You may have read in history books about how Birmingham police used menacing dogs and fire hoses on civil rights marchers a half-century ago, and that racists bombed an African-American church, killing four little girls. You may have also heard of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a world-class museum on human rights, but chances are you’ll be surprised that they are together, side by side. Visiting Alabama’s Civil Rights District, where some of America’s most painful events took place, is a powerful and emotional experience you should not miss.
In the days leading up to Easter 1963, African-Americans, including many Miles College students and professors, organized a shopping boycott of department stores during the second busiest retail season of the year. One of the great myths of the Birmingham civil rights campaign is that African-Americans were simply trying to walk to City Hall to present their complaints over unequal access to public accommodations and education, and a shortage of meaningful jobs at department stores and in local government, including law enforcement. The marches, however, had a calculated purpose. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. named his mission to Birmingham “Project C.” The “C” stood for confrontation.
The marches in Kelly Ingram Park began as nonviolent events but were intended to goad public safety commissioner Bull Connor into arresting King and others to attract the attention of the national media. Connor responded on May 7 with police dogs and fire hoses. Because 2,000 children who marched were jailed, King got the headlines and media attention he wanted.
Where to Begin: The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
Begin your civil rights experience in Alabama’s largest city at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. It’s one of America’s most outstanding museums dedicated to human rights issues. After a brief video describing how this steel “boom town” became racially segregated, visitors walk past “white” and “colored” water fountains and exhibits that show the inequality of schools and living conditions during that era.
A life-size bronze statue of minister and civil rights pioneer Fred Shuttlesworth stands guard. During the 1950s, he delivered fiery condemnations of the city’s segregation laws from the pulpit of his small church, Bethel Baptist, without much impact other than to have his church and home bombed three times. He traveled to Atlanta in early 1963 and persuaded King to bring the weight of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference – and his celebrity persona – to Birmingham.
Under the headline “Birmingham’s Civil Rights Institute Personalizes a Struggle,” The New York Times ran a glowing review of the museum ahead of its 20th anniversary.
Alabama was not the only Southern state involved in the Civil Rights Movement. But some of the most infamous scenes unfolded in the blocks surrounding the 58,000-square-foot institute. The museum was built directly across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church, where on Sept. 15, 1963, a bomb planted by segregationists killed four African-American girls. The block-long museum faces Kelly Ingram Park, where earlier that same year, the public safety commissioner, Bull Connor, blasted protesters with fire hoses and set dogs on them. Many of the protesters marching in protest of racial segregation laws were children.
Exhibits include a stylized rendition of the heavily segregated city in the 1950s, replete with vintage water fountains designated for use by race, and a sobering side-by-side comparison of white and African-American classrooms of the time. The classroom for white students has a motion-picture projector and glossy textbooks while the classroom for black students is furnished with little more than beat-up wooden desks.
Many artifacts are on display, like one of the armored police vehicles used by Connor to attack the marchers and a replica of a burned-out Freedom Rider bus. There is also the actual door from the city jail cell in which King began his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” after being arrested on Good Friday, April 14, 1963, during the demonstrations. The 7,000-word letter is a defense of his tactics and is considered a definitive document in human rights literature.
In The New York Times article, the institute’s president and chief executive officer Lawrence J. Pijeaux Jr. cited the fact that he, the head of a museum that chronicles “all this unpleasant racial history in the state of Alabama,” was selected as the state tourism professional of the year. He added, “It shows you how far things have come.”
Near the end of the museum exhibits, you’ll see a massive photo of King speaking at the Lincoln Memorial and hear portions of his stirring “I Have a Dream Speech” in which he talks hopefully about how future generations of African-Americans will be “judged by their character and not by the color of their skin.”
Chances are you’ll not be prepared for what’s around the corner: a large photo of the blown-out wall of the 16th Street Baptist Church basement and smiling photos of the four girls who died that Sunday. A wall clock is stopped at 10:22. Look to your right, and through a large window you’ll see the front of the actual church, recently nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In recent years, the U.S. Department of the Interior named Birmingham’s 16th Street and Bethel Baptist churches as National Historic Landmarks. In 2008, both were given tentative status as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Because the 16th Street church has an active congregation and isn’t just a museum, the story of the bombing is housed in a small room in the basement. A poignant plaque features photos of the four girls: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, all age 14 at the time of their deaths and who are buried in a cemetery near the entrance of the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, and Denise McNair, who was 11 and is buried in Shadowlawn Cemetery in southwest Birmingham.
An enlargement of a vintage postcard shows the exterior rear steps under which the bundle of 10 sticks of dynamite was hidden. No one was convicted in the bombing for 14 years. A third, and final, bomber was convicted in 2002, some 39 years after the savage crime.
Take the Freedom Walk through Kelly Ingram Park
Take time to wander through Kelly Ingram Park to see a collection of sculptures along the Freedom Walk that interpret events during the turbulent period. A statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. faces the church. The most photographed is a sculpture by Tuskegee artist Ronald McDowell of a young black man bravely facing down a policeman with a snarling dog. To hear a guided mobile tour of the park, call 205-307-5455 and follow the prompts.
Stroll through the 4th Avenue Business District
A few blocks from the Civil Rights Institute and 16th Street Baptist Church is the third element of Alabama’s Civil Rights District. The Fourth Avenue North Historic District was the site of local entertainment for African-Americans and the place where many local leaders congregated during the Civil Rights Movement. A visitor’s center inside the nonprofit agency Urban Impact (1721 4th Ave. N. #102; 205-328-1850) acquaints you with the history of the district and provides instructions on taking the one-hour tour of the area.
Across the street is the Carver Theatre (1631 Fourth Ave. N.; 205-327-9424), home of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame that honors great jazz artists such as Nat “King” Cole, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and Erskine Hawkins. Today, the Carver Theatre is a popular venue for theatrical performances, jazz jam sessions and swing dance classes, as well as local comedy and presentations of the spoken word.
Worth the Visit
The Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth’s smaller historic Bethel Baptist Church, built in 1926, is restored and open for tours on a limited basis. Call 205-322-5360 for additional information.
About six miles west of Birmingham is historic Miles College. This historically black college, founded in 1898, has a unique place in civil rights history in that its brand of civic engagement and activism is credited with helping to jump-start the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham and much of America.
During the planning stages of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, when King and others were deciding in what test city to implement the Civil Rights Movement, Birmingham was proposed. At the time, Birmingham was considered one of the most racially segregated cities in America. And because students and professors at Miles College were already engaging in civic protests and boycotts against segregated public facilities, the city became the perfect staging ground for strategic activities at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Among the names recorded in the school’s roster are Frank Dukes, Jonathan McPherson, Abraham Woods, Calvin Woods and others who strategized with King and were willing to take to the streets and be jailed for the cause of justice.
Where To Stay and Eat
Downtown Birmingham offers several places to rest after a long day touring the city. Check out The Westin (2221 Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd N; 205-307-3600), which opened its doors in 2013, or The Sheraton (2101 Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd N; 205-324-5000). Both are adjacent to Uptown Birmingham, a premier entertainment district featuring restaurants, bars and the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Complex.
Stop by John’s City Diner (112 Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd N; 205-322-6014) to experience the famous meatloaf and macaroni and cheese, or visit Uptown’s Todd English P.U.B. (2221 Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd N; 205-307-3700).
For More Information
Visitors wishing to experience the whole of Birmingham should contact the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau (2200 Ninth Ave. N.; 205-458-8000) for information on places to stay, dine and explore. Those interested in gaining a greater understanding of the Alabama Civil Rights Movement should download a free copy of the Alabama Civil Rights Trail brochure or request a free copy by calling 334-242-4169.
A new official Alabama Civil Rights Trail mobile app covering Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, Tuskegee, Scottsboro, Anniston and Greensboro is also available. To download for free, visit www.alabama.travel. Versions are available for Android and iOS devices.
Nicknamed “The Magic City,” Birmingham is Alabama’s largest municipality. Rich in history, it is known for its industrial past and for its role in the Civil Rights Movement. Today, Birmingham is an eclectic center for the arts, entertainment, dining and shopping. In addition to the noted Civil Rights District, it is home to a number of other world-class attractions, including the Birmingham Museum of Art, Barber Motorsports Park, the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame and the Alys Stephens Center. Birmingham is centrally located and is within a two-hour drive of Atlanta, Montgomery and Huntsville.
The Tour of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
If you are visiting Tuesday through Friday, head across the street and walk through the glass doors to the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Churchopens in new window for a tour. Pay the suggested donation of $5 and learn of the story that woke up the world.
The church was organized in 1873 as the first African-American church in the city. The present building was designed by Wallace Rayfield, the state’s first African-American architect, and completed in 1911. Like other churches in the segregated South, it functioned as a meeting place, social center and lecture hall. Because of its central location four blocks from City Hall, it served as a headquarters for marches that began in the city park (where blacks were not allowed) in front of the church.
Tense negotiations continued for months in other areas of community life. Just a few days after African-American students began attending previously all-white schools, a group of Klansmen planted a time-delay bomb of 10 sticks of dynamite at the church. It exploded during Sunday School on Sept. 15, 1963. Four young girls died in the basement and 23 more people were injured. Before the terrifying day was over, police fatally shot one black boy who had been throwing rocks at cars. Another was murdered by a white mob.
The tragedy triggered shock and an outpouring of sympathy. About $300,000 in cash was sent to repair the church, which reopened June 7, 1964. From the front of the sanctuary, you can see a special memorial gift, a stained glass window of the image of a black crucified Christ, given by the people of Wales. Created by artist John Petts, the window depicts Christ with his right hand rejecting oppression and his left offering forgiveness. The words “You do it to me” are part of the design and refer to Christ’s parable of the sheep and goats.
Related Road Trips
Selma to Montgomery: Crossing a Bridge into History
The Edmund Pettus Bridge, spanning the Alabama River in Selma, has become one of the most iconic symbols of the modern struggle for civil and voting rights in America. It is also a focal point for the 54-mile route now memorialized as the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.