Please wait

Civil Rights History in Birmingham

No Comments | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Referred to by some as “Ground-Zero for the Civil Rights Movement,” the Birmingham Civil Rights District in Birmingham, Alabama is pivotal to understanding the history of Birmingham.

Situated in the heart of downtown, the District encompasses a great deal within six square blocks.

In the center you will find Kelly Ingram Park, named after a former firefighter turned sailor who was reportedly the first U.S. Navy sailor killed in WWI. It was here where many grassroots Civil Rights Movement events and protests took place, but the park does not only represent the site of the city’s turbulent past, rather shines as an example of the progress it has made and its glorious future. In fact, the park has been distinguished as “A Place of Revolution and Reconciliation.”

A peaceful downtown respite, it is brimming with gorgeous trees, beautiful flower beds, historic signage, a Freedom Walk, benches and some of the most poignant and artistic sculptures and memorial markers dealing with various aspects of the Civil Rights Movement in the country.

The Fourth Street Business District,developed in the early 1900’s, was, as in many cities across the country, the African American response to Jim Crow segregation laws—a successful community of thriving black-owned businesses.

Today you will still find several black owned businesses here, including restaurants, barber shops and other retail entities, plus one of the area’s most popular tourist attractions – Eddie Kendrick Memorial Park.

The memorial celebrates the life and music of native Alabama son Eddie Kendrick and the Temptations with five life-sized bronze sculptures of the singers in one of their signature moves. Visitors from all over the world come here to strike a pose with one of their favorites, while some of the group’s most popular tunes play from speakers on either side of the memorial.

Another historic stop in the Civil Rights District is the SixteenthStreet Baptist Church where in 1963, a bomb killed four young girls and injured over 20 others during one of the most turbulent days in the Civil Rights Movement (a black youth was killed by a white mob, as well as another by Birmingham police, on the same day).

Although the history of this event is what brought this church to the attention of the world, what keeps it such an important part of Birmingham is that it is still, as it has been since its founding in 1873 as the First Colored Church of Birmingham (and originally located at 12 Street and 6th Avenue), a vibrant, thriving force in the black community.

As a matter of fact, the church website makes no mention of the bombing at all, instead simply saying “…all that we aspire to BE and all we attempt to DO, is intended to glorify Jesus through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father. Jesus really is our MAIN ATTRACTION. He is the reason we are!” The Tour link provides a brief overview of the tour as well as the scheduled days and times.

Either before or after the tour, visitors can reflect upon photos, media clippings and other artifacts in a small yet moving exhibit area on the lower level. It is here that the younger generation who were not born yet often begin to grasp the history here, while those who grew up during, or have now lived well beyond that time in history, reflect upon and remember the enormity and affect that history has had on their lives.

The primary part of the tour itself actually takes place in the sanctuary—a stunning, expansive space with a grand entryway, dramatic stained glass and arched windows, soaring ceilings, ebony-toned and crimson cushioned pews for 1,600 parishioners and massive pipe organ.

Here, a congregant provides a historic overview of the church including the social climate in the 1960s day, famous personalities and dignitaries who have visited there– including Paul Robeson, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mary McLeod Bethune and many members of the NAACP, just to name a few—and other Civil Rights Movement events leading up to the bombing.

Everyone the day I visited, including our group of travel writers, two college student groups from Alabama, a family reunion group, travelers with a senior’s group and a variety of other tourists of all generations, races and religions, sat in rapt attention as each event was meticulously detailed, including the specifics of the day of the bombing—where in the building, what time (interestingly, the clock on the wall in the lower level stopped at 10:22 am, the exact time of the bombing, and is now part of the gallery exhibit), where the girls were at the time, the position of their bodies when they were found…All the while, on two large video screens on either side of the sanctuary, a black and white photo of the four girls—one age 11 and the others age 14—smiled back at us.

The sense of innocence lost was so gripping and other than the congregant’s voice, you could have heard a pin drop.

The overview was followed by a somewhat sad yet fascinating 20 minute documentary entitled “Angels of Change,” narrated by one of the churches former pastors and peppered with first-hand accounts from congregants, Civil Rights Activists, law enforcement, members of the media, the prosecuting and defense attorneys and black and white photo stills and video clips that take visitors through every aspect of that fateful day and beyond, including the search for those responsible, jury selection and the trial, history of those accused and more.

Although many of us were choked up, we seemed to leave with a sense of gratitude for the many, many, willing and unwilling participants of the movement that ultimately led us to the freedoms we as a society enjoy today.

Outside, one the side of the building near a former stairway that hid the location of the bomb, is a granite memorial inscribed with the date—Sunday, September 15, 1963—and the names of four little girls whose lives were cut short that fateful day—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carol Robertson and Cynthia Wesley—with a passage from Genesis 50:20 – “…ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.”

Written by Lysa Allman-Baldwin

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On TwitterVisit Us On InstagramVisit Us On PinterestVisit Us On Google Plus

Sign up to win a FREE $25 VISA gift card!


Book the Whole House for the Whole Family