia, but it was Alabama where the resistance turned particularly violent, with passengers beaten by segregationists in both Birmingham and Anniston. The images of brutality propelled our state into notoriety as a primary battleground where black Americans sought equal rights.

More than 400 black and white Americans suffered violent threats and beatings on their forays into the Deep South during a six-month stretch of southbound journeys. Award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson (Wounded Knee; Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple; The Murder of Emmett Till) has filmed a documentary called Freedom Riders, which includes interviews with the brave riders as well as comments from government officials and reporters from that era. Nelson’s documentary is based on Raymond Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. The documentary will premier nationally on PBS as part of the “American Experience” series on Monday, May 16. For more information, visit:

Other events occurring in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders include an exhibit of photographs taken by Anniston Star reporter Joseph Postiglione of the beatings that took place in Anniston. That exhibit will run through May 22 at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (520 16th Street North) in the Odessa Woolfolk Gallery. Details: 328-9696; In addition, 40 students from 33 states, China, and Tajikistan will participate in the 2011 Student Freedom Ride—a re-creation of the Freedom Riders’ expeditions. &

City Hall — Blake warns against police state

City Hall

November 20, 2001

Blake warns against police state

In the street outside City Hall, the police department and fire and rescue service exhibit the city’s emergency-response fleet, featuring a mobile command center and other SWAT vehicles. Councilor Jimmy Blake proudly lauds the efforts of law enforcement over the years, but cautions against what he calls the current trend of increased militarization of police forces. He’s concerned that police might develop a military mindset “through osmosis” by participating in joint training exercises with the military, which he warns is “dangerous to the public health.” Blake frowns on the sight of “soldiers with automatic weapons slung over their shoulders” at the airport, noting that militarization of American society is a victory for terrorists. Councilor Aldrich Gunn agrees. “Mind over matter, Dr. Blake. Whenever you get so you turn that person’s mind, or change its mind or change its way of livin’, you’ve already lost.”

Friends in low places

Councilor Sandra Little, impeccably dressed as usual, offers a series of resolutions honoring Helen’s Cafe, the Powderly Shell service station, and JC’s Beauty Supply, respectively. Little also salutes Council President William Bell for his “Bell Plan,” which provided money for schools from the projected proceeds of the Birmingham Water Works assets. Councilor Leroy Bandy then offers a resolution honoring Bell’s wife Sharon for 20 years of service to the Birmingham school system.

Hell no, I ain’t fergettin’!

Councilor Lee Loder offers eight resolutions recognizing the outgoing councilors for service to their districts. Councilors Blake and Don MacDermott request that their salutations be changed to honor their assistants. Blake interrupts Loder as commendations begin. “To me, words mean something. And resolutions that reflect on political activity mean something in particular,” objects Blake. “I’m not a hypocrite, and I believe one has to be truthful.” Blake states that if he agreed with the resolutions, he would have worked to get those councilors re-elected (Blake reportedly labored for incoming councilors Carol Reynolds, Gwen Sykes, Joel Montgomery, and Valerie Abbott, Blake’s District Three replacement). Blake adds that Loder would have worked to get those honored in the resolutions re-elected had he really believed that they had actually served their respective districts well. Admitting that he’s “quite fond personally of these people [fellow councilors],” Blake abstains from voting on Loder’s resolutions. “Words and resolutions have meaning. Those with legal training certainly should know that,” Blake says in a parting shot at Loder, an attorney.

Councilors toss insults back at Blake

When the resolution honoring Councilor Gunn comes up, the elderly councilor refuses to accept the honor. “The privilege of commendin’ and doin’ whatever it is, some things you don’t have to do. Your actions speak. And it’s not that I don’t appreciate it,” Gunn says in typically cryptic fashion as he requests that his honor be withdrawn. Councilor Bill Johnson joins Blake in abstaining from the resolution honoring Johnson. Blake approves the
resolution commending MacDermott’s assistant. A second resolution honoring Little is offered by Bandy, which is approved. Bandy takes aim at Blake: “In contrary to what Dr. Blake just stated, who cares? Councilwoman Little has done a great job for her district.” Blake tries to respond but Loder also fires away. “I don’t think I would challenge the intellectual giants of today [a parting shot at Blake, who is a medical doctor by trade] and the folks with good ol’ common sense to deny that every person on this dais has made some positive contribution to this city, and they are worthy of recognition for their positive contribution.” Blake agrees, but notes that if Loder’s resolution were focused on Little’s contribution to dedication of parks and commitment to the arts, he would have approved the recognition [Councilor Little can be heard giggling in the background]. Councilor Johnson chimes in: “I’ve sat here for four years and I’ve noticed that Dr. Blake never misses an opportunity to rain on someone else’s parade [Little is almost collapsing in laughter].” Councilor MacDermott takes his turn: “It’s good to see that nothing changes, even until the last minute [audience laughs]. At least we’re consistent.” MacDermott defends Loder’s resolutions as worthy, noting, “Everyone up here is dedicated to what they think is the
decision they should have made. And I don’t judge people’s motives.” Councilor Little can barely stop laughing as she thanks Loder for the commendations. “I think this is one of the most unified councils the city of Birmingham has ever seen in a long time,” says Little.

Tears of joy

As president of the City Council, William Bell traditionally has the final word. In bittersweet tones, Bell reflects on his 22 years as a council member, but is suddenly unable to speak as he begins to sob. “[The crying] is not out of sadness, it’s out of joy, for the blessings I’ve received.” The Council President praises his children for maintaining fine character despite having to “grow up in a spotlight.” Bell continues, apparently reading from a prepared text. “Some people have said I was arrogant. I take pride in uplifting black people, but I do not do so to the detriment of white people.” Noting the importance of future generations working together, Bell defends his convictions, stating, “But that doesn’t mean that I have to bow down to someone simply because of the color of their skin. It doesn’t mean that I have to hold my tongue simply for being perceived as an uppity black.” Refusing to name names, he observes that current city politics have involved more character assassination than any council he’s worked with in his years of service. As the tears continue to flow, Bell savors the emotional goodbye as he tries to end his final council meeting with dramatic flair. But suddenly Gunn interrupts the downward motion of Bell’s gavel, much to the Council President’s exasperation, and leads the council in an off-key rendition of “God Bless America.” Refusing to be outdone, Bell ends the meeting with prayer as councilors join hands.

November 27, 2001

Mayor shares visions of the future

Mayor Bernard Kincaid can’t stop smiling this morning as the new Birmingham City Council is sworn in. Kincaid uses the occasion to present his vision for boosting the city’s viability as a major, progressive metropolis, focusing on mass transit, increased pay for police and fire fighters, retention and expansion of city automobile dealerships, and a “world-class” school system. Referencing the previous council’s habit of stripping funds designed to implement his goals, the Mayor proudly notes that his vision “comports very well” with the issues on which councilors campaigned. He then walks over to individually embrace each councilor.

Love is all around

As predicted, today’s meeting is indeed a lovefest. Newly elected council president Lee Loder, who received a standing ovation when he entered the packed council chambers, praises Kincaid for presenting plans to revitalize the city. The more the Mayor shares ideas, the easier the council’s job will be, says Loder. The rest of the meeting is relatively uneventful, with the council finally approving payment for the February 2001 referendum on the fate of the Water Works. The previous council had repeatedly refused to pay for the referendum.

Matthews continues to rant

During the citizens forum, local community activist and former District Two council candidate Frank Matthews criticizes the council for “tossing out the Sunshine Rule” during this morning’s pre-council meeting when the council convened in executive [private] session for an item on the agenda. The item in reference is the payment of up to $3,000 for an attorney to represent former Council President Bell. Bell’s deposition has been requested by parties in a lawsuit against the city over a $6.9 million contract with Johnson Controls that Bell signed while interim mayor in July 1999. Johnson Controls is suing the city for allegedly not paying for installation of heating and cooling equipment. During the pre-council meeting, Council President Loder admitted to misgivings about meeting in executive session, saying that he didn’t recall any participation in such meetings during his 18-month tenure on the council.

Matthews also complains about paying for the February 2001 Water Works referendum with salary surplus from Information Management Services. “Well, if you’re going to throw out the Sunshine Law, then I guess you would take money from the Information Management Service to further keep this city in the dark,” adds Matthews. Mayor Kincaid’s perpetual smile turns to laughter as Matthews continues. “I hope that this council — great intellectual minds, great debaters, some are even scholars — will not allow this mayor to become a dictator by using manipulation and deception to deceive you.” As members of the audience boo loudly, Matthews pledges to remain a vigilant watchdog, promising, “Frank Matthews will be here to keep you on your toes and in a row like dominoes.”

Smitherman gloats

The new councilors address the public at meeting’s end. Councilor Bert Miller says, “There are no problems, there will only be situations. And situations will be handled!” Miller then gives out his telephone number. Councilor Valerie Abbott, seated next to Miller on the dais, admits that it’s difficult to speak after him. “It’s Miller time all the time,” Abbott laughs. “I’m very thankful to the people who put me in, and the people who didn’t put me in, it’s O.K. I’m here now. And I’m here for everybody.” Councilor Roderick Royal says that someone told him outside the council chambers that he appears taller on his campaign literature. Councilor Carol Reynolds notes that she is proud to be an American, and is thrilled to “restore this city’s pride, this city’s integrity, this city’s dignity.” Councilor Joel Montgomery says he wants to see the city retain ownership of the Water Works, and calls the expenditure of money to council lobbyists “a disgrace.” Councilor Gwen Sykes quotes the late soul crooner Sam Cooke: “It’s been a long time comin’, but I do believe a change is goin’ to come.” Councilor Elias Hendricks notes that he is especially proud to be a councilor since his father ran for the council in 1977. Council President Pro Tem Carole Smitherman, apparently ruffled by Nation of Islam minister William Muhammad’s earlier references to the Koran during the citizens forum, tells Muhammad that the first thing given to councilors by the city was a Bible, and they intend to use it as a guideline to steer the city in the proper direction. Smitherman, whom many suspect will be a candidate for mayor in two years, bragged, “I like to serve people. And I’m glad to have been given that opportunity by the voters of District Six with an overwhelming victory, and having received the highest percentage of votes in the runoff election.” Council President Loder promises that the council will not be marked by its failures, but rather by how high it sets the bar for the city of Birmingham. &

Guns On Parade

Guns On Parade

January 18, 2001

On a peaceful Saturday morning, the stories swapped among the men lounging in the front room of Saint Joseph’s Baptist Church had a common theme: the feeling of helplessness that comes from staring down the barrel of a .357 Magnum. Reverend Abraham Woods, pastor of Saint Joseph’s, recalled a face-to-face confrontation with a shaking, gun-wielding teen robbing a convenience store that Woods had entered to purchase a soda. As the sweating assailant held a gun on Woods, the Reverend started to tell the robber who he was in hopes that the kid would surrender-not a good idea. “He was too nervous for an introduction,” Woods recalled with a chuckle. Frank Matthews, community activist and radio talk show host, nodded his head and laughed as he recalled the night he and his dinner companions were locked in a freezer at Shoneys while the restaurant was being robbed. “I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life,” confessed Matthews.

The scene was Saint Joseph’s annual gun buy-back, held each January on the weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration. Sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, along with area churches and businesses, the weapons swap pays people up to $50 cash in exchange for a weapon. At Birmingham’s first gun buy-back in 1994, 411 guns were collected in 90 minutes-a national record according to Matthews. This year, a steady flow of gun-toting citizens waited patiently outside the church door, which was kept locked at all times. Inside, a Birmingham police officer from the Tactical Operational Unit checked to make sure the guns were not loaded. The officer had already emptied bullets from two pistols by mid-morning.

Frank Matthews, a former gang member who was arrested 33 times before he was 19, but who now goes by the moniker “God’s Gangster,” was designated “gun appraiser and negotiator.” Matthews studied each piece quickly, offering $10 to $20 for most of the surrendered weapons. While many people were happy to get what they could for their guns, one elderly gentleman, dissatisfied with Matthew’s $15 offer, said he would hang onto his .12 gauge double-barreled shotgun. Matthews warned him not to leave the gun laying around his home because his grandchildren might get hurt. “I ain’t got no grandkids!” the disgruntled fellow shouted as he left. “We got a couple of Uzis, and that’s a blessing,” sighed a middle-aged woman as she jotted down the serial numbers of surrendered weapons. Behind her was a long table covered with rifles, pistols, and the pair of coveted Uzis. “This is the gun of choice,” said Matthews, holding up an Uzi [also known as a "street sweeper"] as he repeatedly pulled out, then reinserted, the gun’s clip with considerable dexterity. “When a gang gets hold of an Uzi, it does something to the identity of the gang. Gives them more status,” explained Matthews. One of the Uzis fetched $30, while a .357 Magnum brought $35, the highest pay out of the morning.

A woman in a Betty Boop sweatshirt turned in her .38 Special because “the permit had expired, and I don’t want it no more.” A visibly uncomfortable man handed Matthews a .300 Winchester Magnum. “That’s a terrible gun, isn’t it?” noted Reverend Woods. “You could almost hold off an army with that thing.”

Another woman arrived with a gun-wielding tot. “I’m bringin’ in my little boy. He’s already killed 10 people this morning,” she laughed, as the four year-old aimed his plastic pistol and imitated gunfire at everyone in sight. The kid surrendered his weapon to Reverend Woods, who gave him a glimmering locomotive engine in exchange. “Toy guns and play weapons of destruction; we must do something about the terrible romance people develop with guns at an early age,” noted Woods who shook his head at the pile of approximately 60 weapons collected at the church. “It’s a meaningful way to pay tribute to Dr. King. He was the ‘apostle of nonviolence.’ We are our brother’s keeper, but he’d be appalled to find that many of us have become our brother’s killer.”