Birmingham embraces its history
By THOMAS R. FLETCHER
Established in 1992, the district runs from Sixth to Second avenues N and from 15th to 19th streets, in the heart of Alabama's largest city. The district includes the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Kelly Ingram Park, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and the Fourth Avenue Business District.
The Civil Rights Institute, which opened in 1993, recounts the struggle by presenting the conflict and violence that occurred here. Here are stories of brave men and women who stood up against the racism and bigotry that had dominated the city for decades.
By the 1960s, Birmingham had suffered more than 50 racially motivated bombings -- outsiders derided the city as "Bombingham."
But the events of Sept. 15, 1963, brought condemnation on the racial violence here. Nearly midway through the Sunday school hour, a bomb exploded in Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four young black girls and injuring 22 other members of the congregation.
With the killing of a black boy by Birmingham police and the killing of a black youth by a group of white men that same day, the church bombing brought the situation to a boiling point.
A 12-minute film introduces visitors to area history and to the institute. A series of galleries portrays conditions of segregation and events in the struggle for civil rights. For instance, the Barriers Gallery explains the appalling inequalities between the races from 1920-54 under the "Jim Crow" laws of segregation. The degrading images of blacks used in advertising of the time are jolting.
The Movement Gallery covers 1955-63, when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was most active in Alabama. There is also a statue of Rosa Parks, the black woman who refused to obey the law of the time by giving her bus seat to a white passenger. Here, too, is a model of the firebombed Greyhound bus that carried the Freedom Riders, who were dedicated to bringing integrated interstate transportation to the South.
The gallery has a model of the cell, and the actual cell bars, in which King penned his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail on April 16, 1963. King had been charged with "parading without a permit."
In his moving letter, King responded to one from eight white ministers questioning his actions and respect for the law. King uses examples from the Bible to show his actions were rooted in Christianity. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," he wrote.
"We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people."
Kelly Ingram Park, located at Sixth Avenue N at 16th Street, now carries the subtitle A Place of Revolution and Reconciliation. The park was the setting for protests and, in response, violent force turned upon nonviolent demonstrators. Scenes of fire hoses and snapping police dogs being unleashed on peaceful protesters shocked the world.
Sculptures now illustrate scenes of those times, from praying pastors to jailed children. One piece captures the brutality of the Birmingham police force, showing the terror of a young man under a police dog attack.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was organized in 1873, only two years after the founding of the city. In 1880 the congregation bought the land where today's church is located. The present building was completed in 1911.
The church served as a meeting place and lecture hall, and during the civil rights movement as headquarters for meetings and rallies. After the 1963 bombing, donations from around the world totaled about $300,000, and the church reopened for services on June 7, 1964.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church continues to serve its community by meeting both spiritual needs and hosting political, social and cultural events.
Worth a stop while in the Civil Rights District is the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. The hall portrays the roles of greats such as Nat "King" Cole, John T. "Fess" Whatley and W.C. Handy.
The existence of the Birmingham Civil Rights District says much about the progress made here in race relations.
If you go
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the following:
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, 520 16th St. N, Birmingham, AL 35203; call (205) 328-9696; the Web site is bcri.bham.al.us/.
Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau, 2200 Ninth Ave. N, Birmingham, AL 35203; (205) 458-8000; www.bcvb.org/
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, 1530 16th St. N, Birmingham, AL 35203-1850; (205) 251-9402.
Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, 1631 Fourth Ave. N, Birmingham, AL 35203; (205) 254-2731.
- Thomas R. Fletcher is a freelance writer living in Cowan, W.Va.
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