I woke up last Monday morning giddy with democracy. While the rest of the world went off to attend to its customary drudgery, I set off on a journey to explore the very limits of civic responsibility. I had been called to jury duty.
There are those who receive such a summons and actually wail aloud. Others skip the wailing and start plotting the axes of a plausible excuse for their absence. I, instead, welcome the chance to ditch work and get paid ten bucks a day to participate in the heavy lifting of jurisprudence.
As it turned out, I didn’t get near a pulley. After arriving promptly at 8:30, my John Grisham buzz gave way to a Franz Kafka torpor. A lot of my fellow summonees were excused and departed, and after a half-hour break mid-morning, there was another lull until 11:50 when I heard my name called. I got in line with 30 other democracy lovers and headed for circuit court across the street, just in time to be released for a 90-minute lunch break.
At 1:30, we all returned to the small courtroom, where the time-honored process of voir dire — you may have read about it in Runaway Jury — apparently exempted me from sitting in judgment with my peers.
Reporting back next day, I was dismayed to find even less going on. We got a three-hour lunch break, and once it was confirmed that no judges required additional jurists, we were set loose for good with the thanks of a grateful county and a check for a double sawbuck in our mitts.
Two days of sitting in rooms and not a moment of civic enlightenment to show for it. Not even a visitation from the ghost of Clarence Darrow. My tour of jury duty ended before I could obtain any insight into the deeper meaning of justice in America.
Well, except for the one.
It was Tuesday, during our three-hour break. I’d walked over to Jim Reed’s bookstore to bask in the antiquities and wound up in an edifying conversation about radio geniuses Bob and Ray, two of the comedy Illuminati whose work informed David Letterman’s, whether he knew it or not. (I suspect he did; Chris Elliott, who used to perform bits on Dave’s Late Night show, is Bob’s son.)
I ordered a book about B & R then started walking aimlessly around the City Center, looking at empty storefronts and upstart start-ups alike. You read the message in this paper all the time, but you can confirm it whenever you stroll downtown: Birmingham is hanging in. There may not be anyone in City Hall to thank for it — are they kidding with the astronomical rates for parking? — but business people are doing their best to make our town a going concern.
After a pause for coffee at Brick and Tin, I thought to take a gander at the continuing renovation of the Lyric Theatre on Third Avenue. I was standing under the marquee, squinting up into the sunshine when, out of the dusty shadows within, Glenny Brock, former Welder and current Lyricist, pulled me inside.
An impromptu dedication was about to take place in the unfinished lobby of the theater and, close enough to being a member of the press, I was being invited to observe. As my eyes adjusted to the indoor light in the lobby, I realized I was on the fringe of a group of extremely well dressed ladies.
They, I learned, were representatives of the Birmingham, Tri-City and Magic City chapters of The Links, Incorporated. Before you ask, it’s an international volunteer service organization, founded in Philadelphia in 1946 and dedicated, according to its website, to “enriching, sustaining and ensuring the culture and economic survival of African Americans and other persons of African ancestry.”
The Links ladies were in town for a regional conference, and part of their itinerary was a trip to the Lyric. When the theater opened in 1914, it was a showplace for the national vaudeville circuit run by B. F. Keith, whose practice throughout the country was to offer entertainment to integrated audiences. Birmingham, of course, was a Jim Crow town, but when the Lyric was built, it was with segregated seating. White people entered through the main doors on Third Avenue, but “colored” people coming to the same show had to come in through a door on the 18th Street side which led to a tunnel and staircase to the upper balcony, their mandated seating.
It would have been easy to redesign the new Lyric to ignore that ignoble history, but the folks at Birmingham Landmarks, the nonprofit group spearheading the renovation, chose to deal with it. Though the stairs and the tunnel remain intact, the concrete barrier between the separate entrances has been taken down. Henceforth, thanks to the ladies of The Links, Inc. and the artists at Soverow Glass Studio on First Avenue South, there will be a beautifully etched glass door marked “Colored Entrance.” An inscription describes the original circumstances of the architecture and concludes, “This reminder of our past hopefully can help avoid divisions among us in the future.”
As Landmarks board chairman Danny Evans was reading the inscription to the little group in the lobby, I realized that this was the manifestation of justice I’d been hoping to see. I was reminded that the laws of our country, which had initially relegated people of color to partially human status, evolved for the better, thanks to the efforts of individual citizens working together. It turned out to be one of the better chapters in the continuing history of the republic.
Every day, from great chambers in the Capitol to little rooms in Jefferson County Circuit Court, dedicated people attend to the machinery of law on our behalf. If you get the chance to help that machinery run smoothly, take it. You might be surprised what you learn.