I love traveling to visit historic sites. When I was a child, visiting historic sites, helped to expand upon what I learned from history class in school. Seeing the sites in person, brings a new perspective to what is learned in history books. As an adult, visiting historic sites, brings an even deeper meaning to those history lessons I learned as a child.
Much of history is tragic and sad, but it’s important to learn about this history not just to know what happened in the past but also to learn why it happened and to make sure that history does not repeat itself.
In a time where people of color are still fighting for equality and against discrimination, there is no better time than now to learn more about the history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. While you will see how far we have come, you will also see that there is so much work still to be done and it will give you a better perspective on how we can all do our part to help fight for equality for all.
Birmingham Alabama played a large role in the fight for Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. It was the site of many violent events where lives were lost but it was also the site of strong people fighting for the equal rights for all. Encompassing a few blocks in Downtown Birmingham are some important sites that make up the Civil Rights Trail.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
The first place to stop on the Civil Rights Trail is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Opened in 1992, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s mission is:
“To enlighten each generation about civil and human rights by exploring our common past and working together in the present to build a better future.”
It’s a great spot to start the Civil Rights Trail as you will get the history or the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham and the rest of the south which will bring bigger meaning to the other sites along the trail.
Outside of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is a statue in honor of Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. Reverend Shuttlesworth was a minister who led the civil rights movement in Birmingham. Martin Luther King Jr. called Reverend Shuttlesworth “the most courageous civil rights fighter in the South”. He helped organized the Freedom Rides in the South. He devoted his time to desegregating Birmingham by holding mass demonstrations in the city and by attempting to enroll his children in an all-white high school.
Your visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute begins with a short film and then you can take a guided or self-guided tour thru the exhibits. There were multiple exhibit rooms that started by depicting how segregated whites and blacks were. Then it moved on to the events of the Civil Rights Movement.
Each set of exhibits had a timeline of the events of the Civil Rights Movement. There was definitely a lot of information, some of which I remember learning in history class and other information that either I hadn’t learned or went into more detail from what I did learn.
One of the events that happened in Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement was the Childrens March Against Segregation. The demonstrations and protests during the Civil Rights Movement were not known to be peaceful, with many turning to violence. Even with the thought of a violent demonstration, the children of Birmingham wanted to get involved and knew there was only so much their parents could do while working to provide for their kids. So, on May 2, 1963, thousands of black children, some as young as 12 years old, walked out of school to protest Birmingham’s segregation laws. Many protestors were arrested that day, but it was the following day that was most shocking. Police responded by spraying the children with firehoses and having dog’s brutally attacking the children. It was heartbreaking to read about this, they were only kids wanting respect and equality.
I spent about an hour and a half in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute but definitely could have spent longer. I would set aside at least an hour or two. As of the writing of this post, the Institute is open Tuesday – Saturday from 10am – 3pm. Tickets must be bought online in advance for a timed entry. Always check the website ahead of time for any changes in hours or ticketing procedures.
An often-overlooked piece of history sits in the lobby of the Institute by the restrooms. A large cast iron bell that was originally part of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church across the street. This bell was also atop the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC in August 2013 and was rang to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the same location. A few weeks later, the bell rang again to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. It’s the site of that tragic bombing that we visit next on the Birmingham Civil Rights Trail.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
Established in 1873 as the first black Baptist Church, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church played an important and also tragic part in the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. The church was used as a meeting place for Civil Rights leaders including Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and Martin Luther King Jr. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is a National Historic Landmark.
Sadly, what makes this church a landmark and such an important part of the Birmingham Civil Rights Trail is the tragic events that took place here on September 15, 1963. On a Sunday morning, when the church should have been a welcoming, happy and safe environment for its parishioners, four members of the Ku Klux Klan planted 19 sticks of dynamite outside the basement of the church. The explosion took the lives of four young girls, three were 14 years old and the other was just 11 years old. Over a dozen other people were injured in the explosion.
As a result of the bombing, violence in the city of Birmingham escalated. Two teenage boys were shot just hours after the explosion, they were only 16 and 13. The 13-year-old was shot by a 16-year-old as he was just innocently riding on the handlebars of his brother’s bike on his way home.
The awful events from this day helped to lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 being signed almost a year later. Sadly, it took years for there to be arrests and trials related to the bombing. In 1968, the FBI closed the case. It was opened again in 1971 but it wasn’t until 1977 that the main suspect was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. In 1995, the investigation was opened again, one of the other suspects had since passed away, the final two were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison in 2001 and 2002. Learning how many years it took for justice to be served for such a tragic event is just mind boggling to me. My heart goes out to the families of the young kids whose lives were lost that day who may not have even lived long enough to see justice served.
Kelly Ingram Park
Across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist is Kelly Ingram Park. This park was the location of many of the demonstrations and protests during the Civil Rights Movement. Today, the park is the location of many Civil Rights Movement sculptures.
Probably one of the most emotional sculptures in the park is “The Four Spirits”. This sculpture was added to the park in September 2013 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing.
This touching sculpture features the four young girls who lost their lives in the bombing in 1963. The sculpture depicts the four girls preparing for the church sermon as that was what they were doing just before the bombing. At the base of the sculpture the name of the sermon planned for that day, “A Love that Forgives” is inscribed. The sculpture includes 6 doves to represent the fours girl’s lives as well as the lives of the two young boys who also lost their lives that day.
If you walk into the park behind the Four Spirits sculpture, there is a sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. to honor him for all he did for the people of Birmingham during the civil rights movement.
Around the center of the park there is a circular walkway called the Freedom Walk which includes many of the other sculptures in Kelly Ingram Park. These sculptures along the Freedom Walk depicts what the citizens protesting in the park and throughout the city of Birmingham had to endure. It definitely gives you a visual idea of just how awful this time was.
Located at the southeast entrance to the park is the Kneeling Ministers sculpture. This sculpture recreates three ministers who knelt and prayed during violence during one of the many protest that occurred in 1963.
Birmingham is a great city to visit and learn more about the civil rights movement history. Many people visit the city while on a longer civil rights trip thru other cities in the US. This would make for a great educational summer road trip for the whole family.
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