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6:04 PM / Friday August 12, 2022

31 Jan 2014

My Soul Looks Back in Wonder: Birmingham, Alabama

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January 31, 2014 Category: Travel Posted by:

“The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city.”

–The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Eulogy for Bombing Victims, September 18, 1963

Birmingham, the largest city in the state of Alabama was developed on land in Jones Valley that formerly belonged to the Creek Nation. The first colonists in 1815 were men who had fought the Creeks under Andrew Jackson. They took over the existing Creek farms. In the 1830s, the settlement of Elyton was established and, because iron ore was present in the mountains, an iron industry quickly developed.  During the Civil War the industry grew as the Confederacy found it a source to manufacture war materials. www.alabama.travel

Unlike most southern cities Birmingham grew after the war. The Elyton Land Company was founded in 1870 and 1871 to plan a new city to be named after the industrial center Birmingham, England. The city was chartered on December 19, 1873. The 1929 crash threw Birmingham into economic turmoil from which it did not recover until WWII when the city was once again important in the production of war materials. After the war the economy continued to grow until it intersected with events that would bring the city national attention and tarnish the city’s standing as a place of opportunity.

Immediately after the Civil War many newly freed blacks moved from the plantations and farms and into cities with jobs and better living conditions. An 1890 census reveals that 43 percent of Birmingham’s population was African American. The white population controlled the black population with structured and enforced segregation and, if all else failed, violent intimidation.

Birmingham was referred to as “Bombingham” because of the large number of unsolved racially motivated bombings, at least 40, that occurred between 1953 and 1963. They were so regular on Center Street that it became known as “Dynamite Hill”. The first residential bombing took place in 1947 when Samuel Matthews won a legal battle that authorized him to buy a home in North Smithfield. His home was bombed the day of the judgment.

On Sunday, May 14, 1962, an integrated group of Freedom Riders arrived on a Trailways Bus at the Birmingham Greyhound Station. The riders were beaten with bats, chains, feet and fists by a white mob who had been promised by the police force that they would not be impeded for 15 minutes. Some passengers were so injured they could not continue so three days later a new group arrived to continue. Their next stop was Montgomery. A marker has been placed at 19th Street & 4th Avenue North.

Birmingham was selected as the site for a Civil Rights showdown because it was considered one of the most racist and segregated cities in the South. It was home to five Klan groups, the White Citizens Council and the Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, a poster boy for racist law enforcement. Project “C” was designed to confront and expose racism and in 1962 Rev. Shuttlesworth invited Dr. Martin Luther King to Birmingham. The protests were set to begin in April of 1963 with a series of sit-ins, boycotts, marches and picketing.

Not everyone was in agreement with Project “C” and when Dr. King was arrested on April 12th eight ministers condemned his actions in the newspaper. In response King wrote the 7,000-word “Letter From The Birmingham Jail,” credited with sustaining and reinvigorating the movement. He remained in jail until the 20th of April. A marker was placed outside the Old City Jail in 2013 at 417 Sixth Ave. South to note the events.

The brick, Gothic, Bethel Baptist Church was established n 1901. Under the leadership of Rev. Shuttlesworth it served as the movement’s headquarters from 1953-61. Shuttlesworth’s home and church were bombed three times in response to his role. Today the church contains a small museum.  Bethel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) in 2005. www.rebuildbethel.org

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The 4th Ave. Historic District, 1600-1800 blocks of Fourth Ave. North & portions of 17th to 18th Streets North, is what is left of the cultural and economic core of African American Birmingham. The area was developed after the Jim Crow laws were put in place at the start of the 20th-century and lasted into the 1960s. A walking tour encompasses 19 sites including the entire Civil Rights District and the Eddie Kendricks Memorial. The district was added to the NRHP in 1982

On October 16, 1999, a park was dedicated to the memory of singer Eddie Kendricks and Ron McDowell, an area artist, created a bronze diorama of Birmingham-born Kendricks and the other Temptations in mid-performance. Each performer’s cuff has a letter that when read from the left together spell “BHAM,” and the titles of their hit songs are etched into the granite and their hits play in the background.

The six block Birmingham Civil Rights District was established in 1992 to memorialize the individuals and events that were part of the Civil Rights Movement and the Birmingham Campaign. The sites are fully interpreted and can be explored in any order. I chose to begin at Kelly Ingram Park

This incredibly historic, four acre, park was originally known as West Park but was renamed in 1932 to honor the first sailor in the US Navy to die in WWI. Sixty-years later it was rededicated as a place of remembrance and reconciliation. A 30-minute audio tour provides comprehensive information and is available in the Civil Rights Institute directly across the street.

PHOTO: King in Kelly Ingram Park

Protestors used the park as a gathering place but the park’s most infamous days were May 2-5, 1963. Forever known as the Children’s Crusade, on the 2nd of May more than 900 children set out to march downtown to address the mayor. The children, who had to be old enough to be church members, marched out of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church double file, in groups of 50, singing. They were arrested. Bull Connor unleashed all his fury employing high-powered hoses that washed the skin from their bodies and snarling police dogs. Reporters flooded the area and the events were televised. The protest lasted until a suspension was called on the 8th by King to allow for negotiations. These events led directly to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The negotiations with the city proved successful but segregationists were furious. The day after the settlement they bombed the Gaston Motel and King’s brother’s home were bombed.

Visitors are greeted by a sculpture of Dr. King at the SW park entrance. Continuing into the park there are eight sites, including five sculpted dioramas, a reflecting pool and interpretive panels. Four of the sculptures depict scenes of the dogs, hoses, prison and the much-photographed “Foot Soldiers,” a replica of a photograph of a police officer menacing a child with an attack dog. ”Kneeling Ministers” is located at the NE entrance to Kelly Ingram Park.

Diagonal to the park sits the iconic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, scene of the horrific bombing on September 15, 1963 at 10:22 AM. Five little girls, from 11 to 14 years old, were in the room dressing for Youth Day on the lower level.  Four of the girls were killed and 24 injured by a timed bundle of dynamite placed beneath the steps of the church. Riots followed the bombing and two additional African Americans were killed. The first of three convictions occurred in 1977.  The fourth individual involved died prior to the filing of charges.

The church was founded in 1873 as the First Colored Baptist Church and the congregation moved to the current site seven years later. The present structure dates from 1911 and was designed by a black architect, Wallace Rayfield, with twin bell towers and constructed by Thomas Windham, a black builder.

Tours of the interior are regularly scheduled and include a background film, a gallery recounting Civil Rights history, and the sanctuary. Also on the tour is the Wales Window for Alabama, a stained-glass window donated by the people of Wales for the church’s reopening in 1965. The window features a black Christ in a bent posture of crucifixion. The right hand is raised against injustice while the left offers reconciliation. A rainbow is above his head and the text is taken from Matthew 25:40, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” On the exterior of the church there is a memorial and a commemorative plaque. Sixteenth Street Baptist was listed on the NRHP in 1980. www.nps.gov/nr/travel/civilrights/al11

I chose to end my historical tour of he city at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI), the ideal place to ponder the scope and sequence of the Civil Rights Movement. The Institute opened in 1992 as an educational and research facility with a museum component. A sculpture of Rev. Shuttlesworth stands outside the building facing Kelly Ingram Park.

Tours begin with a 10-minute film, “Going Up to Birmingham,” that traces the history of the city and provides context for the exhibit galleries. As the film ends the screen lifts and before you is the Barriers Gallery that depicts in 14 spaces the economically, educationally and culturally segregated world that existed from 1920-54. Featured dioramas showcase a shotgun house, a church, a classroom and a segregated lunch counter.

Tours continue through the Confrontation and Movement Galleries. These two galleries feature an additional 19 mini-areas and audio and video programs. In the Processional Gallery life-size figures take the freedom walk and windows lining the gallery provide an unobstructed view of Kelly Ingram Park and in an adjacent gallery visitors can view Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Additional areas honor international freedom fighters and showcase the tank Bull Connor rode around in as a form of intimidation. www.bcri.org

As I mentioned at the beginning of our journey the perfect accommodation for this trip is the Hampton Inn & Suites Birmingham-Downtown-Tutwiler. The hotel is historic in its own right and audio tours are available. The guestrooms are tastefully furnished with all the amenities and a notable restaurant in the lobby features the famous southern “meat and three.” It is within a short walking distance to the historic district and offers valet parking. www.hamptoninn3.hilton.com

Sophocles said, “The truth of things lies in the aftermath.” The events that occurred in Tuskegee, Selma, Montgomery and Birmingham changed America and continue to resonate. We are fortunate to be able to retrace the footsteps of those who facilitated those changes and understand their value in the “aftermath” of those events. Alabama does an excellent job with providing maps, guides, resources and signage. Everything you need to make the journey is available online. www.birminghamal.org

I wish you smooth travels!

TRAVEL TIPS:

USA Today recently named ST. Maarten as one of the “10 Best Caribbean Islands” as chosen by the readers. This 37-mile island offers outstanding fine dining, shopping, water sports, nightlife, entertainment venues, world-class resorts and 14 casinos. St. Maarten is a unique blend of European glamor and Caribbean exuberance. It is a great place to relax and rejuvenate. www.VacationStMaarten.com.

The island of St. Eustaius, better known as Statia, has created a new logo that cleverly represents all that the island has to offer, world-class diving, history, sun, sand and sea. The purple morning glory, Statia’s rare island flower, the Quill, a volcano located in the rainforest and blue beads depicting slave trade beads are some of the most interesting aspects of the logo and the Golden Island. www.statiatourism.com

February 8, 2014 is officially “Shake Your Sekere” day at the Penn Museum. The museum’s 25th annual Celebration of African Cultures will take place from 1 PM to 4 PM with a schedule of music, dance storytelling, exhibitions, interactive activities and a mini-marketplace. All activities are included in regular admission. Complete information is available at www.penn.museum/events-calendar/details/1223-africancultures

The National Constitution Center’s complete February/March calendar of events is available online. African American History Month commemorative events will take place from February 1-28 and Women’s History Month will be honored from March 1-31. www.constitutioncenter.org

Miami’s Mayfair Hotel and Spa is offering an exotic, erotic, couples package for Valentine’s Day. There are three “Miami Vices” packages from which to choose and activities can include a private plane ride, couple’s massage, Sacred Tantric Touch Connnectedness Session, “Boudoir” photo session and/or Japanese soaking tub for two. Reservations are mandatory for this impressive package. www.mayfairhotelandspa

New York’s Court and Tuscany Hotels are offering Valentine’s Day Packages closer to home. Each hotel has crafted ways to make your rendezvous a special one. Options include champagne, breakfast in bed, chocolate covered strawberries and of course, deluxe accommodations. Reservations can be made at www.stgilesnewyork.com

And you thought you had a great tattoo! You have not seen the best of the best until you have attended the Fourth Annual Hampton Roads Tattoo Arts Festival from March 7-9 in Hampton’s Convention Center. The event is hosted by Folk City Tattoo and “Twisted Ink” magazine and in addition to artists’ booths, demonstrations, vendors and contests there will be performances and exhibitions. Details can be found at www.hrtattoofest.com

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