The backdrop was an over-cast Sunday afternoon last month. The place was the BirminghamCivil Rights Institute. Eric and I had been talking about going for months. We finally made the trip. It was sobering and set our minds to thinking about a lot of things: progress, regress, silence, noise, action, inaction.
We arrived about ten minutes before the Institute opened, so we walked into adjacent Kelly Ingram Park. Almost immediately a man approached us and began talking to us about the history of the park, about 16th Street Baptist Church and about the Institute. He wanted us to know the true history of district, the history that we might not hear about in the Institute. We walked the Freedom Walk with him around the park to the sculptures: a demonstrator thrown back by the attack of a policeman and his dog, vicious metal hounds rising from steel to tear at desegregation, replicas of high power water hoses that attempted to force back those fighting for equality, three ministers kneeling together in limestone prayer. And beyond that, a business district clearly still struggling economically, holding on because of the historical significance of what happened along those streets almost fifty years ago.
Our guide, a man who grew up in the neighborhood during the Civil Rights Movement but currently homeless and living in a shelter with his thirteen-year-old daughter, led us out of the park and into the Civil Rights District to show us the Carver Theatre (historic Black African American theatre), the Civil Rights Activist Committee Headquarters, the Eddie Kendrick Memorial Park (Mr. Kendrick of the famous Temptations singing group) and eventually the 16th Street Baptist Church. We heard stories of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Children’s March, of Bull Connor with his tactics, and of the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four young girls. The daily boycotts, demonstrations, struggles.
The Civil Rights Movement was something that I learned about early in my public education in Alabama, so it is something that has been a part of my consciousness since I was a youngster. It wasn’t until I was older, maybe a senior in high school and then a student in college that I really began to see the extent and the frightening brutality of racial hatred in my home state. I discovered that the 1961Freedom Riders whose bus was firebombed in near-by Anniston, AL, were beaten by Klan members after they managed to escape being burned to death only because providentially the mob was unable to hold the doors of the bus closed. It was then that I also read about how in 1963, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety Theophilis Eugene Conner, known to all as Bull Connor, turned high-powered water hoses and dogs on crowds of men, women and children to dissuade them from their peaceful demonstrations. That Birmingham was known as Bombingham and that a section of town was so war-torn with violence during the 50s and 60s it was referred to as Dynamite Hill. That justice for the deaths of Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, the four little girls killed in the 1963 16th Street Church bombing, took decades to be dealt (Chambliss was convicted in 1977, Blanton in 2001, and most recently, Cherry in 2002).
Later I would learn of even more localized hatred in the form of incidents here in Etowah County (in some cases, just blocks from where we live and work), the 1906 lynching from the railroad bridge of Bunk Richardson (a black man wrongfully associated with the rape and murder of a white woman), the 1960 firebombing of Temple Beth Israel by Jerry Hunt (who also shot two fleeing congregants, Alan Cohn and Alvin Lowi), the 1963 shooting death in Attalla of Baltimore postman William Lewis Moore who was walking from Maryland to Jackson, MS to deliver a letter of desegregation to Governor Ross Barnett. These things. Here. In our community, and not so long ago.
|16th Street Baptist Church|
|16th Street Baptist Church|