Birmingham’s civil rights movement was rocked by violence in 1963. Near Kelly Ingram Park, peaceful protestors, hundreds of them children, were attacked by police dogs and knocked down by water cannons as they marched. At 16th Street Baptist Church, four young African American girls were killed on a September Sunday by a bomb set by white supremacists.
An essential stop
Those events in Birmingham became a turning point, spurring long-awaited action to advance civil rights. Birmingham’s important role makes it an essential stop on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, especially since seven of its civil rights sites are now a national monument.
Adding more depth to its civil rights story are Birmingham’s citizens–those who were there in the ‘60s and those who have studied the city’s past. “Our citizens are always willing to tell their stories,” said Vickie Ashford-Thompson of the Greater Birmingham CVB.
For example, when tours wander through Kelly Ingram Park, they not only see sculptures of vicious police dogs or teenagers being pelted by water cannons, they hear personal accounts of people who were at the march, via an audio tour developed by the CVB and accessible by cellphone.
Barry McNealy, a respected educator and historian, is among the city’s step-on guides. Ashford-Thompson has yet to hear him stumped by a visitor’s question. McNealy says he learned much from Martha Boyer, another educator who leads tours at Bethel Baptist Church, where Birmingham’s civil rights movement, led by the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, began.
Four civil rights sites are within sight of one another downtown. At 16th Street Baptist Church, a video of Martin Luther King Jr.’s eulogies at three of the young girls’ funerals is an emotional reminder of young lives senselessly lost. At Kelly Ingram Park, sculptures depicting scenes from the 1963 march underscore protestors’ perseverance and courage.
Nearby, the A.G. Gaston Motel is being preserved. Built in the 1950s by a Black entrepreneur who wanted to ensure that Black travelers had safe, comfortable accommodations, the motel became a meeting place for King and other civil rights leaders. Renovation is ongoing, but visitors can snap photos of the motel’s vintage sign. At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, exhibits offer a comprehensive history of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, which began well before 1963, and often put civil rights leaders and their families in peril.
More to the story
Tours should definitely venture beyond downtown to Dynamite Hill and Bethel Baptist Church. On Dynamite Hill, the KKK routinely threw bombs at the homes of Blacks who had bought houses on the “white” side of the street. At Bethel Baptist, tours learn more about Reverend Shuttlesworth, who led Birmingham’s civil rights efforts and whose family narrowly escaped death when the parsonage next to the church was bombed. The parsonage is gone, but its “ghost”–a white wooden frame — is a stark reminder of the many citizens who put their lives on the line for civil rights.
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