A Visit to Downtown Birmingham
It feels like spring on this warm January day in Kelly Ingram Park. We sit on a bench across the street from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. I’ve brought my nine-year-old son to the place today to learn about the Civil Rights Movement in 1963. Fifty years ago, in this very park not long after Easter, police unleashed fire hoses on African American children as they marched toward downtown Birmingham. From our seat we can see the steps of St. Paul United Methodist Church, where protestors would gather to begin their marches. We can also see its neighbor, 16th Street Baptist Church (pictured on this page), where in September of that same year a bomb exploded before Sunday morning services and ended the lives of four young girls.
We go to the museum and wander through the exhibits. We see photographs of the coal miners and the steel unions in the mill towns of Birmingham. We read of Rosa Parks and the Freedom Riders, and I find myself stumbling over answers to my son’s questions: “Why segregated water fountains?” “Why segregated schools?” He pauses beside a black-and-white photograph that depicts the lynching of two black men among a crowd of smiling white people and stares for nearly a full minute. I begin to question my parental judgment in bringing him here. I wonder, Is this age-appropriate? Is he really going to understand? Then I check myself—the children who marched in 1963 understood well enough.
Around the next corner is an exhibit on the Children’s Crusade, the coordinated marches by African American students to protest segregation in downtown Birmingham. We see photographs of police arresting 14-year-olds. In one photograph from the incident, a policeman confiscates their hand-lettered signs that say, “We Are One in Christ Jesus,” and “Can a Man Love God and Hate His Brother?”
While the Civil Rights Movement had been active years before and in other places in the country, in 1963 the world’s attention was on Birmingham. The events here were a snapshot of all that was at stake in the United States.
Birmingham was built after the Civil War, in 1871. Its founders had high hopes that it would be a New South city, built on industry rather than agriculture. For this reason it was called “Birmingham,” after the industrial city in England. Historian Leah Rawls Atkins writes, “Immigrants from Europe joined northern businessmen, freed slaves, ex-Confederates, and county farmers to seek wealth, first from real estate speculation and the businesses and jobs it spawned, then from the opening of mines, the construction of mills, and the building of an industrial economy.”
Because of this high concentration of steelworkers and miners, Birmingham also came to be known as a hotbed of unions and union busting. The same dynamite that was used to excavate mines was used to kill and intimidate union organizers; and it would be used again against black homeowners in white neighborhoods, and later organizers for civil rights. Birmingham earned the nickname “Bombingham.”
In January, Alabama governor George Wallace gave his inaugural speech in which he proclaimed segregation now, tomorrow, and forever. That same month, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, among others, planned their strategy for a desegregation movement in Birmingham, considered the most segregated city in the United States. It would be called Project C. The C meant “Confrontation.”
The series of sit-ins and marches began in April. On Palm Sunday, King’s younger brother, Alfred Daniel, along with other pastors, gathered protesters at St. Paul Methodist Church and began marching with the intention of reaching city hall. They were stopped and arrested, and other onlookers were chased away by police dogs. On Good Friday, Shuttlesworth and King were arrested as they led a march on the same route, within yards of the same spot. When white clergy wrote a public letter claiming to support the goals of desegregation but urging protesters to wait, King wrote his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail.”
It has often been observed that Sunday morning is still the most racially segregated time of the week. Though many books and documentaries focus on the lunch counters and bus seats, the fact is that churches were also the site of demonstrations. On Sunday, April 21, 1963, just days after King wrote his letter from jail, black worshipers attempted to attend services at white churches, with mixed success.
The first days of May saw the beginning of the Children’s Crusade, when African American students would attempt the same march to city hall. So many youth were arrested that hundreds of them ended up crammed into jail facilities designed to hold only 30 people. They were packed so tightly that they had to sleep in shifts. On the second day, police turned fire hoses and police dogs on marching students, creating the vivid photographs and video images that many people associate with the struggle for civil rights. For the young people, though, it was physically painful: At up to 100 pounds of pressure per inch, the water was capable of ripping bark from trees. Many of the students arrested were expelled from school by action of the Birmingham Board of Education on May 20; but two days later, a federal judge overturned the mass expulsion and ordered the students back to class.
Four more events in 1963 stand out vividly in the Civil Rights Movement. In June, Governor George Wallace tried and failed to stop two black students from attending the University of Alabama; and NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers was gunned down outside his home in Mississippi. In August, Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. And on Sunday morning, September 15, the explosion of a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham killed four young girls: Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Wesley. In the riots that erupted after the bombing, two young men were killed that same day: Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson.
Just as it is important for us to learn about the slavery and plagues of ancient Egypt or the suffering of the Babylonian exile and restoration, it is important to look back on the struggles, injustices, and triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement in order to make sense of our present. The foot soldiers of the movement who endured oppression with nonviolent resistance were expressing the same faith that the early church did when they were jailed, beaten, and run out of town. In spite of their oppression, the early church grew as their testimony was made more powerful by the injustices they endured. In the same way, it is the witness of those who had the courage to put their very bodies in harm’s way that makes their testimony so compelling. Many Christians enjoy talking about radical faith. Those who interpose their bodies and suffer humiliation as Jesus did actually incarnate their faith.
Blogger Hamden Rice points out that it is far too easy for people who look back on these events to misunderstand what was at stake in desegregation, as though the issue were really about where African American people could sit in a restaurant or a bus, or the quality of education a child could get in one school versus another. While those are important things, what they were challenging was the systematic violence that backed up segregation, the reign of terror that used beating, lynching, rape, and bombing to remind African Americans who was truly in control. What the protesters of 1963 accomplished was to end “the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south.”
My family moved to Birmingham only seven years ago. I’ve talked with both white and black people who lived here in 1963, immersing myself in the history of this town. While there is still both racial and economic segregation and injustice to overcome, the people who remember 1963 often marvel at how the world has changed. People who knelt and prayed on these sidewalks actually changed the course of history. I also believe that if there can be hope for Birmingham to become a radically different city in the decades to come, then with God’s help, there is hope for the rest of the world, too.
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