Birmingham: Defined by Civil Rights

Civil Rights Institute, courtesy of Greater Birmingham CVB

The wall clock pauses eternally at 10:22 in the basement of the 16th Street Church in Birmingham. A quietude and ponderous mantle of solemnity remains.

I’m here to pay homage to four innocent young girls murdered by bomb blast in 1963 — and to stand in the metaphorical footprints of the second American revolution, the Civil Rights movement.

In the aura of the tick-free timepiece, silence encapsulates me and becomes a hushed prayer. My daughter, as innately moved as I am, steps forward and takes my hand.

As a family, we continue to survey the basement of the 16th Street Church, now part of Birmingham’s dedicated Civil Rights District. We take one last look at the stopped clock, then peruse the displayed photos, awed by the one in particular.

This photo shows a stained glass window nearly intact (though others around it were destroyed). Its only blight: the face of Jesus demolished, blown out, a compelling void that cries out for explanation.

We can’t help but imagine that morning nearly fifty years ago. We envision those four chatty girls, confabulating about their new school year, unaware of impending doom as they changed into their choir robes to perform for the glory of God.

The blast that followed was reported to have the intensity of ten sticks of dynamite. It turned the church — and Birmingham — into both a battlefield for Civil Rights and a symbol of wrongdoings that must be righted.

From its top kidney transplant center to its erudite Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival to fried pies and barbecue to its James Beard Foundation nominated chefs — this city’s scene revels in life. But, always, like ubiquitous background music, memories of the past accompany the present.

The six blocks that compose Birmingham’s Civil Rights District might be the soul, as well as the heartbeat, of the city.  We begin our visit by spending hours in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a museum rich with halls and galleries that opened in 1993.

Gut-wrenching, but ultimately uplifting, the institute is a mouthpiece for history. It tells the story of race relations in the American South, especially documenting the role that Birmingham — and Alabama in general — played in the long march for equality.

They portray events from Rosa Parks’ brave stand in Montgomery to the Birmingham riots to the ascendancy of Reverend Martin Luther King.  A gift of optimism, an affirming reminder that good trounces evil, the Institute teaches without castigation or forced didacticism. We exit the Institute, nurtured and transformed on many levels.

Kellly Ingram Park, photo by Jeffrey Greenberg

As we wander the Fourth Avenue Business District, the past continues to unravel and come alive.  This plethora of bakeries, nightclubs barbershops, theaters, banks and stores flourishes today, much as it did in the early 20th century when Blacks established their own retail, cultural and social section of town.

Besides visiting the landmark 16th Street Baptist Church, we also explore Kelly Ingram Park and walk its paved “Freedom Trail.”

Here sculptures that line the walk commemorate the egregious times when police turned attack dogs and fire hoses on children, women and men who had gathered to protest segregation.We linger longest at a sculpture of three ministers kneeling in prayer — a reminder of the vital role that Black clergymen played during the movement.

Emotionally exhausted, we hunt for fuel  — check out James Beard recognized Hot and Hot Fish Club and  Highlands Park Bar & Grill — and we gather strength.

In fact, we chew and digest our Birmingham adventure as a whole — knowing that like good food, it will stick to our ribs and sustain us for years to come.

Another good read: When the Children Marched: The Birmingham Civil Rights Movement (Prime)