A familiar name and voice will be heard tonight on Alabama, Inc. on your local Alabama Public Television station. Shelley Stewart is a well-known advertising executive in Birmingham. But, his story and that of Alabama’s fight for civil rights are all linked together.
“Anger is just one letter away from danger,” says Shelley Stewart.
Stewart is never at a loss for a clever turn of phrase. He built his ad firm o2ideas in Birmingham during the turbulent 1960’s and he did it with a white business partner.
“You’re the salt, I’m the pepper,” says Stewart. “So, we just said it takes the salt and the pepper to have a well-seasoned table, you know.”
And if you ask about race relations in Alabama, then and now, you get something like this…
“It takes both the black and the white keys on the piano to play the Star Spangled Banner.”
Stewart’s kind and patient wisdom was hard won. He grew up in Alabama during the height of the great depression and World War 2. As “Shelley the Playboy” Stewart became a fixture on Birmingham radio in 1963. He was also at the heart of a turning point in the civil rights movement…
“American Airlines brings you Douglas Edwards with the late news… “In Birmingham, Alabama, the civil rights demonstrators became wholesale today, and police arrested some four hundred Negro school children who played hooky to parade, and picket, and pray…”
During Alabama Public Radio’s national award winning documentary, “Civil Rights Radio” Stewart described how his broadcast helped signal the start of what become known as the children’s march…
“We said, ‘when we play Shake, Rattle, and Roll,’ it’s time to go out…”
And these young protesters were met with fire hoses and police dogs. Despite it all, Stewart says he was never bitter… “I never took time to hate,” he says. “I took my time growing. Yes, I’m a homeless kid, I’m a negro, black, colored…what it was. So many damn things in the South. But, I didn’t let that stop me. I’m a proud individual.”
And even though blacks had every reason to feel less than welcome in the South at that time, Stewart says he never considered starting his ad business anywhere else… “It was home,” says Stewart. But, when Stewart started O2Ideas in 1968, his white business partner Cy Steiner was the public face of the company while Stewart worked in the background. He says some black civil rights advocates bristled at the idea. Stewart shrugs it off with another quip… “So what,” he says. “Outside show causes private starvation.”
O2 didn’t starve, but acceptance apparently took a while. When we spoke with Stewart for the documentary Civil Rights Radio, his company was representing major clients like Toy-R-Us and Mercedes Benz. But, no big business based in Alabama. Now, Stewart says, things are changing for the better, and in the mainstream…
“Oh he’s a minority, I’m going to give him a minority piece. No! I’m going to position myself to be able to compete with you no matter what you are. I feel pretty good that I’m moving toward that solution.”
And those Alabama clients are some of the firms you’ve heard about on Alabama, Inc. including Hoar Construction that built projects for Disney World, and Buffalo Rock whose President and C-O-O was once a University of Alabama intern. Shelley Stewart and I talk about how he got from here to there, on Alabama, Inc. Wednesday night at 10 p.m. on your local Alabama Public Television station.