Birmingham Civil Rights Tour – Reliving the People’s Defeat of Segregation

One type of exhibit in the Civil Rights Institute museum uses life size figures that show the emotional content - first of segregation and later of overcoming it. Here, a young African-American girl looks on at her White counterpart who is able to sit freely at the luncheon counter


If you believe that the defeat of segregation in the South was both this past century’s greatest triumph of democracy in the world, and a key chapter in a story still unfolding– as this writer does—a one or two-day visit to the various Birmingham sites in the Alabama Civil Rights Trail will be life-memorable.   


The bell from the 16th Street Baptist Church was taken out during remodeling and is now displayed in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. During the 50th year commemoration of the church bombing, President Obama rang this bell in Washington D.C.


This is also a must-see stop for any American history buff or any American that feels the unfinished business of ending discrimination is a burning issue of our time.


Our guide, Birmingham historian Barry McNealy, has a vast knowledge of his city's history


The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, 16th Street Baptist Church, Dynamite Hill including Arthur Shores’ house and Angela Davis’ childhood home, the 4th Avenue Business District,


4th Avenue Business District was created by segregationist law and is now actively preserved by the city


and Bethel Baptist Church were key stops on our one-day tour, with ever so knowledgeable Birmingham historian Barry McNealy as our guide.


This figure is Rosa Parks, refusing to move to the back of the bus-- a seminal moment in nearby Montgomery


Time permitting, adding the audio-guided walking tour of Kelly Ingram Park, following more of the pennants pinpointing historic landmarks in the Civil Rights Heritage Trail, attending a service at the 16th Avenue Baptist Church, and visiting the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame would be shortlisted for a second day of immersion in this important and dramatic chapter in our nation’s history.


Or, if your trip to Birmingham is for business or otherwise with great time constraints, a very brief visit to the Vulcan Park Museum atop Red Mountain also gives a brief snapshot of how the people of Birmingham defeated Jim Crow laws and neutralized the city’s one-time venal tyrant, Bull Connor.


This quilt, depicting a child looking to an elder, greets you in the Civil Rights Institute lobby


Start your visit at the excellent Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and begin there by watching a short introductory film that re-caps how the convergence of limestone, iron ore and coal in Birmingham made it into the industrial powerhouse that earned it the nickname “The Magic City”. 


The short opening film at the Civil Rights Institute shows gritty black and white images of the hard labor that built the "Magic City"


More to the point, you learn how Black sharecroppers came to the city in hopes of trading up from their subsistence farming to a better life, only to find themselves locked into a similar system.  For example, many were paid in company script only good in company stores.   Their lot was little better than the convict laborers pressed into service in a new twist on slavery. 




The screen goes up and you are in the Civil Rights Institute's introductory display "Barriers" that depicts life under segregation


The most dramatic moment in this film is the end.  After introducing you to how segregation was made into law in 1920, the curtain goes up and you are faced with two water fountains—a large one for Whites and a smaller poorly maintained one for Colored.  This is your portal to the museum’s section called “Barriers” that so dramatically shows daily life under segregationist law.


The baseball uniform of famed Piper Davis, a star of the Negro League, who also was enlisted to play basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters


In the background you see real KKK robes donated to the Institute by the FBI. Walking through these life-sized figures adds to the feeling of re-living the times


You will immediately see that the forte of this museum is in its thoughtful intermingling of historic artifacts (such as KKK robes or pages from Alabama’s constitution showing amendment on top of amendment to make segregation de jure) interspersed with more figurative representations such as stacks of books – one short for Blacks and another tall for Whites—that show the discrepancy in educational spending under segregation.   


Two classrooms- one for White students showing an AV projector and nice desks compared to the poorer no-frills classroom for Blacks


These thoughtful combinations--and even without much of the high tech re-enactments that power other museums--truly make Birmingham’s Civil Rights Institute a museum for all ages.


A freedom riders bus as it looked after an assault as supposed law officers let it happen


Across the street from Birmingham’s Civil Rights Institute you’ll find 16th Street Baptist Church,


The interior of 16th Street Baptist Church has been fully restored since the bombing. It is an active church to this day


The 16th Street Baptist Church has a special Tourism Ministry for the many visitors who come to pay tribute to the four little girls to this day


where on September 15th, 1963, the famed “four little girls” were killed by bombs as they were preparing for Sunday worship. 


A European artist who helped to restore the 16th Street Baptist Church created this special window for the congregation in place of a window lost in the bombing


You learn how the city got the nickname of "Bombingham"


It all begins to gel—the more than 50 unsolved bombings in Birmingham related to the civil rights struggles—that it was the prevalence of dynamite for the mining industry you learned about in the Civil Rights Institute’s intro film, that gave this unique signature to Birmingham segregationist villains, unlike their compatriot terrorists elsewhere who relied instead on lynchings. 


Dynamite Hill, the scene of multiple bombings, is in the Smithfield neighborhood of Birmingham, which was the second oldest Black neighborhood in the city


Travel on to “Dynamite Hill” and look from side to side imagining the time when, by law,


Arthur Shores, a prominent lawyer who worked closely with Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights lived on Center Street, the Black and White divide of the city that later became known as Dynamite Hill


one side was Whites only and the other Blacks only,


This is the childhood home of Angela Davis, also on the Black /White divide called Center Street


with regular skirmishes and bombings becoming a frequent occurrence as segregationist backlash intensified.


The pennants on Dynamite Hill are green and tell the story of events in that area


To find and follow all pennants telling the history of Birmingham's civil rights struggle could involve an entire day and would require a car


At this point in the tour, what also begins to crystallize is a clear view of how Birmingham’s churches were the galvanizing force that upended Bull Connor and his cronies. 


Specifically, when the NAACP was banned, it was the fearless Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights that kept all “eyes on the prize”.  Your tour continues by visiting the shell of Shuttlesworth’s Bethel Baptist Church that was headquarters to this movement and subsequently bombed three times. 


Shuttlesworth's Bethel Baptist Church and the skeletal form showing where his bombed house next to it once stood. Legend has it that he emerged from this bombing relatively unscathed and simply talking about continuing the struggle.


The legend goes that Shuttlesworth--the same whom Birmingham’s airport is now named for--emerged unscathed and unrattled from his church’s bombed ruins,  urging his congregants to continue the struggle. 


Couple that image of bravery with that of ordinary teenagers who would hear coded announcements on Black radio stations to come to party in the park “and bring your toothbrush”, meaning, to get ready to go to jail. 


This is the bare bones tour and as protesters now say, “This is What Democracy Looks Like”.


The headlines of the day – in our case, the latest Black Lives Matter protests in our home Chicago, now dubbed Chiraq – will no doubt immensely power the emotional impact of your visit, as will of course your race and age.   Since there are so few signs that today’s continuity with Jim Crow and slavery will soon abate –in the US as a whole-- the most dramatic moment in our tour was perhaps contemplating how the Civil Rights Institute’s re-telling of history makes a hard stop in 1992, when it opened its doors.


This educational center is used to compile oral histories from people who were invoved in the struggle. Last year students came here to learn about apartheid via a video hookup with their counterparts in South Africa, who in turn were learning about the struggle for civil rights in the US


In Greater Birmingham all school children are required to tour the Civil Rights Institute.  Parents seeking ways to use school vacation time to add to their childrens’ education are advised to do the same.


For more information on the Birmingham and other Alabama Civil Rights Trail destinations visit the website of the Alabama Tourism Department and/or inBirmingham.

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