Healthy Soul

Birmingham, AL – Exploring the civil rights district

My friend Valarie and I are on our own Black History tour aboard Amtrak, visiting heritage sites pertaining to African American history in Chicago; Memphis; Jackson, MS; New Orleans; Birmingham and Washington, DC. We began on Tuesday, June 28, 2011. Here is what we did on Day 10 in Birmingham.

Barry McNealy, high school social studies teacher and Birmingham City tour guide, started our tour at the Vulcan, the world’s largest iron man, set atop the Red Mountain. As a high school social studies teacher, he wanted us to understand the interconnections between the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression and why there had to be a civil rights movement. After the emancipation of enslaved Africans, the Black population in Birmingham sought jobs in the mines – iron, coal and limestone. Inadequate pay, impoverished housing, and laws created to ensure segregation by race fostered tense and often volatile relationships between black and white citizens.

From the Vulcan, he took us to the six-block Civil Rights District. We spent our time in three places: Kelly Ingram Park, 16th Street Baptist Church and the  Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Tribute to the unknown foot soldiers of the civil rights movement.

Kelly Ingram Park

The park is one square block. The path, Freedom Walk, is paved with brown and tan bricks arranged in a pattern evoking the weave in kinte cloth and also symbolic of the integration of the races for harmony. As Barry explained the role of the various activists, the interconnections and the horrific events that took place almost daily, I realized how much I didn’t know about the movement. For the first time I learned about Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth who created the Christian Movement for Human Rights with 60 member churches that held Monday-night movement meetings.

No, I did not know that Adolf Hitler studied the Jim Crow laws in the United States, using them as a template for the Nuremberg Laws. Nor did I know about the Freedom Sundays where black churches and white churches opened their doors to worshipers of any race and how Bull Connor, the commissioner of public safety, invoked the segregation-of-worshipers’ law to prevent singer Joan Baez from performing at a fundraiser at a black church. Of course she performed outside the church and more money was raised than anticipated. We then went diagonally across the street to the 16th Street Baptist Church, now pastored by the Rev. Arthur Price.

From left, the Rev. Arthur Price, pastor of 16th Street Baptist Church, and Barry McNealy, social studies teacher and tour guide.

16th Street Baptist Church

Although the story has been memorialized in newspaper reports, magazine articles, songs and documentaries, it was while viewing artifacts in the church’s memorial corridor that I learned that two young men were also killed in separate incidents on the same day the church was bombed and four little girls died. Seeing the two feet thick walls of the church, designed in 1909 by black architect Wallace Rayfield, I wondered how long it took Robert Chambliss, the bomber, to find its Achilles heel under the outside stairwell to hide the bomb. The Wales window, created by Welsh artist John Petts and paid for by funds raised by the children of Wales, was a strong reminder that the pains as well as the joys are shared, that others understand and do care.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Directly across the street from the church is the Civil Rights Institute that opened in 1992. Here, Barry pointed out the statute of Rev. Fred Shuttleworth, showed us pictures of his high school teacher and mentor, Rev. Abraham A. Woods, and introduced us to four of the 10 high school students in the institute’s International Youth Legacy Project. They had gone to South Africa last year and were preparing to host a delegation of students from that country next week.

We got so immersed in the exhibits that time flew. The content was presented as dual timelines of what was happening simultaneously in Birmingham, across the United States and in foreign countries. The structure of the exhibit itself was an interesting mix. When the information pertained to events that were an uphill struggle,we walked a path uphill. When the struggle was internal – like the court decision to end segregation of public schools – the tension was created by voices hurling conflicting statements about the issue in a range of vocal modulations. The exhibit ended with a purposeful connection to human rights issues internationally: genocide in Darfur, Sudan; free speech in Tiananmen Square, China, and workers’ rights through the Solidarity Movement in Warsaw, Poland.

16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, AL.

Heading to Washington, DC

On the ride to the train station Barry gave us a truncated tour of the city. We saw Parker High School, the first school built for black students and still functioning. He went to school there, teaches there and his son is a rising junior there. Alma Powell, wife of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, went to Parker and so did activist Angela Davis. Then Barry took us to see the devastation caused by the tornado in April. It was totally unbelievable.

The Wales window in the 16th Street Baptist Church is a gift from the children of Wales. It depicts the crucifixion of a Black man with deep symbolisms.

It was now the end of the day and we had not eaten since breakfast. Back on the train, we decided to have dinner in the dining car. Amtrak’s dinner service is from 5-9p. Diners are seated together so that each four-person table is filled before anyone gets seated at another table. We were seated with Fred, returning home to DC from a visit to Cancun and to his daughter living in his childhood town of Crawfordsville, GA. He recalled, and held dear, meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a high school student attempting to orchestrate the integration of the two high schools in Crawfordsville. Emotions quickly bubbled to the surface as he shared stories about those meetings.

After dinner, we hung out in the lounge with several members of the McDade family, hailing from Meridian, MS, on their way to a family reunion in Patterson, NJ. Crossing the state line from Alabama into Georgia took us out of the Central Time Zone into Eastern Time Zone. At 10 p.m. it was lights out on the train – in every car except the lounge car. There will be no services in the cafe car, however, so clearly no reason to stay up beyond lights out. We’ll arrive in Washington, DC, in the early morning.


Click here to read the other posts from Jennifer’s Black History Tour.

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