Birmingham's Brilliant Black History

Illustration for article titled Birmingham's Brilliant Black History

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.

What most captured my attention was a replica of the cell where King penned his Letter. It's a small, bare affair, sparsely furnished, featuring the same prison bars from King's original cell. There, you can read King's missive, which was a response to a newspaper editorial written by eight Alabama ministers who questioned King's protest style and unlawful actions. His response, presented in full here, would rebuff the white ministers' demand that the civil rights should move more slowly, and instead called activists everywhere to action.


As I read through it, I recognized quotations that would seal King's reputation as a master orator: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." After a three-hour visit, I felt newly enlightened about the struggles, sacrifices and history of Alabama's rights movement. Well curated, accessible and broad in its sweep, the institute served as a primer for the rest of my exploration of Birmingham.

My next stop was the 16th Street Baptist Church, located steps away from the Institute. It gave me a close-up look at one of the seminal events of the city's civil rights era. As the city's first black church, this stately building became a gathering place for the Birmingham-based civil rights community. A bomb planted outside the church on Sept. 15, 1963, ripped through the building and killed four local African-American girls who had just finished Sunday school. In the Memorial Nook, a corner of a room of the church devoted to the bombing, I saw pictures of the destroyed segment of the church. Here, too, were photographs of the girls who perished in the attack.


The event left a deep wound in Birmingham but apparently did not faze the movement's leaders. Nine months after the bombing, with the help of $300,000 in donations, the church reopened. And the civil rights leaders resumed their gatherings there.

From the church, I walked across the street to Kelly Ingram Park, a 4-acre green space. I was following the path of Birmingham activists who had often met in the church and held open-air protests at the park. A 30-minute audio tour, obtained at the Civil Rights Institute, gave a well-narrated account of the park's significance in these events.


In carefully planned actions in the spring of 1963, I learned, local black schoolchildren went out into the park by the hundreds to protest. "Bull" Connor, Birmingham's infamous sheriff, sought to thwart the young demonstrators by attacking them with fierce dogs, then powerful water hoses. Finally he arrested them and hauled them to jail.

Sculptures mounted in different parts of the park depict some of the most powerful moments from that time. Along one walkway are life-size images of attack dogs. Further along is a depiction of a young black boy being sprayed with a heavy water hose. And still further is the Jailed Children Sculpture, a stark depiction of a young boy and schoolgirl in braids jailed behind bars. "These were undeniable events that took place right here," a spokesman at the Civil Rights Institute told me. "Rather than sweeping them under the rug, we felt it was important to show people what happened so that they will not forget."


My next stop, the Fourth Avenue Business District, a short walk from the park is a street of three blocks lined with small businesses, many of them owned by black locals. The district was established in the late 1800s, when statutes restricted blacks from opening businesses or even shopping in white neighborhoods. After a sharp decline in the 1970s and '80s, the district is becoming popular again.

There, you'll find Talk of the Town Barber & Style Shop, a small, friendly salon for men and women. Like many of its counterparts in black neighborhoods, it seemed as much a place to chill and catch up with local gossip as to get your hair styled.


Locals advised me that the hearty, down-home cooking offered in the various black-owned eateries is the big draw here. As I strolled through, I sampled a few favorites. At Green Acres Café, it was chicken wings and fried green tomatoes. Around the corner at Mrs. B's on 4th, fried catfish took center stage.

Now in a dessert mood, I stopped at Nelson Bros. Bakery for a taste of the egg custard pie recommended by owner Daniel Nelson. Every dish lived up to its reputation. As good as the food was, the real attraction of this district for me was the warm welcome that I got from shopkeepers and locals at every station.


The Carver Theatre for the Performing Arts is probably the most impressive building in the District. Built in the 1930s, it was for decades the only place in town that blacks could see first-run movies. It became the city's black hangout, particularly on weekends. After it fell into disrepair in the 1980s, the city bought the building and turned it into the Carver Theatre, one of the key venues for visiting performance artists.

I dropped into the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, located in the Carver Building, for a quick tour. Dedicated to jazz artists who have a connection to Alabama, it has a number of small but poignant exhibitions about jazz giant Ella Fitzgerald, songwriter W.C. Handy and others.


Now in a jazz mood, I decided to end my tour of black Birmingham with an evening at Ona's Music Room on Pepper Place, a jazz club in a posh neighborhood. There, the owner, Ona Watson, a burly, good-humored black musician and R&B singer, was chatting with customers at the bar. A local trio played a spirited set of jazz oldies. They took a break, then as they started up again, I looked around the room and for the first time noticed the crowd. There was a good mix of black and white couples, all kicking back on a Saturday night. Birmingham has come a long, long way.

Gary Lee is a travel writer and former foreign correspondent in Russia and Germany. He lives in Washington, D.C., but also spends a good chunk of his time in Paris and Peru.  


Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth was a leader of the SCLC, but did not head it during the 1960s.