For 27 years people of all races, ages and gender have gathered to celebrate Martin Luther King Junior's birthday, by attending The Unity Breakfast, in the heart of downtown Birmingham. The founders of the breakfast created the event to highlight the civil rights movement and to demonstrate how unified the city has become. This year's breakfast has special significance because of the 50th anniversary of some of the major events of the Civil Right movement. But attendees at today's Unity Breakfast will see a public show of disunity.
When the doors open at 6:30 this morning, members of The Committee to Save Cooper Green will be outside the BJCC protesting this month's closure of the inpatient services and emergency room at Cooper Green Mercy Hospital. About 200 employees lost their jobs in the closure. One Cooper Green employee who held onto her job, but is afraid of losing it if she goes public with her criticism (she ID's herself only as Ms. Johnson), says she's very troubled by the changes at the hospital.
"We have patients that has no insurance and no where to go. And I have a mother who utilized Cooper Green Hospital well now she has to find another doctor."
Bishop Calvin Woods is the president of the Birmingham Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a co-sponsor of the Unity Breakfast. He says he's seen poor families struggle to find quality health service. And he agrees Cooper Green's transition from hospital to critical care center needs attention. But, he says, he told the Save Cooper Green committee that the Unity Breakfast is not the time or the place for a protest.
"I asked them, and told them I'd appreciate if they wouldn't do it at this particular venue. However, it is their constitutional right to do it. And, just in a way, reminds me of my hardheaded self where I have protested against many venues and things where I was asked not to do it. "
Emory Anthony might just be as hard-headed as Woods. He's a local attorney who's spearheading the protest. There's not a doubt in his mind the breakfast is the right place for the protest. He says the committee is doing what Martin Luther King would have done under the same circumstances.
"King would be outside with us marching to make sure over 40,000 card users for indigent care will have adequate health care. He would be concerned that 210 employees lost their jobs illegally. So, I think he would be outside, not inside eating bacon and toast."
But breakfast organizers worry if folks see a demonstration, they may think the protesters are against the civil right groups sponsoring the breakfast or the breakfast itself. Anthony is clear though: the protest has nothing to do with the prayer breakfast.
"We haven't asked anybody to boycott. There's a difference between protest and boycott. We haven't asked anyone not to go to the breakfast."
Calvin Woods feels the protest may not be as effective as the organizers hope. He says the group supporting Cooper Green is preaching to the choir. Many of those sponsoring, attending the breakfast are already working on Cooper Green's behalf. Still Woods admits, it may look like there is disunity among Cooper Green supporters.
"It does show a semblance of division, but after the Unity Breakfast is over, we'll be back together."
People all over the country and world will be watching Birmingham celebrate the 50th anniversary of the civil rights struggle. And, that's exactly how both sides justify their positions. The protesters say they're honoring Martin Luther King Junior's legacy. Unity Breakfast organizers say the protest desecrates the spirit of the event. They fear it demonstrates to the world, Birmingham is not as unified as many would like to believe.
~ Les Lovoy, January 21, 2013