The Foot Soldier of Birmingham with Malcolm Gladwell | E4/S2: Revisionist History podcast

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The Foot Soldier of Birmingham with Malcolm Gladwell

Episode 4 | Season 2| Revisionist History
Length: 34 min | Released: July 6, 2017

Malcolm Gladwell: Before we begin, a warning. This episode contains material that may be upsetting to some listeners.

Not long ago, I drove from Atlanta, Georgia to Birmingham, Alabama. It's a straight shot west on I-20, 150 miles of rolling hills and piney woods. I got off the freeway on the downtown exit, just before what the locals call  "the malfunction junction" and drove a few blocks south, until I came to Kelly Ingram Park, which covers a full city block right in front of the 16th Street Baptist Church. I wanted to see a statue that stands in the park, a famous statue. I've always loved statues, I find them moving, don't know why. Maybe it's because they're a representation of something that we have chosen to take seriously, to memorialize in a permanent form. With a statue, you're saying to the future,  "This is what I want you to remember about my generation."

The statue I came to see is at one end of Kelly Ingram Park. It's of a police officer, big guy menacing, heavy pair of sunglasses. He has a dog on a leash, a big German shepherd, and the dog is lunging, huge fangs bared at a young Black boy, who's leaning back hands to his sides, almost like he's sacrificing himself. It's called Foot Soldier. It looks simple, but that statue is not what you think, Trust me.

My name is Malcolm Gladwell. You're listing to Revisionist History, my podcast about things overlooked and misunderstood. This episode is the second in what are going to be a few episodes this season on race and civil rights. On race in the United States, I'm an outsider, I'm Canadian. My family is half West Indian, which is a very different cultural experience than being an African-American. My mom had a friend, a Jamaican, who went down to Georgia once in 1970s. When she came back, she said,  "The racism there cut like a knife." I couldn't have been more than 8 or 9, and that phrase startled me. It seems so visceral. But then I moved to the US as an adult and it seemed like the way race was discussed didn't cut like a knife at all.

What I saw around race in the United States was evasion and euphemism. The subject of my last episode was the Brown decision. For half a century, the integration story has been told with all the suffering taken out. Why? Is it really necessary that every grand civil rights narrative be turned into a fairy tale? Which brings me to Kelly Ingram Park and its statue of the police officer and the dog and the boy. There's a nice and tidy story you can tell about that statue. But the real story is much different.

Last summer, I got a call from a man who was friends with the widow of the police officer depicted in that statute. I'd written about the officer and the dog in my book, David and Goliath, but she wanted to tell me the rest of the story, so I met with her. Then I went back to Birmingham a second time to look for the boy in the statute, and then a third time to Tuskegee, two hours south of Birmingham. And there, on a long lazy afternoon, I sat in the town museum with an artist named Ronald McDowell.

Ronald McDowell: Me and Al Coltrane, me and James Brown andÔøΩ

MG: Ronald McDowell is an extraordinary man, spidery and fine featured. He showed me his portfolio and told me, in his urgent confessional whisper, about how he was once walking down Sunset Boulevard, years ago, and ran into Louis Armstrong's nephew, who took him to see Michael Jackson, who wanted McDowell to teach him art, which led, in turn, to McDowell helping out on the album Thriller.

RM: Yeah, I did the sketches for Michael, on Thriller.

MG: Oh, wow.

RM: I was trying to make him into a Black Superman. And on the back of this piece of paper is a drawing Michael did for me, when we were working on Thriller. That's Michael's artwork. He did several pieces for me; that's just one of them.

MG: Richard Arrington, who was the first Black mayor of Birmingham, used to call Ron McDowell  "Mac," which suits him perfectly. He has an air of mischief about him, which we'll get to.

RM: That's pictures of and Johnnie Cochran, Spike Lee, Natalie Cole, that's in the state capital, first African-American painting hanging in the state of Alabama.

MG: Oh, wow.

RM: Governor Siegelman commissioned me to do that.

MG: Mac did the statue in Kelly Ingram Park. He's the one responsible. Birmingham is a strange and beautiful place. It was a steel town, like Pittsburgh was, and at the height of the steel industry, there was a lot of money there. There's an enormous hill on the south side of town, Mountain Brook, with a gorgeous country club and graceful, prewar homes. That's the wealthy, White part of Birmingham. Down the hill is the other Birmingham where Blacks and Whites lived in uneasy proximity. They used to call Birmingham the Johannesburg of the South, or  "Bombingham," because bombs were the weapon of choice for White supremacists who wanted to keep Black people in their place. There's an old joke from that period that tells you all you really need to know, a Black man in Chicago wakes up one morning and tells his wife that Jesus had come to him in a dream and told him to go to Birmingham. His wife is horrified.  "Did Jesus say he'd go with you?" The husband replies,  "He said he'd go as far as Memphis."

Birmingham was where Martin Luther King staged one of the most dramatic protests of the civil rights movement and King chose Birmingham for a good reason. He wanted to strike at the symbol of racial oppression, to get ordinary Americans to understand just how bad things were for Black people in the south. So through the long spring of 1963, King and his people organized sit-ins to protest segregation, then boycotts, then marches. They called it Project C, for confrontation. They were trying to provoke the Birmingham Chief of Police, a troglodyte named Bull Connor, into doing something so outrageous that it would turn the tide of public opinion in their favor. And that's exactly what happened.

May 3, 1963. King's people start at 16th Street Baptist Church, right next to Kelly Ingram Park. They come out in waves, marching alongside the park and then continuing on through downtown Birmingham. There are huge crowds, tons of police. In the middle of everything, a photographer named Bill Hudson takes a picture of a White police officer with dark sunglasses and a big German shepherd; the dog is lunging at a young Black teenager. The next day, The New York Times publishes the photograph above the fold across three columns on the front page of its weekend paper as does basically every other major newspaper in the country. President Kennedy is asked about the photo and he's appalled. The secretary of state says it will,  "Embarrass our friends abroad and make our enemies joyful." It's discussed on the floor of Congress, editorials are written, people have debates about it. It's exactly what King wants, something to show the rest of the world just how bad things are in the south. And the tide turns. A year later, Congress passes the Civil Rights Act, one of the most important pieces of legislation in the history of the United States. The Civil Rights Act, people always say, was written in Birmingham.

Kelly Ingram Park is now a shrine to the events of 1963. The first Black mayor of Birmingham, Richard Arrington, takes office in 1979 and decides to fill this little patch of history with sculptures that tell the story of the movement. He commissions one of Martin Luther King, another Fred Shuttlesworth, who was a key leader at the Birmingham protests. There's one of the four little girls killed when White supremacists bomb the 16th Street Baptist church in September of 1963. Finally, Arrington turns to the photo, the famous photo, for one final statute. And he calls up Mac McDowell, who's moved out to Tuskegee from California and transformed himself into a kind of house artist for the civil rights movement.

RM: He said,  "I gotta get a statue done right 'cause the people that marched in the movement are complaining about the children don't look like them." The children had White features with Black hair and, and, there were, there were a lot of complaints. And he said,  "I need you to do a, a design of this image, of this photograph, of this boy and this police officer and the dog attacking him."

MG: The other artists with sculptures in Kelly Ingram Park are big names, White men with impressive resumes. Mac, a kid from the projects of Oakland, entirely self-taught, he had, in fact, never done a sculpture before, a detail that he conveniently failed to tell Richard Arrington. The mayor just wants Mac to do some sketches, provide a guide.

RM: This look on his face was of, a look of frustration, like,  "Nobody's doing what I want, they're not getting it, none of the sculptures." You know, I was, like, I can't say no to him because he's the powerful wizard, he's the great Oz, you know, of Birmingham.

MG: The next thing you know, Mac's doing the whole thing.

RM: And I started sculpting and then, three hours later, I was complete. And I took it to Arrington aboutÔøΩ I didn't want him to think I did it so quick, so I waited a week and took it to him and he said,  "You got the commission. How much?" And so, the rest is history.

MG: It was unveiled in a special ceremony, in May 1995; it's called Foot Soldier because that was a term used to describe the people who marched in Martin Luther King's army. On the statue's granite base it reads,  "This sculpture is dedicated to the Foot Soldiers of the Birmingham civil rights movement." On a little plaque next to it is famous photo on which the statue is based. If you want to see a picture of it, we have one up on

RM: And the first people to see it was Stevie Wonder's and Emma Teel's mother. And what I didn't know at the time I did the statute, when you're doing bronze, you have to smooth everything. Because I was untrained, I didn't smooth the rocks, so Stevie was feeling the rocks and he cut his hand. And one of the men in the parks was there, and he told me, he said,  "I, I'm getting blood on my hand because Stevie Wonder did." I was, like,  "Oh, My God."

MG: But it's almost, it's almost, it's almost biblical.

RM: Yeah.

MG: It's almost like he's blessing the park with his blood.

RM: Yeah. Stevie got cut on those rocks of that sculpture.

MG: Foot Soldier is the most powerful sculpture in Kelly Ingram Park. Nothing else comes close. And maybe that's where the trouble starts.

The name of the police officer in the photograph was Richard Middleton. Everyone called him Dick. His best friend on the force was Bobby Hayes, big guy, lives near a golf course outside Birmingham, must be in his 80s by now. Hayes and Middleton started as police officers in Birmingham right at the moment when the Civil Rights Movement was asserting itself. The police department was all White and all male back then, but in the streets, the balance of power was shifting. When integration came to the Birmingham school system, Hayes remembers it as bewildering.

Bobby Hayes: If you were a cop, nobody really liked you because we were carrying the Black kids into school, that's what we were ordered to do and they were gonna get in. That's just the way it was, we had no choice. The Black people didn't like you because you were policeman, the White people didn't like you because you're protecting the Black kids and carrying them where the crowd, the goofies, didn't want them to go.

MG: In 1963, King's protest campaign was headquartered in 16th Street Baptist Church, which is an old red brick building on the northwest corner of Kelly Ingram Park. The protesters would come out in the late afternoon, march around the park on their way downtown. They were trained in nonviolence, marched according to a strict schedule. It was a military operation. Crowds of people would gather to see the spectacle, the police were supposed to keep the protesters and the crowd apart. The protests get bigger and bigger, the crowds get bigger and bigger, it's late spring so it's starting to get really hot. The police chief, Bull Connor, starts locking up everyone he can. Then Connor says,  "To hell with it, bring in the dogs."

BH: Of course, there was a lot of noise, a lot of, a lot of tension in the air, a lot of people yelling and screaming. Bricks started coming in, you know, throwing bricks. It, it got to be a, a really ugly sight real quick, real quick.

MG: Dick Middleton, the cop in the photo, was a member of the city's K9 Unit. He had a German shepherd named Leo. He and the other members of the tactical unit were posted behind a barricade, a row of wooden saw horses running parallel to the curb. There's a line of cops and dogs in a kind of no-man's land between the bystanders and the protesters.

BH: He was inside the barricade. The, the crowd was on the other side. And they were taunting the police, and then, of course, all we could do to was just stand. The police, all they do, just stand there at that time. Dick was well back, the way he told me, he was 10 yards, maybe, back of the barricades. And a, a guy came around a barricade.

MG: So here we have a Foot Soldier, in the middle of all the mayhem, cutting through the no-man's land towards the sidewalk. And Middleton's German shepherd Leo lunges at him. That's the moment Bill Hudson captures in his famous photograph and Ron McDowell captures in his statue, the confrontation between the innocent Foot Soldier and the snarling face of racial oppression. Bill Hudson's editor says later that he picked that particular photo out of the many taken that day because he was riveted by the saintly calm of the young man and the snarling jaws of the German shepherd. Here's where the story starts to get complicated.

Interviewer: This is an interview, today Saturday May 25, 1996, at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, with Mr. Walter Gadsden, of Atlanta, Georgia. Okay, how did you get involved in the Civil Rights Movement?

Walter Gadsden: Now that's, that's one thing that, uh, I always had a problem with. I never did get involved with the Civil Rights Movement.

MG: Walter Gadsden is the boy in the photograph, the one bitten by Leo. He's a mysterious figure. He was interviewed at the time about the photograph by Jet Magazine, back in 1963, but only briefly. From time to time, other people have come forward to say that they were the one in the photograph, not Gadsden, but those claims seem dubious. Meanwhile, Gadsden disappears, people try to find him and can't. All that seems to exist is this oral history that you're hearing done in honor of the unveiling of Ron McDowell's statue. And the interview is strange because it doesn't go the way the interviewer thinks it's going to go. She starts with the obvious question,  "You were a Foot Soldier. Tell me how that came about," and he says,  "I wasn't a Foot Soldier."

WG: But the fact is, the day of that movement, I was supposed to have been in school. But a friend of mine, a, uh, acquaintance of mine told me that, earlier that, uh, Martin Luther King was in town that day and that he was going to, uh, be there, and I said I wanted to be there, too. I wanted to come and find out what it was all about.

MG: Walter Gadsden is a bystander. The famous statue in Kelly Ingram Park,  "Foot Soldier, is not, in fact, of a foot soldier. It gets stranger.

Interviewer: Okay, and when you left school, where did you come downtown?

WG: Uh, to, uh, the park area, the Kelly Ingram Park over there. So we started walking toward the, uh, activity and, as I approached and got closer, they turned and looked at me and I saw them coming toward me, so I turned to leave.

MG: He was walking down the street with the protestors coming towards him, so he veers off to get out of their way and rejoin the spectators on the sidewalk. Ducks in behind the row of saw horses, where he runs into Officer Middleton and Leo.

WG: So as I turned, and started to walk away, I was grabbed and the rest of it.

Interviewer: Grabbed by the policemen?

WG: Grabbed by the policeman and yanked toward him.

Interviewer: Is that when the dog bit you? And the dog bites you at that time?

WG: As I can remember that, that happened simultaneously.

Interviewer: Did youÔøΩ?

WG: because, uh, the, the policeman grabbed me at, I don't remember what hand, but the dogÔøΩ They, he grabbed me with one handÔøΩ It, it happened so fast, there was nothing I could do except throw up a leg and try to protect myself. And as I was doing that, there I went.

MG: If you look at the famous photo, Gadsden's explanation makes sense. Leo is lunging; the bite is a millisecond away, but Gadsden and Middleton just look startled — the way people do if they unexpectedly bump into each other. Gadsden has his knee up as a reflex, and his hand on Middleton as if to steady himself. Middleton has one hand on Gadsden and his other arm is flexed. He's yanking back on the leash. Leo has freaked out and he's trying to restrain him. Leo, Whoa! Middleton's colleague, Bobby Hayes, made the same point to me. Middleton's not letting Leo loose on Gadsden; quite the opposite.

BH: If you look at the picture, you can tell he's holding the dog back. But that, that line's taut, the dog's feet are in the air, the best I recall, and Dick's got him here. He's holding that line. He's not gonna let him bite that guy.

MG: Now, what does Gadsden say about all this? Does he think he's been the victim of police brutality? Not at all. In fact, he can't seem to understand why everyone makes such a big deal out of what happened to him that day.

Interviewer: How did your family members react to your participation?

WG: Well, they were angry because I didn't attend school that day.

Interviewer: Okay.

MG: He appears in an image that transfixed the world and his parents are mad that he skipped school! The interviewer then tries to get at Gadsden's connections to the struggle for civil rights.

Interviewer: Okay, well, the church where your parents or your family members were attending, were very involved in the Civil Rights Movement during that time, do you know?

WG: They never told me of it.

Interviewer: What benefits do you, uh, your family, and the community realize as a result to that, uh, movement?

WG: None.

MG:  "None." In answer to the question,  "What benefits did your family receive from the Civil Rights Movement?" He answers,  "None." He's not having any of it. Gadsden's interview in fact, just gets weirder.

Interviewer: Okay. If you were in control of an organization or a movement or such, and could go back and change some things, what would you change?

WG: Okay, the things that I would change would be a more careful choice of people involved in all of those movements. There are too many, uh, well to be just blunt, crooked people. Many of the people that were involved and, and had notoriety became too crooked.

MG: The most famous photograph of the civil rights movement is of a startled cop trying desperately to hold his dog back from biting a bystander who wasn't that much of a fan of the civil rights movement.

WG: I'm wondering, still, why me. Because I've never had any notoriety whatsoever concerning that picture. That picture was in the paper, but many other people were too, many other situations — buses, bombings.

Interviewer: Yes, but they chose to use the little boy, at 15, for that statue.

WG: The little boy in age, but not the little boy in size.

Interviewer: Were you surprised when we found out about it?

WG: I was totally flabbergasted; I didn't know what to think.

MG: And Gadsden's main objection? He's light-skinned. He says the statue makes him look dark-skinned.

WG: That statue doesn't look like me. It looks like a totally different boy. That looks like an African boy.

Interviewer: The way you feel about it, it looks like an African boy?

WG: That looks like an African boy.

Interviewer: Uh, the color or the features?

WG: The features. The lips, the size. You take a look at the picture there, and the statue there, the boy's short; I was tall for my age.

MG: If you listen to the whole interview, it nearly goes off the rails at this point. The interviewer expected to find a heroic civil rights veteran. Instead, she's getting a grumpy old man still wedded to some of the oldest and most awkward of Black prejudices.

Interviewer: We're very proud of it and I hope you will be too. And now that we know who you are, we can add a name under there, that you were the young boy that the sculpture used.

WG: Well, I'm still wondering why, after all the information that I had given and, and, and all that. uh, all that does is establish me as being a young, African boy, which I'm not.

Interviewer: You prefer being called a Negro?

WG: I prefer being called what I am, a Colored.

Interviewer: Oh, oh you preferÔøΩ But weren't Colored?

WG: I am.

Interviewer: Okay, okay. Okay.

MG: Euphemism and evasion. At the beginning, I said that what I object to is the way so many stories about race get cleaned up, sanitized. So the Brown decision becomes a fairy tale in which Black people triumph without effort. Well, here's the flip side. When we stop evading and just listen, it gets complicated. Our hero Walter Gadsden isn't all that heroic. As for the bad guy, the officer, his colleague Bobby Hayes says he wasn't a bad guy. Did Officer Hayes tell me things that surprised me? And did listening to Walter Gadsden shock me? Absolutely, because I'm no different from anyone else; I like the fairy tale.

So the person who invited me down to Birmingham in the first place was Dick Middleton's widow; everyone calls her Mrs. Klingler. Her husband died not long ago and I think she felt it was time to speak out. We met at a barbecue restaurant in downtown Birmingham, sat upstairs.

MG: So he's a police officer at a time when Birmingham is, obviously, going through some very tumultuous times. Can you tell me about that?

Mrs. Klingler: The first, that was the first 10 years, I was still learning to speak English. I didn't really know what's going on; I didn't understand what's going on.

MG: Mrs. Klingler was from Germany, she met Richard when he was stationed there with the army. She says what happened on that spring day in 1963 was like a shadow over her husband.

Mrs. Klingler: He went to work and come home and enjoyed the family. Uh, but I knew something is going on, you know, then later on, you see the picture in the paper, uh, he never really discussed it.

MG: She had a big book with her, filled with clippings of her husband's career and other photographs from that day in Kelly Ingram Park. She wanted to set the record straight. Her husband was unfairly vilified.

Mrs. Klingler: He'd done his job. And he was, he was spit at, he was thrown rocks at, and he did not let the guy put the dog to him. He was holding the leash away from him, if you see other pictures what happened. This was not the right picture. This was not the truth.

MG:  "This was not the truth." For the longest time afterwards, they got hate mail.

MG: So how soon did the letters start coming?

Mrs. Klingler: Just right, I'm sure right the next month or so when it went all over the world. Just as ugly as you can imagine.

MG: Yeah. Did he ever talk to any journalist orÔøΩ Do you know?

Mrs. Klingler: No.

MG: He never gave interviews?

Mrs. Klingler: No. He didn't give no interviews because I think he felt like what he was portrayed asÔøΩ They would not tell the truth.

MG: Yeah, yeah.

Mrs. Klingler: No matter what he say, no matter what he would do, they would not believe him. All they'll look at the picture, that's all.

MG: Do you think your husband suffered?

Mrs. Klingler: I think he has, yes.

MG: There's a statue in Kelly Ingram Park of one of the most iconic moments in civil rights history and everyone directly involved in that moment thinks it didn't happen that way. Oh Mac, what did you do?

MG: You said earlier that when you draw, you try to inhabit the characters.

RM: yes.

MG: Tell me your emotional reactions to that photograph.

RM: Well, I saw that the boy was being about 6'4, the officer was maybe 5'10, 5'9. And I said,  "This is a movement about power." So I made the little boy younger and smaller, and the officer taller and stronger. The arm of the law is so strong, that's why his arm is almost, like, straight. And the dog is more like a wolf than a real dog. Because if I'm a little boy, that's what I would see. I would see like this superman hovering over me, putting this big old giant monster of a dog in my groin area, in my private area. And so, that's what I envisioned when I first saw the photograph.

MG: And you changed it. In the photograph I noticed the boy is leaning in and in your sculpture, he's leaning back. Tell me about that.

RM: He's leaning back because I wanted to depict him showing that,  "I'm not going to fight you, I'm not leaving, I'm not moving, I'm standing, but I'm not gonna fight you. This is a non-violent protest." That's why his hands are open and he's going back, like,  "Do whatever you're gonna do. Put the dog on me, beat me with the club, whatever you wanna do." And I saw all of that when I saw the photograph.

MG: We were in the Tuskegee History Center, a museum on Elm Street, not far from the university. It's in what looks like an old bank and it's filled with exhibits of the town's extraordinary history. The infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, The Tuskegee airmen, Rosa Parks, Tuskegee native. McDowell's work was all over the walls. He took me on a little tour then we sat down and he took out his portfolio.

RM: Here are the statues.

MG: Those glasses are likeÔøΩ Were the glasses the sameÔøΩ Did you make the glasses bigger too?

RM: Mm-hmm.

MG: Yeah.

RM: They're bigger.

MG: Mac has a whole section on the statue — preliminary drawings, sketches, photographs.

RM: So he's almost like a blind officer. He doesn't even see the kid, because he's so far beyond that.  "Killed this nigger. Attack this nigger." He saw past the reality of this is a hu-, innocent chi-, human child, a human being, that's why he was wearing blind people glasses like that.

MG: That is so interesting, because when you see that, that's the thing I couldn't put my finger on. The officer is behaving as if he's blind. The dog is attacking; he doesn't even see the boy.

RM: You're the first person I told that to.

MG: That's so interesting.

RM: See how vicious the dog looks?

MG: Oh, my! That is a wolf.

RM: Mm-hmm. I did the hair with aÔøΩ I don't have, I, I didn't know what instruments to use, I did all this with a pencil. Penciled in the hairs and I just do the teeth like that andÔøΩ

MG: Oh, look at the teeth!

RM: Mm-hmm, I did that on purpose.

MG: CurvedÔøΩ


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