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Birmingham’s Civil Rights District
Thomas R. Fletcher
The Birmingham Civil Rights District exemplifies ground-zero for the Civil Rights Movement. Events which took place here stirred the ire of the world, and finally awakened the conscience of America. Established in 1992, the Birmingham Civil Rights District is a six-block tribute to the monumental struggle for human rights in the US. The area ranges from Sixth to Second Avenue North, and from Fifteenth to Nineteenth Street in the heart of downtown Birmingham. 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 Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which opened in 1993, tells the story of the Civil Rights struggle by presenting the conflict and horrors that took place in Birmingham. The institute tells of those brave men and women who stood up against the racism and bigotry that infused US society. In the 1960's, Birmingham was a city filled with violence, so much so that it was often referred to as "Bombingham.". However, the events of September 15, 1963 brought world condemnation on the racial violence of the city. Nearly midway through the Sunday School hour, a bomb ripped apart Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, snatching away the lives of four young black girls and injuring 22 members of the congregation. This cowardly and despicable act, along 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, brought the situation to a boiling point.
A twelve-minute introductory film introduces visitors to area history and to the institute. A series of galleries portrays different aspects of the conditions of segregation and events of the struggle for civil rights. The Barriers Gallery exhibits the quality of black life form 1920 to 1954 under the laws of segregation and shows the inequality that existed between the races. Looking at the exhibits, confronting attitudes that were held in mainstream society, is shocking. The disparity that existed between the races is appalling. The image of blacks used in advertising of the time is jolting and degrading. Frankly, until touring the institute, I had no idea of the depth and pervasiveness of racism that was woven through the fabric of segregation-era US culture. Hearing the racists views, seeing the displays, one listens and looks, stunned. A walk through the institute is an eye-opening, jaw-dropping, jarring experience.
The Movement Gallery covers the period 1955-1963, when Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. was most active in Alabama. Features include a Rosa Parks statue; a time-line showing local and national events; a replica of the firebombed Greyhound bus that carried the Freedom Riders, who were dedicated to bringing integrated interstate transportation to the South. Here is a replica of the cell, and the actual cell bars from the cell where Reverend King penned "A Letter from a Birmingham Jail," April 16, 1963. King had been charged with "parading without a permit." In his moving letter, King responded to a letter from eight white ministers questioning his actions and respect for the law. King, using examples from the biblical narrative, shows his actions were firmly rooted biblical Christianity. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," he wrote. King displayed himself as a prophet–though it wasn’t a title he claimed for himself–as 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." King rightly questioned the inaction of the church in the matter of civil rights. Logically, had the church been what it should have been, it would have been at the forefront of the battle.
The Processional Gallery features life-size figures on the "Walk to Freedom," situated before a bank of windows overlooking Kelly Ingram Park. The Church is a display of photos and copy describing the September 1963 bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church set before a large window overlooking the church.
The Human Rights Gallery takes visitors beyond Birmingham and the Civil Rights Movement in the US, to focus on human rights issues around the world. The institute is more than a civil rights museum. It is also a center for education, research, and discussion of the ongoing issues of civil and human rights around the world. The institute has brought an element of racial healing to the city, by the blunt presentation of the historical facts. The institute’s archives department serves as a national resource for researchers and educators.
Kelly Ingram Park, located at Sixth Avenue North at Sixteenth Street, is titled, "A Place of Revolution and Reconciliation." The park was the setting for protests and violence, as violent force was turned on nonviolent protestors. Brutal scenes of fire hoses and vicious police dogs being unleashed on peaceful demonstrators shocked the world. Those images, though brutal and difficult to look at, were essential in turning over the unjust laws of segregation. Sculptures commissioned by the park stand as monuments to these momentous events, dramatically illustrating scenes of the times, from praying pastors to jailed children. One piece, immortalizing the brutality of the Birmingham police force of the day, dramatically captures the terror of a young man under a vicious police dog attack.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was organized in 1873, only two years after the founding of Birmingham. It was the city’s first black church. In 1880 the church sold its original property and bought the land where today’s church is located. The first church building, a brick structure built in 1884, was condemned and leveled by the city in 1908. Today’s church building was completed in 1911. It is a modified Romanesque and Byzantine design by Wallace Rayfield, Alabama’s only black architect at the time. The church served the community as a meeting place and lecture hall, and during the Civil Rights Movement as headquarters for meetings and rallies. At the time of the 1963 bombing, an outpouring of compassion from around the world resulted in $300,000 in donations. The church was able to make repairs and reopen for services on June 7, 1964. A large stained-glass window of a black crucified Christ was a gift from the people of Wales. Today, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church continues to serve its community by meeting spiritual needs and hosting political, social, and cultural events.
While in the district, take in the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. The hall portrays the role those with an Alabama connection have played in the jazz recording industry. See the stories of Jazz greats such as Nat "King" Cole, John T. "Fess" Whatley, W. C. Handy and others.
The Fourth Street Business District formed because of the Jim Crow segregation laws. Separated by law and unwelcome in white-owned stores, the business district developed in the early 1900's.
The fact that the Birmingham Civil Rights District exists says much about the progress we’ve made in race relations. The city that vehemently fought integration and the Civil Rights Movement now hosts a district dedicated to reminding us from where we came and pointing onward to the work that remains.
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Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher / PROSE AND PHOTOS