1981 – 1990

A Request That Was Heard Around The World

In the early 1980’s, as debate raged over the proposed addition of women to the membership ranks of Rotary, another debate was taking place. This one centered on the issue of inclusion. Both of these debates would, ultimately, permanently change how our club would choose new members.

Since the club’s inception in Chicago, Rotary had been  considered  a  private club with both civic and social agendas. In many clubs across the country there was almost an air of exclusivity associated with the membership. This was true in Birmingham for decades; however by the early 1970’s and early 1980’s Rotary across the country had evolved into more of a  civic  club  than  an  exclusive  private  club.

In the words of Mary Alice Carmichael, a Birmingham Rotarian, and contributor to the 90-year Rotary publication, Ninety Years  of ‘Service Above  Self’, "The mid-part of the twentieth century world-wide had been a  time  of  great challenge, turmoil, and change brought about by an emphasis on  equality of (both) race and gender that had not been prominent on the public agenda earlier. In both of these areas, the Constitution of our club,  written  in  1913-1915, had been mute. (The fact was our original Constitution actually had a 'White males only' membership clause written into the constitutional verbiage. This was possible due to the fact that our charter predated the 1922 date after which all new Rotary clubs had to adopt the standard club constitution.) External pressures were brought to bear world-wide for change and this club was caught in the maelstrom."

A request to open the Birmingham Rotary Club to all persons was made to members of the Board in 1982. The request was quickly voted down and resulted in the resignation of an officer of the club who just happened  to  be,  at  that time, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. He would not be the only one to challenge some members' determination to keep things the  same  way they had always  been.  The  next  time  a  member  made  that  same request,  it  would  have  local   and  national  ramifications.


Spotlight On Birmingham

A year after a Rotary Club member resigned following the rejection of his request to open the club to all persons eligible for membership, another attempt was made.

The then- Editor of the Birmingham Post Herald newspaper told the Board that “his personal  beliefs  did  not   square   with   the   exclusiveness   of   the   club   membership   policy. In the slightly altered words of Mary Alice  Carmichael,  “he  wanted  the  club  to  change its  admission  process  to  include  persons  who  had  (previously)  been  excluded.”  The  Editor  threatened  to  make  his  request   a  personal crusade. He even threatened to   take debate or the lack of debate to the  newspaper  and  challenge  the  club  nationally  to force a change of policy on the Birmingham club. While the threat was taken seriously; once again  the  Board voted the request down and the Editor resigned from the club.

This was a most unpleasant situation  for  the  entire  membership;  and  while  there was a contingency in  the  membership  who  didn’t  want  to  include  others  in  the  club  based on race; most of the opposition was said to be focused on independence of thought. Many members just didn’t want the national  Rotary  organization  or  anyone  else  telling  them what to do. At least in the minds of  many  in  the  club,  this  was  an  invasion  focused   on  a  deliberate  attempt  to throw out tradition.

Birmingham had, over the years, been a major player in race issues and struggles, so  the spotlight was  already  fixed  on  the  Magic  City.  This local Rotary disturbance only helped to turn the spotlight from dim to bright. And the bulb  was  only  getting  hotter.

By  the  1980’s   there   were   thousands   of   non-Caucasian   members   in   Rotary clubs   throughout   the   United   States   and    internationally.   It  would  seem  that  the Rotary Club of  Birmingham  had  become  the  most  visible  opponent  to  change,  continuing to enforce their “white only” membership policy. At this point in the 1980’s,  our  club  appeared to be out of step with rest of the nation. Birmingham’s reputation regarding race preceded our club’s struggles in the 1980’s .But to many, across the country, it was all the   same issue.


Cooler Heads Prevail

Since Birmingham’s Rotary Club had its own Constitution, and one not sanctioned or governed by Rotary International, our  club  leaders  and  many  in  the  membership  did  not feel compelled “to fall in line" with  Rotary  International  and  accept  the  national  Constitution. Our local Constitution had always included the “white-males only” clause; needless to say, that was exceptionally distasteful to those in other parts of the country, as well as to many of our members.

In the 1980’s, Birmingham’s Rotary Club was not the only club not complying with International’s request (indeed, their demand) for all clubs to be in compliance with Rotary’s Constitution. But we were the most visible. Our city’s  race relations  history  made  us  the  most easily- targeted of  all  the  clubs  that  were  fighting Rotary International at that time  over the issue. And as a result there began a flurry of requests by the national press  to interview our officers and board members in order to further quantify this club’s position on membership matters. In the  words  of  Mary  Alice  Carmichael,  “Suddenly  our  Club’s  struggles (with both the Constitution and race/gender issues) became more public.” Not only were our members subjected to requests for interviews, on several occasions, reporters would show up uninvited to meetings, thrusting “microphones and cameras into the faces of high-profile members.”  This  was  negative  publicity  for  our  club  and  our  city,  which  all  had  seen before.

As the situation began to look more difficult, Dr. Leslie S. Wright was introduced into  the fray. Dr. Wright was, at that time, the retired President of Samford College. He was a Birmingham  Rotary  member,  and  at  that  critical  time,  a   Director   of   Rotary   International. He was attending a  pre-Rotary  International  Convention  meeting  where  he was the recipient of “bad vibes” from International’s hierarchy. While he was there, a  statement was sent out to all at the meeting that Rotary International would not recognize anyone  from  any  of  fifty-five  older  clubs  whose  constitutions  were  not  in   compliance with  the  current  Rotary Constitution.   Dr.   Wright   immediately   made   urgent   calls   to   top Rotary officials in Birmingham. He wanted our club to  comply  with  the  demands  of Rotary International. Partly as a result of Dr. Wrights’s stature within the community, and triggered by his visit to the Rotary International meeting, the club settled  the  dispute  amicably, voting almost unanimously to adopt the standard  club  Constitution.  It  would  appear that Dr. Wright’s influence and  stature  within  the  community  was  just  the  right “wild card”  needed  to  end the dispute.

On    November    20th    1985    the    weekly    RotaryGram introduced as our new member, Dr. Arthur G.  Gaston,  an African-American  entrepreneur,  who  would  remain  in  the  club attending  meetings even  after  his 100th birthday.


The Birmingham Rotary Club Residency at The Harbert Center

The Birmingham Rotary Club was first conceived by Harry B. Wheelock, a leading architect, and other business leaders at the old Turn-Verein Hall in the city. The first Rotary Club luncheon meeting was held at the  Gold  Lion  Restaurant in 1913, but over the years the club has moved around from one Rotary  venue  to  another.

As the club evolved into a larger and larger organization the luncheon meetings were held at large hotels, such as the original Tutwiler Hotel, the Southern Club, the Daniel Building, and the First  Alabama  Bank  Building.  In  Mary Alice Carmichael’s pamphlet, Ninety Years of Service above Self, she writes that some were saying in the 1970’s and 1980’s that "we had been kicked and cuffed around from the Tutwiler to the Daniel Building and to the Civic Center." The constant moves were disrupting to the membership and the ability of the organization “to function as a civic club.”

It was 1982-1983 when Rotary member and then-president, John M. Harbert  worked  with  fellow  member  Hall  Thompson  to  locate  and  establish  a permanent home for Rotary in the city center.

During 1984-1985, The Rotary Club of Birmingham Foundation was formed and incorporated by John Harbert, Charles B. Webb Jr. and Joseph M. Farley, two past presidents and one their current president. It was at that point that construction began on the new Harbert Center.

On June 18th, 1986 our Rotary Club first met at The Harbert Center. The Kiwanis Club of Birmingham, the Monday Morning Quarterback Club, The Redstone Club, the Lions Club, The Rotaract Club Of Birmingham,  the  Birmingham Business Alliance, The Birmingham Venture Club, The Birmingham Tip-Off Club and others also utilize  the  functional  space  ---  a  positive testimony to John Harbert and Hall Thompson and other members who  envisioned such a facility where local organizations could meet.