Civil Rights History in Birmingham

Birmingham may not have sprung to mind when we were thinking of destinations to visit in the Heart of Dixie, but boy are we glad we looked a little deeper. When we discovered that Alabama’s largest city was at the forefront of the civil rights movement, we were excited to explore and learn more. Once we chose one of the many hotels near Birmingham’s historic sites, we were ready to go.

In the early 20th century, the rapid growth of industrial jobs in Birmingham drew thousands of rural residents into the city. Much of this expansion was due to the fact that the iron ore, coal, and limestone used to make steel were all readily available nearby. In fact, eventually the city became known as the Pittsburgh of the South.

At this time, many of the city’s new arrivals were the descendants of slaves and hungry for a better life. This influx of new residents unfortunately led to rising racial tensions. By the early 1960s, several violent episodes caused the city to take on a new nickname: Bombingham.

The 16th Street Baptist Church

The most nefarious of those bombings occurred at The 16th Street Baptist Church on a Sunday morning in September 1963. Klansmen planted a bomb in the basement and killed four young girls, yet only one of the culprits was arrested. His only penalty was a small fine for illegal possession of dynamite.

The incident came after nearly a year of protests against segregation known as the Birmingham campaign, which led to unrest across the city. In the aftermath of the bombing, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to the thousands of mourners and implored them to continue peacefully fighting for equality.

The location of the blast is marked with signs dedicated to peace, but the church is still active, so we were hesitant to approach it as a tourist attraction. It was impossible not to feel the weight of the past or embrace the reverence that it deserved.

We were buoyed by the fact that the tragedy was not completely in vain. In fact, public opinion turned when the nation learned of the crime, and ultimately the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed the following year.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

To find out more about the struggle that led to that groundbreaking legislation, all we had to do was walk across the street. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute opened in 1992 with the stated mission, “To enlighten each generation about civil and human rights by exploring our common past and working together in the present to build a better future.”

The powerful Oral History Project reveals the narrative of the movement and includes multimedia exhibits featuring many of the people who were there. Seeing and hearing their stories in their own voices transported us back to the turbulent times of the 1950s and 1960s.

Kelly Ingram Park

Much of that turbulence took place at Kelly Ingram Park, and once again, all we had to do was cross the street to experience a bit of what it was like to participate in the protests. The park served as a staging ground for many of the demonstrations, and the Freedom Walk commemorates some confrontations from those encounters.

The path led us through some of those march’s most powerful moments, which James Drake has captured in a series of sculptures. The names are self-explanatory, such as “Police and Dog Attack” and “Firehosing of Demonstrators.” The most compelling to us was “Children’s March (‘I ain’t afraid of your jail’).” A work that required us to peer through the bars of a cell at two children representing those arrested during the protests.

We weren’t at all surprised that the Alabama Tourism Department named Kelly Ingram Park, along with the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Institute, the Alabama Attraction of the Year in 2012. A visit to these historic civil rights attractions had a significant impact on us, and it’s sure to have one on you when you visit Birmingham.

We were happy to write this in collaboration with hotelplanner.

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