Birmingham: Civil Rights History and Beyond

Photo by Rain0975

In the footsteps of the Civil Rights movement

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As most people of a certain age remember, an American revolution took place in the streets of Birmingham. It was the battlefield of America’s Civil Rights Movement, a struggle for simple decency and common sense.

Day 1 in Birmingham

Begin your tour at the focal point of Birmingham’s Civil Rights District, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Richly detailed exhibits in the institute reveal slices of black and white life from the late 1800s to the present. A series of galleries tells the stories of daily life for African-Americans in Alabama and the nation, and how it differed dramatically from the lives white people of that era took for granted.

Just across the street is Birmingham’s most famous civil rights landmark, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Recently designated a National Historic Landmark, the church was the site of a dynamite bombing in 1963 that killed four young African-American girls: Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Addie Mae Collins. The church is generally open for tours by appointment.

A life-size sculpture in adjacent Kelly Ingram Park faces the church and captures the spirited nature of the young girls killed in the bombing. This historic park served as a congregating area for demonstrations in the early 1960s, including the ones in which police dogs and fire hoses were turned on marchers by Birmingham police. The park has a free cellphone tour that guides visitors through the tumultuous events of 1963.

Also within the district and well within walking distance from the park is the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. From the boogie-woogie beginnings of Clarence “Pinetop” Smith to the velvet crooning of Nat King Cole, legendary jazz greats with Alabama ties are celebrated here. The adjoining Carver Theatre, newly restored, was one of several in the area offering first-run movies to African-American audiences during the era of segregation.

Grab lunch on the same block at Green Acres Café, serving up some of the best catfish and fried green tomatoes in town.

The Eddie Kendrick Memorial Park, just down the block, honors Birmingham native and Temptations lead singer Eddie Kendrick, who traveled the world but never forgot his Alabama roots.

Not far from the park is the beautiful, historic Lyric Theatre. Opened in 1914, the theater welcomed whites through the doors beneath its glitzy marquee, while black customers entered through a nondescript side door, and climbed a narrow staircase to the “colored balcony.” After lying empty for decades, the Lyric reopened in early 2016 and hosts performances of all kinds.

It is important now to visit another church, one in the neighborhood of Collegeville. Though Sixteenth Street Baptist was the church that drew worldwide attention, it was Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church that is credited with shaping the Civil Rights Movement here. A civil rights legend, the Reverend Frederick Lee “Fred” Shuttlesworth, was pastor of Bethel Baptist Church from 1953 through 1961.  The church often served as a gathering place for discussion of civil rights among blacks, gatherings that angered white supremacists. In 1958, Bethel was bombed, though the church was empty at the time.

The bombing cemented Shuttlesworth’s fiery determination to bring Birmingham to the center of the Civil Rights Movement. His high profile in the movement incited other acts of violence against him. On Christmas night in 1956, a bomb was planted under the parsonage where he and his family lived. The blast destroyed the house, blowing up the bed Shuttlesworth occupied. Miraculously, he walked away from the destroyed parsonage totally unharmed. He later endured vicious beatings while trying to integrate schools, buses and businesses. He remained active in the struggle even after he moved to Cincinnati in 1961. In July 2008, the Birmingham Airport Authority changed the name of the city’s airport to the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. Rev. Shuttlesworth died in Birmingham in 2011 at the age of 89.

The “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” historic marker denotes the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. was incarcerated and wrote this famous letter. The historic marker is in back of the old Birmingham City Jail at 425 6th Avenue South.

Consider dinner tonight at one of the restaurants in the Uptown Entertainment District, perhaps The Southern Kitchen & Bar. Their inviting menu includes the Uptown Filet and banana pudding crème brulee.

Day 2 in Birmingham

Birmingham’s transformative role in America’s Civil Rights Movement is the most prevalent story of the city’s history. There are countless compelling sites that we’d recommend during your Birmingham visit.

More history of African-Americans in athletics is at the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. This showcase includes memorabilia from Alabama athletes such as Olympic great Jesse Owens, baseball legend Hank Aaron, and heavyweight champion Joe Louis.

Go investigate the Birmingham Museum of Art. The 1,600 objects in the African collection at the museum embody the diversity of that country. The collection represents all the major regions of Africa with figure sculpture, masks, textiles, jewelry, musical instruments, clothing and ritual objects. The museum is also a good place to have lunch. Oscar’s at the Museum is big and airy and has a lovely menu that includes culinary art such as The Rembrandt (homemade meatloaf) and the Georgia O’Keeffe Chicken Salad Melt.

Cultured and refueled, you’re off to the Negro Southern League Museum. One of Birmingham’s newest attractions, the museum showcases the largest collection of original Negro League artifacts in the country. Items on display include the oldest Negro League trophy, authentic uniforms, and other memorabilia. The collection dates back to the late 1890s with the industrial teams of steel workers and miners in the area.

Find more sports history at Rickwood Field, America’s oldest in-use ballpark and the home field of the Birmingham Black Barons from 1920 until 1960. Opened in 1910, Rickwood hosted black baseball greats such as Willie Mays and Satchel Paige.

You’ve come to a city that loves to cook and loves to eat, so your dinner choices are near infinite. May we suggest Ollie Irene in the heart of the Birmingham suburb of Mountain Brook. This is where chefs around the city often choose to eat on their off nights. Order the boudin balls and chicken liver pâté with house pickles, Dijon, and toasted baguette. And if you’re feeling generous, you can also buy a beer for every chef in the back for a mere $15.

This itinerary is compliments of the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau.

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