Shelley the Playboy
A local radio legend is honored by his peers.
Legendary Birmingham radio personality, radio station owner, and advertising executive Dr. Shelley Stewart will be honored on October 2 at the Cahaba Grand Conference Center. The evening will be MC’d by WJOX talk show host and longtime Stewart friend Paul Finebaum, with a performance by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. An assortment of Shelley’s pals will offer memories of the man once deemed “a pioneer of radio” by the Smithsonian Institute.
President of Birmingham advertising and communications firm O2 Ideas, Stewart also manages the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, a nonprofit organization named for his mother. The foundation, which will benefit from the evening’s proceeds, seeks to reduce school-dropout rates and promote literacy, and has produced the documentary Inside Out, which includes reflections of of who failed to achieve high school diplomas.
Born in Birmingham in the 1930s, Stewart’s life changed drastically at age seven when he witnessed his mother’s murder at the hands of his ax-wielding father. Stewart was forced to survive alone at a very young age, eventually seeking refuge in a horse stable with permission of its white owners. He later moved in with a white family in the Birmingham suburban area now known as Crestline. A memoir, The Road South, tells the story of his odyssey from childhood poverty and neglect to that of wealth and immense success. Ten years ago, as he celebrated 50 years of broadcasting, Dr. Stewart told Black & White: “I went to black schools, of course . . . but after sunset, I was living and socializing with whites. I’m not saying I was less subject to prejudice than other blacks—I remember Mr. Clyde [the head of the family with whom Stewart lived] one time knocking a man to the floor for calling me a nigger—but I did learn that all white people weren’t the same. As a young black boy, that was a revelation to me. The way I came up gave me a fairly unique perspective on both blacks and whites—our commonalities as well as our differences.”
Stewart did not hesitate to challenge old friend Richard Arrington in the years following Arrington’s election (which he achieved with Stewart’s support) in 1979 as Birmingham’s first black mayor. A decade after the election, Stewart began to differ with Arrington and his political machine, the Jefferson County Citizens Coalition, over how the organization wielded its power. When Arrington’s tenure as mayor ended in 1998, Stewart remarked, “I saw that government in the city of Birmingham was getting to be about dealing with personalities rather than issues. That impedes progress, whether it’s Bull Connor or George Wallace or Dick Arrington that’s doing it . . . when you’re talking about power politics in Birmingham, you have to conclude that everything has changed, and yet nothing has changed. The people still have a boot on their neck, and the fact that the color of the foot in the boot has changed doesn’t make it any better.”
Finebaum continued: “I remember in the mid- to late- ’80s, and even into the ’90s, he broke with Arrington quite a bit. I found that to be pretty remarkable. But Shelley didn’t care. I think that’s why he was successful. Some people who are pushing a specific point of view always play the party line or company line, and that’s what separated him from the pack.” &
An Evening with Shelley the Playboy; October 2 at the Cahaba Grand Conference Center (former Healthsouth location on Highway 280); Tickets are $150 each; reception at 6 p.m., dinner at 7 p.m. Go to www.shelleytheplayboy.com for more information.