Birmingham’s Civil Rights History

Even though I teach English courses, I always make sure that history gets included in whatever we’re discussing. I usually use Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow in my Composition I course, and one day when it’s safe to travel again, I hope to actually take some students down to Alabama to the Civil Rights Institute. I’ve written some posts about Birmingham from when I went in 2018 to a conference, so you can check those out here and here. I’d never been to Birmingham before and knew Birmingham was the center of a lot of civil rights movements, but I wasn’t quite prepared for how powerful that history can be felt in the city. In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I wanted to highlight my visit to the Institute.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on social media is annoying because it seems like everyone who has had nothing to say about injustice suddenly paints their Instagram and Facebook with sweet quotes from MLK about peace and love…because that’s what makes us comfortable. The truth is, Martin Luther King, Jr. broke laws and called out hypocritical Christians (but we ignore that because, again, we like to be comfortable). If you’ve never read his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” where he literally writes from jail to his fellow clergymen, today would be an excellent time to do so. My favorite section is below: 

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but 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 cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

And now to the Institute. To be honest, I was surprised (and a little confused) that the regional conference I frequently attend and present at was being held in Birmingham, Alabama. What’s in Birmingham, I kept wondering…

A whole lot, actually. I’m so happy that I had the opportunity to visit this city – I don’t think I would’ve ever made my way down there if it wasn’t for this conference.

The conference, the South Atlantic MLA advertised a poetry reading at the Civil Rights Institute by a woman who had been held captive as a political rebel, so we thought that would be incredibly interesting to hear. Luckily for us, we also got the opportunity to walk through the Institute after-hours!

The Institute’s building is gorgeous. And of course the content inside is so powerful. I have way too many pictures and will limit this post to just a few rather than exposing the whole experience.

 

In my composition courses, we frequently discuss the differences in school funding based on what schools people go to, locations, and how those things ultimately do affect the opportunities that we’re given. 

I think my friend and I stood and just stared at the wall below for five minutes. I wish the faces in the wall were clearer in the picture below. Being there and seeing it in person is a very different experience, but looking back at this, especially after the 2020 election, is truly amazing and emotional. 

If you’re ever in or near Birmingham, or are a history lover looking for a weekend trip, this is something you absolutely must experience. It’s overwhelming and SO HISTORICALLY IMPORTANT.

We also spent some time at Kelly Ingram Park, across from the 16th Street Baptist Church (above), which was bombed by white supremacist terrorists in 1963. The park was also the center of a lot of violence during the civil rights era, is part of the United States Civil Rights Trail, and contains several memorials to the people who were murdered in those demonstrations.

It was only me and my friend at the park on this Sunday morning. It was an absolutely perfect fall day, and it was completely silent here except for the wind and the birds and the faint sound of city noise, which I think only added to the experience of walking through the park. When I bring students, this is certainly where we’ll be doing some reflection writing.

Although everything about the park was emotionally moving, this pathway through the violent attack dog statues is really terrifying. 

I think it’s easy to forget and ignore the violence of the past, but it’s so important to remember these events and talk about them in school (and to talk about them factually!). It’s easy to get caught up in the “I can’t believe this is happening/happened” rhetoric, especially with such events as this year’s white supremacist insurrectionists showing that although we’ve progressed, we still have so much further to go.

Have you ever visited Birmingham? What was the most memorable moment for you? What other historic cities do you think are places that people should absolutely visit? I’d love to know what you think!

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