In the early 1960s, the civil rights movement struggled for the equality of African-Americans in the American South. Jim Crow laws, having governed Southerners way of life for nearly 100 years, mandated a separation between blacks and whites in virtually all aspects of people’s lives.
“Separate but Equal” was anything but. White children had top-notch educations; black children were barely taught to read. White passengers on municipal buses rode up front; black passengers were packed in the rear. Jim Crow laws maintained separation between the races, but ensured little was equal.
Alabama, with its commercial hub in Birmingham, was at the centre of the civil rights movement. White residents felt compelled to maintain their way of life, which included the relegation of blacks to second-class status. During the early to mid 1960s, however, numerous black leaders led non-violent sit-ins, demonstrations and “freedom rides” in the city. Their efforts eventually resulted in full racial integration and the enactment of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which effectively ended the Jim Crow laws.
Founded in 1871 after the U.S. Civil War, Birmingham quickly became the industrial centre of the South. The city was fortunate to be founded at the intersection of several major railroads and surrounded by large deposits of coal, iron ore and limestone – all key ingredients in the production of steel. Its dramatic population growth earned it the nickname “the Magic City” in 1904.
As steel production steadily increased, so did Birmingham’s population – both white and black. The stringently segregated city grew steadily until it became the largest city in Alabama. As the city approaches the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement, the Birmingham of today still bears the scars of its violent past, yet has morphed into a model city for harmony and integration.
Our first stop in Birmingham was the city’s Civil Rights Historic District and Civil Rights Institute. Opened in 1992, the institute differs somewhat from other civil rights museums in the United States. Whereas the focus of other museums, most notably the National Museum of Civil Rights in Memphis, is on the history of American racial inequality and segregation, the Birmingham Institute primarily concentrates on the experience within Alabama.
Through numerous displays – including model white and black school classrooms, public restrooms and water fountains, municipal buses and restaurant lunch counters – the institute dramatically illustrates the inequality of “Separate but Equal.” Graphic videos of newsfeeds, mostly from 1963, show vicious dogs and powerful water cannons turned onto crowds of demonstrators determined to end segregation. Brutal beatings by police with batons and mass arrests of everyone present were commonplace. Hundreds of children (some as young as eight years old) were arrested and thrown into prison during one demonstration in May of 1963.
Across the street from the Civil Rights Institute is Kelly Ingram Park. Designated as the meeting place and staging ground for numerous sit-ins and demonstrations during the ’60s, it was renovated and rededicated in 1992 as “A Place of Revolution and Reconciliation.” In addition to the numerous statues, plaques and fountains in the park, visitors are encouraged to follow the Freedom Walk trail through the area and surrounding buildings.
Diagonally across the street from Kelly Ingram Park is the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church. Established as “The First Colored Baptist Church” in Birmingham in 1871, it was the site of the horrific September 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing that left four young black girls dead. The attack followed a string of bombings within the city, which left an indelible scar on Birmingham and led to the city’s disdainful 1960s nickname, “Bomingham.”
Birmingham’s industrial history is glorified on nearby Red Mountain at the city’s Vulcan Center and Museum. Shadowed by the world’s largest cast iron statue, that of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, the centre is situated at the top of a hill offering majestic views of the city. The museum is a testament to the history of the Magic City’s dynamic, late 19th-century growth due, in large part, to the “red vein” of iron ore discovered within the hills surrounding the city.
Birmingham’s Jewish community grew quickly during the South’s post-Civil War recovery. Attracted by the rapid growth of the city, many Jewish immigrants chose Birmingham as their home in the 1880s. Although never attaining the numbers of larger cities to the north, Jews in Birmingham maintained a close-knit society, usually relating well to the larger community. As was typical of many Southern Jewish communities, Jewish identity in Birmingham often took a backseat to blending in with Southern society.
Tensions grew, however, during the civil rights era, as many Jewish organizations lent their support to desegregation, raising the ire of Alabama whites. Attacks on Jewish organizations increased, including several attempted Ku Klux Klan bombings of local synagogues. Today, Birmingham’s Jewish community numbers about 1,500 families. The community is mostly centred in nearby Mountain Brook, rustically nestled within the hills surrounding Birmingham.
Located along popular winter snowbird driving routes to Florida, Birmingham is a modern and scenic destination with something for everyone.
Michael Stavsky acknowledges the assistance of the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitor’s Bureau in arranging his family’s trip to Birmingham.