Birmingham native T. Marie King has wanted to be a film and television producer since she was 6 years old. But, she says, “Clearly, God had totally different plans.” Today, T. Marie serves as programs manager at Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center’s ArtPlay, working to expose children in Birmingham and surrounding counties to the arts. But after she leaves this job, her work is hardly finished. T. Marie is a modern-day civil rights activist who spends her time hosting racial reconciliation workshops, mentoring local students and helping low-income families find the resources they need to get ahead. Today we are honored to feature her as our FACE of Birmingham.
What does being an activist mean to you?
I see my style of activism as being an influencer but also a connector. I’m not saying I have a lot of power, but I do feel like I have a level of influence. I’m at tables where I can have conversations and say “I’m seeing this happen in this community,” or “I’m seeing this at this school. What can we do to adjust that?” I’m able to have the ear of people who can make those changes or decisions.
I’m a connector in the sense of being able to connect people to resources or opportunities that they may not have known existed. All the other activism stuff comes with it — protesting or speaking out against something — but I think activism is deeper than that. I think you really have to be connected to the heart of people in order to truly see change happen.
What are some specific things you’re doing right now to bring about change in Birmingham?
I do talks on racial reconciliation. I also host workshops on bias and how people can understand their own bias. I think when you tell people they’re prejudiced, that puts up a wall. So I color it as, let’s look at your bias and then look at what led to these biases.
Are you taking these workshops beyond Birmingham?
I’ve been to Anniston, and I’m looking at doing some more workshops in that area. I’ve been to South Dakota with these workshops, and this year I’m looking at possibly going to Mexico and maybe India to do some workshops.
Tell us about the lecture series you’re currently developing.
I’m working on a lecture on the commemorative march I did from Selma to Montgomery in 2015. I was part of a walking classroom, and we did the march on the same days and walked the same route that the marchers walked in 1965. I realized that people are probably not as connected to that particular march, as well as to other civil rights events, as we should be today, especially with where our society is. So I wanted to package something to utilize as a tool to re-engage not just students but also adults who may not understand the reason for the march. My goal is to take the lecture on a college tour so college students can understand and be reconnected to what happened in the past and how they can use that knowledge to spearhead their own activism today.
What inspired you to get involved in activism?
The march. When I did the march, it was very spiritual — hearing different people’s hearts and what they wanted to see out of our society and learning more details about the Selma-to-Montgomery March. You had these 300 people marching for people they would never meet, just because they wanted something better for them and not even knowing if they would accomplish that, but willing to put their lives on the line. That got me to a place of thinking that I could be doing so much better and so much more than what I’m doing now.
What’s the main change you want to see in Birmingham?
I would like to see more intergenerational connections. I work with and mentor a lot of students, and it’s sad when you hear that they are so disconnected from the history of Birmingham. I would also like to see more opportunities in leadership for the under-45 age range. Just think if you had someone in a leadership position mentoring somebody who’s in their 30s, and then someone in their 30s mentoring somebody younger. More intergenerational connections would really benefit our city.
What’s the most challenging part about being an activist?
The most challenging is probably people, because, depending on the situation, people’s ideas run away with them. If I’m doing a workshop that’s dealing with race and bias, you usually have people come in already with their defenses up.
Or even if you’re just helping people with regular everyday stuff, dealing with their ego or pride in having to ask somebody for help, or a kid thinking they don’t need your help because they know everything at the ripe old age of 15.
What’s the most rewarding part about being an activist?
The most rewarding? People.
A parent was telling me recently she was getting ready to drop her son off at college, and three years ago, we weren’t sure if he was going to get through high school. That’s rewarding.
To help a family go from homelessness into permanent housing, even though it may take some time and it may take hard conversations about how they spend their money, being able to be tough and be the bad guy in that scenario, but then to be invited to the housewarming — that’s rewarding.
Having someone who says “I think white people should be with white people and black people should be with black people” come back later and say, “I haven’t fully changed my mind, but I hear where you’re coming from” — that’s rewarding.
What are some of your hobbies?
I love basketball. I’m a die-hard Lakers fan. And I’m a couch potato, a movie nut, and I love watching TV.
What are some of your favorite things to do in Birmingham?
I love concerts, so Saturn is my new favorite spot. They have brought some groups I have been wanting to see — Vintage Trouble, Big Freedia, Dom Flemons. I love the atmosphere there. People are just there for the music. And I love Birmingham restaurants, like John’s City Diner and Yo’ Mama’s. I just love finding out there’s a new spot and going to check it out.
Do you have any personality quirks or things about yourself others would be surprised to learn?
I don’t drink purple drinks. No purple Kool-Aid. No Grapico. And I don’t eat green candy.
What’s your best piece of advice?
Forgiveness is for you, not for other people. I think people forget that it has nothing to do with letting a person off the hook. It has to do with freeing yourself from the imprisonment of whatever that issue is that keeps you angry.
Other than faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
TV, cotton candy and ’90s music.
Thank you, T. Marie, for contributing to the culture, arts and racial reconciliation of Birmingham through your important and meaningful work! Learn more about her work with Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center’s ArtPlay, and attend her next talk entitled “Not Just Another Hashtag” at Birmingham-Southern on February 21, 2017. To learn more, call Birmingham-Southern’s Office of Multicultural Affairs at (205) 226-4733 or email [email protected].
Thank you to Eric and Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography for the fabulous photos of T. Marie and her students at Kelly Ingram Park and the adjacent 16th Street Baptist Church in downtown Birmingham.