Memorial to an Uncivil Era: A Personal Journey to Alabama's new Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, dedicated to remembering what was once "the most segregated city in America"
Birmingham, Ala.--This April and May mark the thirtieth anniversary of the massive civil rights demonstrations led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in this city, once known as "the most segregated city in America." It can be argued that these demonstrations and the fierce resistance they provoked changed white attitudes towards civil rights and ultimately led to the most comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in American history.
The new Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which opened on November 15th, was built to serve as a monument to-and a resource about-the thousands of people who were dedicated to the philosophy of non-violence and risked their lives in struggles and confrontations all over the South.
It was with a mixture of emotions that I visited the Institute on Dr. King's birthday, January 15th. I was born in Birmingham and grew up there during the civil rights era, a white child in Mountain Brook, a nearby all-white suburb. I left twenty years ago and moved north. But back in 1963, I was a nine-year-old elementary school student, and even though I did not participate in the demonstrations, they have indelibly marked my life.
My first conscious awareness of segregation came when I was about six. My father, a lawyer, had some work to do on a Saturday morning and had asked his secretary to come in to the office. After I promised I wouldn't bother him, he agreed to let me accompany him. We drove downtown to the Brown Marx Building on 20th Street, downtown Birmingham's main thoroughfare, and took the elevator up to the fourth floor. In my father's office, I amused myself for a while drawing pictures and then asked his secretary where the bathroom was. She handed me a key, directed me down the hall, and asked if she should accompany me. "No," I assured her, not wanting to be thought a burden.
Following her instructions, I found myself standing before two identical doors with frosted glass panels. On one panel the letters said "White Ladies" and on the other "Colored Women." The iron skeleton key weighed heavily in my palm as I stood there, puzzling over the signs. I know the difference between White and Colored, I thought, but what is the difference between Ladies and Women? Aren't they the same? I couldn't figure it out.
I opened the door that said "White Ladies." To the left were two stalls and to the right a sink with a mirror over it that was so high that I could just barely glimpse the top of my head. I used one of the stalls, wondering what was behind the other door, the one marked "Colored Women." Was the bathroom the same, or was it dirtier, or not as well equipped? Would my key open that door, too? I was curious to try, but afraid that someone might see me breaking the rules and get angry at me. Slowly I retraced my steps back to my father's office. I wanted to ask my father or his secretary about the difference between Ladies and Women, but I couldn't. I sensed that if I asked the question, I might be accused of stirring up trouble, and I probably wouldn't be given the answer.
I mention this incident from my past because the memory of it returned to me in the Institute, when, after a short video about Birmingham's history, a curtain rose dramatically, revealing, at the entrance of the Barriers gallery, two water fountains marked "White" and "Colored." As I examined the exhibits in this gallery, which describe life under segregation, I thought of how segregation poisoned white minds as it damaged black lives.
In his magisterial "Letter from Birmingham Jail" written thirty years ago this Easter, Dr. King eloquently described the latter process: "You will understand why we find it difficult to wait...[when you] see tears welling up in [your daughter's] little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people..."
In effect, segregation forbade discussion and debate about many aspects of human relations, race, and culture. As I read Birmingham's elaborate segregation ordinances listed in the Barriers Gallery (Section 597 of the 1944 Code of Alabama, Reaffirmed by the Birmingham City Clerk on May 25, 1951: "It shall be unlawful to conduct a restaurant for the serving of food in the city, at which white and colored people are served in the same room, unless uch white and colored persons are effectually separated by a solid partition extending from the floor upward to a distance of 7 ft. or higher and unless a separate entrance from the street is provide for each compartment;" Section 597 of above code: "Negroes and white persons not to play together: it shall be unlawful for a Negro and white person to play together or in company with each other in any game of cards, dice, dominoes, checkers, baseball, softball, football, or basketball.") I thought of how isolating segregation was, for whites as well as for blacks.
It is perhaps hard for people born since the civil rights era to grasp how terribly difficult it was to change people's hearts and minds and how very much courage it required. The exhibits in the Institute's galleries illustrate how intractable official segregationist policy once was. Those who dedicated themselves to changing this policy were willing to die for their beliefs, and too many of them did.
The Institute, located on 16th Street North and 6th Avenue, is the centerpiece of Birmingham's planned Civil Rights District, a four-block area on the border of the downtown business and commercial district. In the 1920s and 30s, 4th Avenue, two blocks from the Institute, was the heartbeat of the black community. The $9 million cost of the Institute's land and building was funded by the city of Birmingham and Jefferson County, and the $4 million cost of the exhibits was paid for by private and corporate donations.
In its setting, the building is imposing: a two-story brown brick structure with a stylish rotunda and green gabled roofs. The principal architect was Robert L. Brown, Jr. The design consultant was Max Bond of Bond Ryder in New York, the architect of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta. The Institute was built in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, and provides accessibility to people in wheelchairs as well as to the blind.
The main entrance leads visitors through a courtyard up four shallow flights of stairs into the main rotunda at second-floor level. Here are 20,000 square feet of exhibition space divided into distinct galleries: the Barriers Gallery, which illustrates life under segregation; the Confrontation Gallery, which depicts segregation's climate of violence and intimidation and documents the actions of such groups as the Ku Klux Klan, and the largest, the Movement Gallery, with sixteen separate venues and four mini-theatres, which follows the progress of the civil rights movement from the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955 to the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. The Processional Gallery depicts the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, and the Milestones Gallery consists of pedestals commemorating local and national achievements leading to racial justice.
The architects and the exhibit design firm, Joseph A. Wetzel Associates of Boston, intended the steps in the courtyard as well as the upward incline through the exhibition galleries to graphically symbolize the uphill struggle for civil rights. As I carried my six-month-old daughter through the museum, I felt the ascent as an extra exertion, as the designers intended.
To dramatize civil rights history, the galleries employ a multi-media approach with sets, replicas, photographs, timelines, film, and sound. Throughout the exhibits are life-suzed plaster of Paris sculptures depicting blacks and whites. These figures, cast from actual people, populate the sets and emphasize the human dimensions of the civil rights drama.
Rather than simply stating the economic and social disparities between whites and blacks, the exhibits use stacks of blue and white shirts to illustrate the relative proportions of blue-and-white-collar workers in Birmingham in 1950: 73% of blacks were laborers versus 33% of whites. Piles of books illustrate pupil-to-teacher ratios in black and white schools: in 1944 there were 42.8 students per teacher in black schools and 24.3 students per teacher in white schools.
The heart and soul of the museum, however, is the Movement Gallery. It is the contents of these exhibits, particularly the four mini-theatres, which sear the minds of viewers, with their terrible images, uplifting oratory, and themes of perseverance, bravery, and faith.
Here, in the mini-theatre titled "Birmingham: The World is Watching" is a replica of the small jail cell, fitted with the actual bars, where Dr. King was put into solitary confinement after being arrested on Good Friday, 1963. It was here where he wrote the "Letter from Birmingham Jail," his reply to the statement from members of Birmingham's clergy requesting that he cancel the "untimely" demonstrations and wait for the more moderate city government that had just been elected to take office.
In the exhibit a tape plays continuously of Dr. King's sonorous voice reading his "Letter," in which he scathingly criticizes "the white moderate who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice, who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice, who constantly says 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action,' who paternalistically believes that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom..."
Across from the cell is a display of vintage television sets where news footage from the Birmingham demonstrations plays simultaneously. Here are the images which shocked the world in April and May of 1963. From the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, just across Sixth Avenue from the Institute, the demonstrators ventured forth, many of them schoolchildren, walking in unison to Kelly Ingram Park across the street.
Their goal was the desegregation of city facilities and public amenities--dressing rooms in department stores, restrooms, lunch counters, and the like. As the demonstrators reached the park, Birmingham's Commissioner of Public Safety, Eugene "Bull" Connor ordered them back. (Connor and the other two commissioners, Art Hanes and Jamie Moore, were governing on borrowed time. Birmingham's voters had elected to replace them with a more moderate mayor, Albert Boutwell, and city concil, but they were rfusing to give up office.) When the demonstrators did not back down, city firemen aimed high-pressure hoses on them, using special monitor guns that channel water from two hoses through a single nozzle. The force was capable of knocking bricks loose from mortar or stripping bark from trees at one hundred feet. On the television sets are pictures of the demonstrators, young and old, in their thin cotton clothes, being hurled by gusts of water through the air and slammed against the sides of buildings. There are other images of chaos and cruelty--demonstrators being attacked by German shepherd police dogs and being beaten by policemen with nightsticks.
Accompanying my baby daughter and me that day at the Institute was a girlfriend from my high school days. During the early 1960s Robin was living in the small town of Demopolis, Alabama, and in the first galleries we had found ourselves recalling memories and drawing comparisons from our childhoods in Demopolis and Birmingham. When we reached the Movement Gallery, however, the emotional impact of the exhibits there stunned us into silence.
The steady stream of visitors in the museum included several families, black parents who had brought their children to learn about their past. Their remarks deepened my experience of the museum. One woman pointed to a picture of Dr. Abraham Woods, the pastor of St. Joseph Baptist Church, at the time a local civil rights leader and now the second vice president of the Institute's Board of Directors. "He was my teacher," I heard her announce to her son in a tone of quiet pride. She smiled at me when she noticed I was listening, and I felt moved by her personal connection to the history here.
"My grandparents marched with King," a thin little black girl with another family told me softly. She burst into tears before a picture of a beat-up white Freedom Rider, his teeth knocked out, the blood streaming down his face. This mini-theatre exhibit in the Movement Gallery specifically refers to the 1961 event when seven blacks and six whites attempted to ride a Greyhound bus together from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans. Their goal was to confront the policy of segregation on interstate buses in the South. Outside Anniston, Alabama, the bus was stopped by a white mob and a firebomb was thrown inside. As the Freedom Riders fled the burning bus, they were beaten.
A large format video screen in the shape of a bus windshield tells the story of the Freedom Riders. Next to it is part of a bus like the one the Freedom Riders rode to Anniston. In the exhibit it appears as a burned hulk of twisted steel, scorched rubber, and shattered glass. The exhibit designers working with 1220 Associates, the Nashville-based museum fabricators, found a bus of early 1960s vintage still being used in Maine. They bought it, painted it, cut the front off, and torched it. While the Institute was under construction, the bus was installed on a concrete roadside set, complete with strewn beer cans.
The culmination of the Movement Gallery is the exhibit documenting the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, when 250,000 blacks and whites gathered on the Mall between the Washington Monument and the Capitol demanding freedom and jobs. A large video screen plays excerpts from the March and from King's climactic speech, which was carried live that day by all three networks, the first mass meeting ever to reach the national airwaves. In this speech--one of the great orations in American history--King, moved by the response of the crowd, impulsively departed from his formal prepared text to preach the inspired, unifying message visitors hear in the mini-theatre, "I have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream...we will be able to speed up that day when all God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'"
As author Taylor Branch has noted in his definitive history of the civil rights movement, Parting the Waters, "The emotional command of his oratory gave King authority to reinterpret the core intuition of democratic justice. More than his words, the timbre of his voice projected him across the racial divide and planted him as a newly founding father." (p.887) The sound of King's rich baritone resonating in the gallery confirms Branch's observations.
The winding path through the Institute's galleries leads visitors to a room with a large picture window framing the view of the 16th Street Baptist Church across Sixth Avenue. Built in 1873, two years after Birmingham's founding, this handsome red-brick church is the oldest black church in Birmingham. During the demonstrations, it served as a headquarters. From here schoolchildren and other marchers issued forth to meet the police dogs and firehoses.
It was also in this church that a dynamite bomb exploded on September 15, 1963, killing four young girls attending Sunday school classes--Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson--and injuring 19 others. As with the news of President Kennedy's assassination two months later, I will never forget how I heard of these young girls' deaths.
I was in Sunday school at Temple Emanu-el, Birmingham's Reform Jewish temple, and, as my fourth-grade class stood in line in the stairwell on our way to our classroom on the second floor of the Educational Building, a teacher came from the office with the terrible story. I think all of us thought then, If we were Negro children, it could have been us. And it did seem that this virulent hatred of blacks could inspire other latent prejudices--against Jews, for example. Previously, an unexploded bomb had been found in Temple Beth-el, the Conservative temple just up the street on Highland Avenue, and the two temples had hired guards around the clock.
With the bombing, the forces of hatred and evil seemed out of control, and even ardent segregationists said that things had gone too far.
Now my friend Robin and I wanted to see the church neither of us had visited while living in Birmingham. The door was locked, but a call from Institute personnel gave us access. The church in fact is closely connected to the Institute; it has volunteered its 1500-seat sanctuary for Institute events, and the personnel there expect to receive visitors from the Institute. The church has recently undergone a massive renovation, including its organ, and the sanctuary looks handsome indeed.
Above the balcony is the Wales window, the stained glass image of the martyred Christ given by the people of Wales after the bombing. The lower auditorium awaits renovation; an alcove serves as a moving and modest memorial to the four martyred girls. Here is a scrapbook filled with the telegrams of sympathy and solidarity that poured in from around the world. Here are the girls' photographed faces, smiling, full of hope and innocence.
The one-square-block Kelly Ingram park was witness to some of the worst scenes of violence during the demonstrations. Now, as the symbolic forecourt of the Institute, it has been redesigned by the local firm of Grover Harrison Harrison to fit its transformed role as "A Place of Revolution and Reconciliation," in the words of Mayor Richard Arrington, Jr., Birmingham's first black mayor now in his fourth term.
The landscape architects chose diagonal cross-shaped paths intersected by a circular Freedom Walk to suggest the paths of the marchers. In the center of the park is a water feature: four brimming basins shaped like a quartered circle which are intended as an allusion to the Biblical text from Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech: "We will not be satisfied until justice runs down like the waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." A statue of Dr. King from the park's previous design stands inside the entrance along one of the paths. "His dream liberated Birmingham from itself and began a new day of love, mutual respect, and cooperation," reads the inscription at its base. This statue is self-effacing and conventional contrasted to the park's new sculpture.
At the park entrance at Fifth Avenue and 17th Street stands a bas-relief in Alabama limestone of three black ministers kneeling in prayer, the work of Washington, D.C. artist Raymond Kasky. The figures of the ministers are large and powerful, yet because of their attitude, they meet the visitor below eye level, conveying a sense of immediacy and vulnerability.
The park's other sculptures by El Paso, Texas artist James Drake, like the exhibits in the Institute, are simultaneously upsetting and uplifting. These are dark, brooding works in steel and bronze whose static drama reenacts the violence of the park's past. One depicts two youths standing in a doorway. Across the path from them is a wall of prison bars commemorating the marching children who were imprisoned. Another sculpture shows two young people flung against a wall by the imagined jets of water issuing from the monitor guns mounted on tripods behind them. Drake's sculptures make strong statements and are bound to be controversial; the installation of a third sculpture depicting German shepherd dogs leaping from parallel walls with bared teeth, restrained at the end of taut lashes, has been delayed by criticism from municipal authoritiies.
The park's renovation received enthusiastic praise from Contributing Editor and Critic-at-large Catherine Howett in the March, 1993, issue of Landscape Architecture: "The city of Birmingham and the designers of Kelly Ingram Park have taken a site at the heart of their city that was in every sense a bloody field in a shameful war and have turned it into a shrine. In that sense, this small park is more like Gettysburg than like any other urban park in America. What they have done here, however--in contrast to most historic sites--reveals and interprets the place and what happened in it with courage, sensitivity, grace and, in the best sense, style. They have made it much more than a pleasant park, although it is that first and foremost." (Vol.83, no.3, p.35)
Researchers at present are working on the archival collections-scheduled to open at the end of this year-that will include documents, oral histories, and artifacts of those involved in the civil rights movement-both prominent leaders and ordinary citizens. Odessa Woolfolk, the president of the Institute's Board of Directors, like other representatives I spoke to, stressed that the Institutešs purpose, like the civil rights movement itself, crosses racial boundaries.
Priscilla Cooper, the Institute's Education Program Consultant, spoke to us of the importance of preparing visitors, particularly schoolchildren, for what they will see in the museum. "We're new, and we're learning as we go along," she confessed. "We hold preliminary meetings with teachers in order to provide them with a materials packet and advise them on how to present the information in the classroom, before the visit." She mentioned the upsetting responses evoked in visitors by the exhibits and said, "People are afraid, and we have to help them overcome their fears."
At first I thought she was talking about visitors like the little black girl whom I had seen bursting into tears at the photograph of the bloodied and beaten Freedom Rider, but Robin, more perspicacious than I, realized that she was delicately referring--for us, Birmingham's former white children--to the difficulty of reaching out to white teachers in Birmingham's still predominantly white suburban schools. Questioned, she admitted this to be the case. "It's hard for the teachers, because they have to face the truth. They have to tell the students what really happened."
It occurred to me that what I was witnessing was the transformation of Birmingham's official history. Political power in Birmingham is now wielded by many who were formerly powerless, and the civil rights movement, that the city once excoriated, tried to crush and to ignore, is now--with the opening of the Institute and the designation of the Civil Rights District--celebrated and exalted. I recall how in my childhood Martin Luther King was denounced as "an outside agitator," "a troublemaker," and the worst epithet of all, "a Communist."
"The Negroes and whites in this city were getting along just fine until King came along and stirred things up"--this statement and others like it constituted the reigning wisdom of the day. Even leaders of Birmingham's black community such as millionaire businessman A.G. Gaston (in whose hotel, just blocks away, Dr. King stayed, and which was also bombed) and attorney Arthur D.Shores (who represented civil rights suits in the courts and whose home was bombed, too,) felt in those days of April and May, 1963, that Dr. King was jeopardizing their delicate, mostly secret, negotiations with the new city government of Albert Boutwell that had just been voted into office and that was trying to take over from the triumvirate of Connor, Hanes, and Moore.
Dr. King and the other leaders of the movement believed that their cause would eventually triumph even if they did not live to see that day. Birmingham's Civil Rights District is indeed a shrine, and my visit there gave me a sense of personal solace. For years I--and many others of my generation--felt pained by our city's shameful past. In laying claim to the civil rights movement and in celebrating it, Birmingham has sought to replace hatred with a vision of brotherhood.