It took attorney Jim Rotch 52 years and about five minutes to write what would become the Birmingham Pledge, while on a road trip back to the Magic City from Mobile.
Rotch returned to Mobile Monday night at the University of South Alabama’s Student Center to sign Mobilians up for the pledge that promises to help end racism, during the second community conversation on race.
“It was very special to come back under circumstances where the community recognizes a path forward that it needs to take,” Rotch said. “Nobody’s got all the answers, but there are a lot of thoughtful people and the people in there are dedicated.”
Rotch, a partner at Bradley, Arnt, Boult and Cummings, LLC in Birmingham, wrote the Birmingham Pledge in 1997 on a return trip from a Leadership Alabama meeting in Mobile. Organizers of the second community conversation on race adapted it for the Mobile Pledge, which those in attendance signed after the event.
Rotch, a Fort Payne native, said he grew up in a time when racism was more overt. He said he remembered seeing KKK rallies in the local park for the city that had a small, segregated black community.
“That’s the kind of background I grew up with,” he said.
He said he remembers visiting family in Grove Hill, where he saw “the aftermath of slavery.”
“It became painfully clear who were the haves and who were the have-nots,” Rotch said.
After graduating from Auburn University, Rotch went to the University of Virginia for law school. It was during the Vietnam War and he was enrolled in ROTC, with the goal of being commissioned as an Army officer. While in training in Pennsylvania, Rotch made his first black friend.
A turning point in Rotch’s life is when he told that friend, named Fred, to come visit him and Fred said he would never set foot in Alabama.
Rotch said while racism is not as overt as it used to be, it still exists and he wrote the Birmingham Pledge as a way to commit people to help rid it from the world.
“If everybody in the world woke up and said ‘I’m done with racism,’ if everybody did that we’d have no more racism,” he told the crowd. “I’m not naïve enough to think it’ll be gone forever, but we need to work toward a world without it.”
Rotch set up a nonprofit organization for the Birmingham Pledge with a board of directors and an advisory board. The organization has a slogan, he said.
“Sign it, live it, share it.”
“You have to use your sphere of influence,” he said. “How you behave determines how those people in your sphere behave.”
After Rotch’s speech, those in attendance broke into smaller, diverse groups to follow instructions organizers gave them including “talking for a few minutes about your racial, ethnic, or cultural background, sharing a personal story or example to illustrate how your background or experience have contributed to your attitudes about race relations and what are the characteristics of an ideal community as it relates to race.”
Groups had about 30 minutes of discussion before organizer and facilitator Dr. Bree Hayes asked some to share with the larger group. C.J. Foster shared his and his group’s views on the subjects presented. He said the group discussed looking into prejudice when it comes to appearance, which isn’t necessarily racist.
“We need to give people an opportunity to be themselves,” he said.
Foster, a self-described descendent of slavery, said he believes personally that “people of color need healing” and it’s hard to forget about the way things were when while driving on Interstate 65, a giant Confederate flag comes into view.
“We’re told to forget slavery, but how can we with that hanging up,” he said, recognizing, “I know it means different things to different people.”
After group discussions, Rotch led the crowd in the Mobile Pledge and had attendees sign that they would follow it.
Turnout was lighter for the second community conversation on race than the first Aug. 18 at the Alabama School for Math and Science, but USA’s Dr. Joél Lewis said that the group was the right size for the activity.
“I’m encouraged by the turnout,” she said. “It’s a good, diverse group.”
The conversations on race are expected to get a lot smaller moving forward. The conversations were originally proposed by Mayor Sandy Stimpson but have since been organized by Mobile United.
There will be a series of events throughout October and November at the American Red Cross at 35 N. Sage Avenue. Those meetings start on Monday, Oct. 20 at 6 p.m. and go through Nov. 10.
Meetings will also be held at the Baker Gaines campus of Bishop State Community College, starting on Wednesday, Oct. 15 at 11:30 a.m. and continuing once a week through Nov. 5.