Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The General, The Mayor, and The Dalai Lama

Birmingham Celebrates Human Rights Week

Last weekend, the city of Birmingham was privileged to host His Holiness the Dalai Lama for its celebration of  Human Rights Week.  A few months ago, when my wife and I first heard that the Dalai Lama would be coming to town, we were elated by the news. So much of the news about politics, whether local or national, is filled with negativity and discord, but sometimes things can go very right when leaders come together to make them happen.

Gen. Charles Krulak 
(photo by Tom Coiner)
Some of the credit for the good news in town must go to General Charles Krulak, president of Birmingham-Southern College. In 2011, the retired U.S. Marine Corps general became president of one of the top academic institutions in the state that had recently been rocked by financial mismanagement. The school was located in a city that had been dubbed The Magic City back in it’s heyday, but in recent decades had found itself in the doldrums as a result of white flight and a fading steel industry. The city of Birmingham has made many attempts to get its footing and has seen many ideas fail, such as a professional football team, a horse-racing track, a water theme-park, and recurrent talk of a domed stadium – all attempts at making a good name for the city, but none ever getting off the ground.

As it turned out, the General came to town with hope for the college and a vision for the city. He looked around the town, saw its assets and  offered  a challenge to the people to invest in their city, embrace its human rights history, and make the city a place to celebrate. In a 2012 op ed piece “Birmingham should embrace its human rights history” which appeared in The Birmingham News, Krulak wrote:  

No matter your political persuasion, the simple fact is that without Birmingham, there would not have been an African-American president or an African-American national security adviser. Without Birmingham, there are many other men and women of different races, different religions and different cultures who would not have the opportunities they have today. To fail to embrace our rightful role in the history of human rights is to do ourselves a grave disservice.

General Krulak enumerated the tangible as well as the intangible assets that the city has to offer and expressed the hope that we might “come together as a Birmingham that embraces its past and uses that past as a springboard to a bright future.” He mentioned “The Freedom Trail” that he had seen in Philadelphia and proposed that Birmingham could do something similar to present itself as the birthplace of human rights.

(Photo: Courtesy of Greater Birmingham 
Convention & Visitors Bureau)

True to the General’s challenge, the city of Birmingham developed the Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail in 2013 as part of its celebration of the 50th anniversary the civil rights struggle in Birmingham. Also following through with Gen. Krulak's advice, we have just witnessed the celebration of Human Rights Week in our city. It is little wonder that The Vulcans recently honored General Krulak with an award as “Birmingham’s most influential newcomer.”

Meanwhile, Mayor William Bell was at work to highlight Human Rights Week by inviting His Holiness the Dalai Lama to come to Birmingham. In preparation for the event, the Mayor met with the Dalai Lama at a conference in Kyoto, Japan. A news article quoted the mayor who drove home the theme of Human Rights: 

"It was a great honor to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama and discuss our shared legacy of Human Rights," Bell said in a statement released today. "Birmingham continues to establish herself as the cradle of Human Rights for the United States. The peaceful protest model first established here has been used around the world to enact real and significant change."

Office of Tibet Photo

His Holiness mentioned their meeting in Japan when he spoke to the public at Regions Field. “We met in Japan when you asked me to please come to your city.” Earlier, the Dalai Lama, had joked about their titles. Though a man with a serious message, he is also adept at using humor to make a point. He made light of his own title, saying people tend to think, “Oh, he is the Dalai Lama, somebody holy and special, when I am just human being like you. If I think too much that I am Dalai Lama, I create for myself a prison.” He then referred to Mayor Bell as “The Lord Mayor,” and said that if any of us think too much about titles, we create our own prison.

My hat is off to the General and to the Mayor for their vision for the city, and to the Dalai Lama for his vision for the world. It was indeed a remarkable thing for the mayor Bell to bring His Holiness the Dalai Lama to town to bring a message of peace. Such a weekend, attended by thousands and viewed live on the internet by many more thousands, can help us see that it truly is not dark yet

There were four main events during the Dalai Lama’s visit. He went to Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the site of the 1963 bombing, on Friday night. On Saturday Morning, he met academics at The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) where neurological research was discussed in a scientific symposium, “Neuroplasty and Healing.” Then on Sunday morning, His Holiness met with other religious leaders at The Alabama Theater for discussion and dialogue. The event was billed as “Beyond Belief - an Interfaith Discussion.”  The final event “Secular Ethics in Our Time” was held at Birmingham’s Regions Field on Sunday afternoon. My family and I were able to attend event at Regions Field and it was truly one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Tomorrow I will talk about what the Dalai Lama said.

Photo by Joe Songer at

Three of the events have been archived on video and are available for viewing:


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