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50 years after Birmingham bombing, U.S. mayors vow renewed racism fight

By Verna Gates

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - From lunch counters to public buses, the battle over racism in the United States during the 1950s and 60s took place in cities, and five decades later mayors of some of the country's largest urban areas have vowed to carry on the fight for civil rights.

Meeting in Birmingham, Alabama on Thursday where the 50th anniversary of the bombing of a black church will be remembered this week, civic leaders called for an end to modern discrimination in areas like jobs, housing and transportation.

"Cities are the place where hope hits the street, and where the hard work of government happens," said Mitch Landrieu, mayor of New Orleans, during a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting taking place this week.

Landrieu was among 50 mayors nationwide who on Thursday joined a newly created U.S. Coalition Against Racism and Discrimination by signing a pledge to end racism in their own cities.

The 10-point plan calls on mayors to use their bully pulpits to push for diversity and equality while enacting policies that support programs such as post-release employment for prisoners, affordable daycare, fair housing, community events and education celebrating diversity.

The action comes as Birmingham remembers the 50th anniversary this week of the racial bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four girls and galvanized the civil rights movement.

On Friday, as part of its commemoration activities, the conference will host former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was an 8-year-old girl in Birmingham at the time and lost her friend, 11-year-old Denise McNair, in the explosion.

The official ceremonies feature U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and will happen on Sunday, September 15, in Birmingham.

McNair, as well as 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley perished in the blast. The bomb set by members of the Ku Klux Klan sparked passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Fifty years on, however, black children are still three times more likely to be impoverished, blacks and Hispanics have a higher unemployment rate than whites, and minorities are disproportionately imprisoned, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Birmingham was the epicenter of the civil rights struggle as its citizens enacted change on a local level long before federal law caught up to them.

Clashes over whites-only waiting rooms in train stations, segregated bathrooms and water fountains, and other disparities in the laws regarding minorities resulted in change that turned activists like Rosa Parks, who refused to give her seat to a white person on a city bus in 1955, into civil-rights heroes.

"The marches in Birmingham were about toilets, parks and zoning, the things real people can change," said Christopher Cabaldon, mayor of West Sacramento, California, who signed the pledge. "Cities have always been the center, the focus, of civil rights progress."

(Reporting by Verna Gates; Writing by Karen Brooks; Editing by Greg McCune and Andrew Hay)

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