Civil Rights Trail -Birmingham Alabama

 Birmingham Alabama is our first stop while exploring parts of the US Civil Rights Trail.  We last visited here on our first year on the road.  Finding ourselves in the south this winter, we are taking the time to visit important areas in the fight for Civil Rights.

 Our first stop was the 16th Street Baptist Church.  Organized in 1873, it was the first black church in Birmingham.  The church was the center for community life.  During the 1960’s it served as headquarters for the civil rights meetings and rallies.

In 1963 the marches and demonstrations held from the church produced police retaliation and brutality.  Many who marched from the church were school children.  Thousands were arrested and jailed.  Soon the jails were filled and it was then that the Bull Connor, the Public Safety Commissioner, chose to turn fire hoses and police dogs on those who were marching.  It was these broadcast images that began to bring the struggle of the civil rights movement into the living rooms across the country.  The cost was very high, but these marches and demonstrations eventually ended public segregation in Birmingham.

 It was at 10:22 AM on Sunday, September 15, 1963 that tragedy struck the church, and altered the course of the civil rights movement.  White supremacists placed a bomb under the stairs on the northwest corner of the sanctuary.  The blast killed four young girls, and injured 20 other members of the congregation.

  Later that evening, in different parts of town, a young black man was killed by a police officer, and another was killed by a mob of white men.  It was a day the world noticed, and forced the white leaders to confront the reputation of what many thought to be the most racist city in America.

The cost, just on that day.  Addie Mae Collins, 14.  Carol Denise McNair, 11.  Carole Robertson, 14.  Cynthia Wesley, 14.

Johnny Robinson, 16 was shot in the back, and killed by a policeman later that night.  Virgil Ware, 13 was shot in the face and chest by a 16 year old white boy.

To visit the church register for the tour which begins in the visitor center in the basement, mere steps from where the bomb detonated.  In the visitor center you will learn the history of the church and its mission.  You also hear the history of that fateful day and it’s aftermath.

The bomb exploded just under this wall, damaging most of the stained glass windows in the sanctuary.  This window was restored.  A memorial plaque rests under this window.

The Wales Window for Alabama dominates the front of the church.  A gift from the people of Wales in response to the bombing.

 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called Birmingham the most segregated city in the country.  It was also the center for a thriving but segregated Black community.  A visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute records that history.  You will find the Institute just across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church.

 From the 1857 Dred Scott decision, ruling that citizenship did not extend to those with black African descent, to the 1896 ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson that declared racial segregation did not violate the US Constitution, establishing the standard of “separate but equal” which was anything but.  It records the violence of racist authorities such as Bull Connor, and a succession of bigoted Alabama Governors, including George Wallace declaring “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” and their encouragement and enforcement of the state’s Jim Crow laws.

 More importantly it records the actions of everyday people, oppressed people, who protested, marched and fought for the rights that are guaranteed to everyone.  It honors the leaders of the movement.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and so many others.

As you walk through the exhibits you follow a time line that contrasts what was occurring in the country at to what was happening in Alabama.  You are in awe of those brave souls while at the same time remember that there is so much more that needs to be done.

The Freedom Riders, May through December 1963

Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail

 Kelly Ingram Park is found across the street from the Institute and Church.  It contains a series of monuments to the Civil Right Movement.  Several depict scenes from iconic photographs of when Bull Connor unleashed fire hoses and police dogs on children.

The Four Spirits

Kneeling Ministers

Around the corner from the Civil Rights Institute you will find the A.G. Gaston Motel.  It was closed for renovations when we visited but serves as a memorial to black entrepreneurs and civil rights activists.

Arther George Gaston was a successful Birmingham businessman.  Among other interests he provided accommodations and dining to African American travelers.  The Motel became a central organizing locations for the Birmingham Campaign.

While this site will soon open as an annex, the Institute had an exhibit that recounted the life and success of Mr. Gaston.  This photo in the exhibit caught our eye.


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