I the Minority

By Jerry D. Haight

During my first week as General Manager of the Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA), Ron Barnes, the Assistant General Manager and I met for lunch. Afterward, Ron asked if we could go to the bank to cash his payroll check. I, too, needed to cash my own check and off to the bank we went.

Ron was ahead of me in line.  When he came to the teller, he presented his check. “May I see your driver’s license?” asked the teller. Ron produced his driver’s license. “Would you please place your signature on this piece of paper?” asked the teller. “What is the reason?” Ron Asked. “I need to compare signatures” was the response. Ron placed his signature on the piece of paper. “Do you have any other identification?” “Yes”. “We need at least three pieces of ID”. “Will my BJCTA ID work?” “Let’s see it.” “Here it is”. “The picture on the card does not look like the one on the driver’s license”. “Well, they were taken three years apart, in different parts of the country. The picture on the BJCTA card was taken a year ago and should look more like me now than my driver’s license”. “But they don’t look enough like you”. “Are you employed by the BJCTA?” “Yes”. “Are you a janitor”? “No, I am the Assistant General Manager”. “What is the phone number of the BJCTA?” “521-9161”.  “What is the area code?” “It is the same as here, 205”. “Wait a minute”. Time passes. “They confirm they have an Assistant General Manager named Mr. Ron Barnes, but we can’t cash your check unless you have an account with this bank”. “I do have an account with this bank as you can see from the deposit slip under the check”. More time passes. The teller presents a signature card “Please sign this card so we can have it on file here”. Ron signed the card and the teller completed his transaction. I could hardly wait for my turn at the inquisition. I was new to Birmingham Alabama and did not have an Alabama driver’s license or a BJCTA card.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Haight. How can I help you?” “I have a deposit and would like $200.00 cash back”.   “No problem”, said the teller and completed my transaction, much to my shock and amazement. After we left the bank, I asked Ron to tell me what just happened, to which he explained “it is because I am black, it happens all the time”. Ron then told me they have at least thirty signature cards bearing his signature because he goes to the same bank every two weeks. I asked “Ron why don’t you change banks”?” “I have changed banks three times since I came here three years ago”.

I was hired by the Transit System as their GM because I had a strong financial background and they had very severe budget problems. I had strong labor negotiating experience and they had difficult labor issues. I also had strong management skills and they had management issues as well. Coming from Rancho Cordova California to Birmingham Alabama was a culture shock to say the least, as illustrated by my firsts encounter with the banker. But this would be only the first of many instances of dealing with a racial issue in the south.  

The Authority had previously determined that because of a budget crisis, various service adjustments (bureaucrat speak for cuts) would be made. But before implementing the cuts; Federal law mandated a public hearing.  As was the custom of the System, a public hearing was scheduled for a week later at City Hall at 8:00 p.m. City Hall was remote to the passengers affected by the adjustments and there was no scheduled bus service to City Hall at night. One of my first tasks was to identify a place in the neighborhood affected by the cuts and to hold the public hearing there instead. This was a new custom for the Birmingham Jefferson County Transit Authority and is still in affect today.

Ron suggested quite strongly that I allow him to represent the Authority at the public hearing, which ended up at a Baptist church, but I refused saying that if we have to cut services, the GM should be the one to tell the passengers himself, and not a delegate.

The night of the public hearing arrived. I drove to the location of the church and could not believe how dark it was. There were no street lights, no porch lights and except for a light in the lower window of a rather large building I had no idea where I was or where I should go. I stopped and got out of the car. Filled with foreboding I figured that no one dared appear on those streets at night but me and I should not be there either. I wanted to re-think my decision not to delegate the task to Ron.

Nearly petrified, I headed for the building as fast as my lead feet could carry me and an eternity later made it to the foyer. The foyer was almost totally dark with no sound except for heavy breathing and a pounding heart; both mine. As my eyes adjusted, I saw a small amount of light seeping through a basement door. I went down the stairs, feeling my way and when I opened the door, there I was among more than 250 people  . . . all black and staring at the white man just arriving . . me.

This was an absolute shock for me because I had never experienced being in the minority before. I was white, an outsider and affluent. I was a northerner, a Yankee and worked for “that Cincinnati company”. And I was there to cut their transportation services. Trying to regain my composure I took a glance at my strange environment.  I knew that the audience had turned the occasion into a pot luck by the wonderful smell of food. They were having a party. Then I was totally disarmed when a smiling pastor warmly welcomed me and said how much the community appreciated my taking time out of my busy schedule to visit them. As I stood in front of the group, making eye contact with as many as possible, I saw low income people, mostly maids trying to support their families. I saw lots of what appeared as unemployed men, unemployed not because of their unwillingness but because of lack of opportunities. I saw the elderly, some sick, some crippled, a lot with their veteran’s caps on their heads. I saw children, kids who relied on public transportation to take them to and from school and other activities. I saw their clothing and knew that much of it had seen many owners. I saw shoes that had years of service in their soles and probably even more to go. I came to understand the consequence of what was planned in the sterile room of our planning department.

I told them it was indeed my honor and I sincerely meant it. Although the notice for the hearing gave little doubt what “adjustment” meant, I saw a marvelous opportunity to set another new standard for the Authority and was able to turn the hearing into a work shop. The ideas coming from the community were extremely valuable in allowing us to limit cuts to services that were not being used anyway. The revised plan we all worked out was far better for the community than the plan I came with.

The next day, Ron, the Manager of Service Planning and I drove to the area to confirm the new service plan. I saw many of the people who attended our workshop and without exception, received a big smile and hardy wave. They really knew how to take bad news and turn it into a party. I was honored to be a part of their party.