Birmingham's Brilliant Black History

Next stop on the Black Bucket List: The birthplace of the civil rights movement. Think you know the history? Think again.

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No American city evokes the brutal drama, violent confrontations or ultimate triumphs of the civil rights movement more than Birmingham, Ala.

It was in a small park in this slow-paced Southern city, in the early 1960s, that waves of black schoolchildren gathered by the hundreds to protest the injustices of segregation, only to be met with attack dogs, fierce water hoses and, ultimately, jail. And at a nearby black Baptist church, on a Sunday morning in 1963, a bomb blast left four schoolgirls killed, more than 20 other worshippers injured and the black community brokenhearted. And that same year, a squat cell in this city's jailhouse would become the venue where the Rev. Martin Luther King wrote Letter From a Birmingham Jail, a call to nonviolent activism that would inspire humanists worldwide.

More than 45 years later, the poignant memorials to these and other events of the era has put Birmingham high on The Root's Black Bucket List -- places of keen interest to travelers who want to delve deeply into African-American culture. In a deft decision, the city's leadership created the Civil Rights District, which includes the 16th Street Baptist Church -- where the tragic bombing took place; Kelly Ingram Park, the site of many protests; and the Civil Rights Institute, devoted to rights activism locally, nationally and internationally.

In a visit to Birmingham, I spent a full day in the six-block Civil Rights District and at other venues that evoke the lively black presence in the city. As a student of American history, I experienced the tour as transformative, one of the most informative and moving sojourns into black history that I have taken.

My day started at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The museum was created in 1992, with a mission to give voice to the people who were engaged in the civil rights struggle and to document their activities and accomplishments.

The stark Barriers Gallery at the Institute shows just how widespread and harsh legal segregation was in Birmingham from the 1920s to the civil rights era. As in many other Southern cities, every aspect of life -- from the schools, neighborhoods, restrooms and streetcars -- was strictly segregated.

It is here that I gained a renewed appreciation for the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a local minister who was a leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the mastermind behind the city's protest movement. The modern, interactive exhibit about him includes pictures of Shuttlesworth inspiring Birminghamians to pray, organize and act.

The Institute's Oral History Project features some of Birmingham's lesser-known local activists -- ministers, laborers, schoolkids and others -- recounting the gripping events of the period and their role in them.

The strength of the exhibition is its illustration of the dogged devotion Birmingham residents gave to overcoming the daunting segregation that defined their city -- and much of the rest of the South -- at the time.

For me the most impressive section of the institute was the Movement Gallery, documenting the civil rights protests mounted by Martin Luther King and others across Alabama during the pivotal years between 1955 and 1963. Here is a life-size statue of the legendary Rosa Parks; over there, a reproduction of the Greyhound bus carrying Freedom Riders that was firebombed.

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