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Civil Rights Trail: Birmingham Civil Rights District


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     sculpture of murdered girls in Birmingham's Kelly Ingram park

    Letter from the Birmingham Jail is one of the most notable documents from the Civil Rights movement. On a recent press trip to Birmingham I got to visit and appreciate these places in a whole new light. It's one thing to read about a place or see it on TV. It's an entire different matter when you walk in the footsteps of these folks.

    Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL

    We started at Bethel Baptist Church where the Birmingham movement really began. It's been bombed three times as but never missed a service and never lost a life in the bombing. It was in this church that Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth began the Birmingham part of the Civil Rights movement. Current pastor, Dr. T.L. Lewis, introduced us to Reggie Johnson who talked to us about the movement.

    Man showing visitors information  inside Bethel Baptist Church

    Reggie grew up in the neighborhood after the movement. His great grandmother lived just down the street. She lived through the movement. Reggie reminded us of the laws back in the early 60s in a personal way. He pointed to one of us, "You and I couldn't go to school together. We couldn't play in the playground together. If we dined at the same dining facility, there had to be a partition from floor to ceiling separating us. You could come in the front door. I had to use the back door."

    Shuttlesworth decided to test the law by enrolling his children in an all-white public school in Birmingham in 1957. He was refused.  This was the law and it was strictly enforced in Birmingham and all across the South until Rev. Shuttlesworth realized he had to break the law to create new more just laws. He was beaten by Klansmen and his home and church bombed for that choice.

    Paster shows placque commemorating Bethel Baptist Church bombing

    I read the plaque noting the Christmas 1956 bombing of Shuttlesworth's parsonage that once stood next to the church. Now there is only a simple outline framing a garden where the home once stood.  I tried to envisioned how Shuttlesworth and his family much have felt when their home completely collapsed from a deliberately thrown bomb. The racists were willing to kill to keep a Black man from having the rights the constitution promised them. Amazingly, Pastor Shuttlesworth walked unhurt from the rubble and advised his frigntened neighbors and parishioner ot peacefully return home. 

    Picture of Rev. Fred Shuttleworth Picture asking for African Americans be allowed to vote

    Since the NAAPC was outlawed in Alabama. Fred Shuttlesworth helped form the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR). Fred Shuttlesworth organized boycotts of the integrated businesses to force them to accept Black workers and customers on an equal basis. To highlight what was happening in Birmingham, the ACMHR invited Rev. Martin Luther King to come to the city and test the Jim Crow Laws. They decided to stage sit-ins and marches that would provoke arrests and call attention to the unjust laws.

    16th St. Babptist Church in Birmingham, AL

    To follow up on the rest of the story, we moved on to the 16th St Baptist Church where we met local historian Barry McNealy who took up the tale. (I highly recommend you take his tour when you visit Birmingham.) He led us to a marker next to a window of the church that showed that even though the protestors were non-violent, their opposition wasn't.

    Tour guide displaying plaque commemorating the four young girls murdered in 16th st Baptist Church bombing

    Picture being in this three-story stone church on Sunday, September 15, 1963. Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, all 14 years old, and Carol Denise McNair, just 11 years old were in the basement lounge getting ready for choir performance when literally all Hell broke loose. Four Klansmen, furious that the Blacks had forced the intergration and some of their legal rights, had planted a timed bomb consisting of at least 15 sticks of dynamite under the steps on the east side of the church. The four girls were killed and over 20 others injured. The steps are no longer there. Instead, we looked at a simple black stone monument marking the site and listing the four children's name. There was a heart shaped wreath with the girl's pictures on it next to the building. Incidentally the day's sermon was to be "A Love that Forgives."

    Kelly Ingram Park

    To tell the story of why this church, why children, Barry led us across the street to Kelly Ingram Park. "Four Spirits," the sculpture on the corner facing 16th Street Baptist Church, is of the four girls life sized and playfully enjoying the life they were deprived of that day in September 1963. There are six doves. Representing the girls and two other children's deaths related to the Birmingham bombing. One was paperboy Virgil Lamare Ware, age 14, riding on handlebars of his brother's bike. Two Klan boys fresh from a rally where they were told "Whatever you can do to frighten Black people, do it." They saw the Ware boys and shot and killed Virgil.  As word of these killing spread, the Black community was furious, and frustrated. With no way in sight to get justice, rioting broke out. Some of the Black teenagers began throwing rocks at white cars. The police pursued a group of these youths and shot and killed Johnny Robinson, aged 16, as he ran away from them.

    Chestnut tree and plaque commemorating Anne Frank in Kelly Ingram Park plaque commemorating Anne Frank in Kelly Ingram Park

    One item in the park that Barry pointed out might seem incongruous. It's a chestnut tree and represents the chestnut tree mentioned by Anne Frank in her diary that she could see from her hiding place that told her the world was not turned upside down. Barry noted how Hitler had used hatred and segregation to turn Jews in Germany into second-class citizens just as African Americans faced in segregated American.

    Sculpture in Kelly Ingram Park shoiwing children being hosed with fire hose

    The other sculptures in the park represent the events leading to the church bombing. Even the bricks iin the pathway show brickes of different colors interlocked representing unity. On May, 1963 the state of Alabama agreed to comply with the Supreme Court order to integrate the school system. The 16th Street Baptist Church had become a major meeting place and leader in the crusade Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth began in 1957.

    The demonstrations leading to Dr. King's arrest started in April 1963. That was when he wrote his famous letter. They continued on and in May, Movement leaders decided that they would let children take part.  Thousands of children were taught peaceful non-violent tactics. Then they were instructed to march to tell the mayor of Birmingham that they wanted equal rights. That day, May 2, 1963, became known as D Day. Commissioner of Public Safety Bull O'Connor ordered police to spray the children with water hoses set to over 100 pounds of pressure per-inch, hit them with batons, and attack them with K9 dogs. About 973 children were arrested.  That didn't deter the children or the Movement leaders. The next day even more children were out in protest. The sculptures in the park depict these events in lifelike figures.

    Sculpture in Kelly Ingram P{ark showing 3  preachers praying

    These events were also depicted on worldwide television and in newspapers. The outrage directed at Birmingham officials caused them to cave to the demands and ordered the schools to begin integration. Victory was achieved but at a high price.

    Entrance to Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

    Barry led us into Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. This is the huge, domed anchor building for Birmingham's Civil Rights District. It is filled with the history of the struggle for Black equality from the 1950s thru the ‘60s on to today. Two of the exhibits stood out for me. One was the famous jail cell where Martin Luther King was imprisoned.

    Guide tells of jail cell Martin Luthor King was imprisoned in now in Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

    The other brought to mind memories of life as it was when I was a teen. It is a display of a typical drug store soda fountain where a teen couple are sipping sodas and admiring one another; a white couple. A black teen girl is standing outside the door clutching her schoolbooks to her chest and peering longingly inside. Inside where she is not allowed to venture.

    Exhiibit in Birmingham Civil Rights Institute showing a young white couple at fountain counter in drugstore while Black girl stands outside lookin in.

     In his waning days of his presidency, Barack Obama designating the Birmingham Civil Rights District as a National Monument. Perhaps he was thinking how applicable still the line from that famous letter that stated, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…"

    To learn more about Birmingham visit Birmingham, AL Creates a Lively Vibe by Christine Tibbetts

    (Author's note: In light of the recent terror and racial motivated violence, I feel this is so relevant. We all need to remember the hate that led to these events from our past if we are to avoid a repeat in the future.)

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    Public Disclosure-- Please Read
    I recently learned of a FTC law requiring web sites to let their readers know if any of the stories are "sponsored" or compensated.  American Roads and Global Highways' feature writers are professional travel writers. As such we are frequently invited on press trips, also called fam trips. Most of the articles here are results of these trips. On these trips most of our lodging, dining, admissions fees and often plane fare are covered by the city or firm hosting the trip. It is an opportunity to visit places we might not otherwise be able to visit and bring you a great story. However, no one tells us what to write about those places. All opinions are 100% those of the author of that feature column.  

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