In April of 1963, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. joined with fellow organizers of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Birmingham, AL to launch a city-wide campaign. He met with local activists and coordinated a series of nonviolent, direct-action demonstrations that would target local merchants during the busy Easter season. Brave men and women throughout Birmingham joined together in marches, sit-ins at the lunch counter, kneel-ins at white churches, and put together massive voter registration drives. The citizens of Birmingham used their physical presence in the streets to not just seek changes to discriminatory segregation laws but to also speak truth to power. They told their stories, they went where it would not be comfortable, and they put their lives on the front lines for this country to see the truth. The reality of being Black.
So nearly 54 years later I find myself sitting down with my friend, a native son to the city of Birmingham, and a truth-teller, Jordan Jemison. The legacy of the Civil Rights Movement lives through the city and in our conversation I began to realize how much of it lives through Jordan. It’s in his eyes when he talks about the impact of civil rights on his home, it’s in his hopes and dreams for what the future holds. It even lives through his passion for art, design, and fashion. Jordan stands in his truth every day – he defies what the world says he is supposed to be by simply being. Yet, he told me he didn’t always feel that way. When Jordan was growing up in Birmingham, there was almost nothing he liked about the city. “It was run down…it felt old. There was just no life”, he remembered. “You have this place that was at the epicenter of civil rights, that battle was fought and won here, yet the historical significance just felt like it had died here after that.”
The history of the city was also something he felt was overlooked, even intentionally at times. Jordan could recall his textbooks, pages filled with a history he rarely saw himself in, with even the chapter covering the Civil Rights Movement only briefly mentioning a few of our own Black heroes. There were individuals, such as his second grade teacher, who spoke truth to her students when she shared her own memories of being brutalized in the streets:
“My second grade teacher talked about how she marched. She showed us the scar on her leg from when she was pushed against a brick building downtown and sprayed with a water hose. When the water hit her it actually took the skin off her leg. Even as a second grader, I could understand the depth of that…I sensed how close we still were to that moment. But, I feel it was often still ignored.”
Jordan knew his teacher's story was one of many stories Birmingham citizens still held on to. The impact of Jim Crow still ripples through the city eager for a comeback. According to Jordan, that comeback is closer than ever. Despite the negative attention Birmingham attracted in the past, he is excited by the noticeable influx in new, young people moving to the city. In them, he sees risk-takers and people bringing a new level of innovation, creativity, and awareness to the city.
After exiting Auburn University in the fall where he studied Apparel Merchandising, Design, and Production, Jordan was even struck by his own decision to return to the city to follow his passion and open his own store and design studio – something just a couple of years ago he could never imagine himself doing. His own personal stumbles while he was attending Auburn motivated him to ultimately pave his own path and pursue his dream back in his hometown of Birmingham. “What has driven my passion is screwing up and not following it. Wasting a lot of time, money, and energy in order to adhere to some stupid social norms”, he remarked.
Jordan had struggled since he was only a child to come to terms with not only the fact that he wanted to design dresses but that he was a young, gay Black boy being raised in the Deep South. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to be a cliché gay guy who draws dresses at school’. You don’t want to be a sissy.” That term, sissy, was one that he would often hear and it stung enough for him to defer his dreams to pursue a career in fashion. When Jordan enrolled at Auburn University in 2010, he decided he would major in architecture. He recalls the severe depression he felt as he followed his parents’ wishes rather than his own and also grappled with his identity in a new, uncomfortable environment. “Being the gay, Black boy at Auburn just wasn’t working out.”
College is often marked by growth, new relationships, fun memories, and possibly even a coffee addiction but for Jordan it challenged his entire sense of self. He recalled feeling anxious to date and explore relationships only to find later that the predominantly white men he would encounter would treat him like an exotic species. One date even apologized for his obvious discomfort: “I’ve never dated a Black guy before.” Jordan began to question his appearance, how he took pictures, what angles made his most ethnic features more prominent – he questioned everything. It was also at this time racial tensions were once again on the rise and week-to-week, month-to-month new faces of young Black men who had their lives stolen made it to his Twitter timeline and eventually even the headlines. “How can you fight back if you don’t love yourself?” he asked. I could see on his face it was a question that truly baffled him. It was as if his own journey was an effort to find the answer.
While he was still in college, he spent time managing a small boutique in the suburban Alabama town. The owner of the store saw the business as a great tool to flip a coin, but did not share Jordan’s passion for fashion and certainly was not interested in growing the business. “It can be hard, it is messy, you don’t get sleep sometimes, but I love it,” he told me. It was in this job that Jordan had the epiphany that would open his next chapter. “I can do this. In fact, if he can do this I most definitely can do this.” He smiled as if the idea was fresh on his mind.
Jordan left Auburn at the start of 2017 and he would return home with an entirely new mission than when he left. He wanted to open his flagship store in Birmingham, Alabama. Jordan knew the door for opportunity was wide open. He could bring his knowledge, style, influence, and his own voice to the city he once saw no promise in. This would be his vehicle to effect change not just in Birmingham but throughout the Southern United States.
The question still remained, why does he even care? As Jordan recounted his experiences of growing up in Alabama, it seemed almost as if his very identity was trying to be squeezed out of him. Not only could he run away from a tense climate where being “different” did not win him many friends, but some might even suggest that he should. Following a time in which he felt he was in one of his darkest periods of his life, his dream illuminated future aspirations that were so much bigger than himself.
“That’s my power as a Southerner…to be able to claim this as home, appreciate this as home, then change home for the better. I have an opportunity to be a part of the change I want to see.”
His future store will incorporate and feature Civil Rights iconography and will support other designers as well, especially those also from the south. Jordan imagines a Birmingham that honors its historical ties to the Civil Rights Movement while also becoming a hub for artists, designers, fashion industry elite, and a huge new market for commerce. His hope is that other artists will realize Southerners will support this growing industry and that the influence of Southern culture will impact the fashion world in a new way we have not seen before. He believes the day will come when all over the world people will follow the example his city will set. “They will say: Birmingham made that happen,” he declared. I would like to think that the same sentiment rang in the hearts and minds of protesters and truth-tellers that took the streets of the city during the Birmingham Campaign 54 years ago.
For Jordan and the city of Birmingham, it’s a new era of promise and progress. As we sat outside of the new Pizitz International Food Hall, we watched the life new business and opportunity brought to the downtown area and imagined what could be. I wandered how Jordan might define the southern identity today. After all, he had rejected everything those around him told him he should be. He answered: “measured progress”.
“It's progress that doesn’t always look like progress. It’s true even for my own life. There are always bumps in the road. But it still happens and it’s gaining momentum. I believe that.”
As his own home, a city that had once lost its light, is experiencing a burst in renewed energy and potential so has this young designer. “Much like this city and the South, I’m still growing and it just isn’t over yet.” He is only just getting started.