Discovering Alabama: Birmingham Civil Rights Institute – Birmingham, Alabama

Discovering Alabama: Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Birmingham, Alabama

1960s – At lunch counters everywhere, black students and white sympathizers hold sit-ins in 78 cities forcing businesses to either serve them or shut down.

1962 – Passive protests lead whites to attack protesters at a white beach. Activists’ homes are broken into and destroyed.

1963 – Commissioner of Public Safety of Birmingham, Eugene “Bull” Connor, turns fire hoses and police dogs on black demonstrators while the world watches horrified on their television sets.

March 7, 1965 – “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, AL, voting rights marchers are attacked while on a 50 mile march to Montgomery to protest the murder of Jimmy Lee Johnson, a young black activist. Five months later voting rights laws pass.

The Accident
I may not be Alabama’s biggest fan. I was raised in Massachusetts where the standard of living is higher and the pace faster, especially the driving. I fear for any Alabamian’s life if they ever hire a car in Boston. And I don’t think I will ever get used to the dietary staples of grits, collard greens and B.B.Q.

So why am I here? When I returned from my last backpacking trip around Europe I decided to cool my heels and relax rent-free over the holidays at my parents’ home outside of Birmingham, AL before returning to L.A. and responsibility. They relocated two years ago for a new job and set up shop right in the urban sprawl plaguing central Alabama. I was only supposed to be here for one month. And just days before Departure Day: I broke my ankle.

Fast forward to one month later. I am finally able to maneuver adequately on my hospital prescribed crutches so I decided to explore more of the area. I remember pictures in high school textbooks showing peaceful civil rights demonstrators attacked by police dogs and hosed down by Birmingham Fire Fighters. So to celebrate Black History Month I decided that my first day trip out since the break would be to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

The Institute
Located across the street is the beautiful, red brick 16th Street Baptist Church where on September 15, 1963 four little girls were killed, the victims of a racially motivated bombing. On the northwest corner is Kelly Ingram Park, a location of myriad protests and demonstrations. At its entrance, a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. has been erected, facing the Church, watching over it. It was as if I was being prepped for what I would find inside before rolling off the pavement in my wheelchair.

Segregated fountains

The first image you see when entering the museum

The permanent exhibit starts out with an informative ten-minute video about Birmingham, giving its history up to the 1920s where the screen lifts up and the audience is faced with a familiar image: segregated water fountains, the “colored” fountain rusted and barely sanitary enough to drink from. It all goes downhill from there.

Black persecution is amplified through multimedia and interaction. They start you out with the 1920s, showing the music of the times, how the local black community worshipped in church and how they refused to let segregation keep them down. Since most businesses refused black patrons, they started their own shops, restaurants, literature groups and churches just blocks from the white cathedrals. Years later each of these churches would be destroyed in racially motivated bombings. But under the leadership and inspiration of men like Martin Luther King Jr., they began to fight back with words, advocating nonviolent “passive” protest. This only pissed off the “white folk.”

Example: 1954s landmark case Brown vs. The Board of Education ruled for the desegregation of schools, declaring segregation unconstitutional. At that time black schools were overcrowded and teachers had to buy their own supplies and books while the white schools had new supplies and clean rooms with a fair student to teacher ratio. White schools received $120/head where black schools were given $60, if at all. When Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth tested the new laws and tried to enroll his two children in Birmingham’s White Phillips High School they were attacked by angry white residents. Due to the tormenting and violence, true desegregation did not take place in Alabama until 1963, almost ten years after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“If we are wrong, the Supreme Court is wrong.
If we are wrong, the Constitution of The United States is wrong.
If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Such events are shown with sobering creativity. White and brown crosses illustrate the difference of the mortality rate of white children versus that of black children due to unfair medical care, a graveyard graph. Instead of just showing photos and typed descriptions, you are invited to sit in the chapel of a black Baptist church, to take a tour of a black home, to see with your own eyes the ghostly costumes of the KKK.

Each section is the next year, the struggle growing stronger before your eyes. Long timelines crowded with event after event lead to broader explanations. It starts off with Rosa Parks, the black woman who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white rider. As a result, on Dec. 5, 1955 the word went out in Montgomery, AL to all black residents to boycott the city buses; to walk, carpool or just stay home. Three-fourths of the riders in Montgomery were black. This protest lasted 13 months despite numerous arrests.

A replica of a fire bombed bus from Nashville, TN during the 1962 Freedom Rides from D.C. to New Orleans is accompanied by video footage of interviews from those who were injured by the mob outside the bus. The Riders never made it to Louisiana but were arrested in Jackson, MS. The protesters chose “jail, not bail,” a credo thousands of black and white demonstrators followed in years to come, including Dr. King himself. A slide projection of children waving and cheering from buses which carted them off to jail on the day 800 Birmingham children were arrested breaks my heart.

Descriptions of passive protest after protest interrupted by angry white mobs and violent outbreaks kept the question of “Why?” floating around in my head to the point where I could read no more. It was getting on two hours and I was only at 1963. I was disgusted, wondering if the nausea in my stomach was due to the exhibition or if I was just ready for dinner. And just when I could take no more, the hope arrived in the form of a speech delivered to thousands of marchers in Washington, D.C. on 28 August, 1965 at a march planned by activist A. Phillip Randolph.

The Dream

The Processional Gallery

The Processional Gallery: life size freedom marchers overlooking Kelly Ingram Park

We are all aware of that powerful speech Reverend King delivered to the crowd of 250,000 people of all race and creed. I had read it in school days and marveled at the power of his words, “I have a dream.” But to see it on a big screen, his voice filled with strong emotion, the crowd enamored with his every verse. I understood that had it not been for the civil rights movement and the activists involved, America would not be as strong as it is today. It’s as if we woke up one day ready to fight together for our beliefs, that there was hope in the truth that we truly could be equal.

“Free at last, Free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The museum changed pace after the speech and lead me to into the present. The final Human Rights Gallery educates on all continuing struggles from Women’s Rights to those of Race, Religion, Speech and Self-Determination. The Institute does not try to solve the problems of racism but educates us on just how far we have come, even though the battle still rages all over the world. As I exited, my father trying to pop a wheelie while flying down the handicap access ramp with me still in the chair (do not try this at home!), I couldn’t help thinking that these events happened only 40 years ago, some of them on the very spot where I stood (well, rolled). Where will we be in the next 40 years?

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Admission: $6 Adults
$4 AAA

$3 Seniors 65+
$2 Students
Free under 17
Free on Sunday
Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 10a – 5p
Closed Mondays and Holidays
Special Exhibition: South Africa, 1936 – 1949
Photographs by Constance Stuart Larrabee

For photos from the civil rights movement, check out Powerful Days: The Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore

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