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Sites in Alabama help visitors explore the struggle for civil rights

By: Linda DuVal Special to The Gazette
January 19, 2014 Updated: January 19, 2014 at 12:45 pm
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Birmingham, Ala. - Some destinations are thrilling. Some educational. Some might even make you cry.

Falling into the latter category are some striking museums and memorials related to the American civil rights movement, which culminated with the signing of the Civil Rights Act 50 years ago. A focal point of the movement was Alabama.

Depending on your age, you might not remember the names that echo in our sometimes shameful past: Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham. But if you're old enough, those names could conjure images of snarling German shepherds being sicced on black protesters; men, women and teens slammed with jets of water from fire hoses; and the passionate speeches of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

All of those images are preserved perfectly at the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, a site worth visiting if only to remind us of how far we have come.

The architecturally striking museum is located a few hundred feet from 16th Street Baptist Church, where four African-American girls were killed in a hate bombing.

Inside the 51,000-square-foot building, visitors begin with an eight-minute film that sets the stage for what they are about to see in the exhibits. Birmingham is an especially appropriate place for this because it had one of the larger Ku Klux Klan groups in the South and segregation was enforced fiercely by law, the film tells us.

At the end of the film, the screen rises and visitors can walk through to the exhibit space. It begins with memorabilia from the pre-civil rights era - signs that say "colored only" or "whites only" and mock-ups of buses with signs segregating passengers. There were separate waiting rooms for whites and blacks at bus stations, separate public water fountains and separate restrooms.

You'll also see how the black community dealt with this, forming its own neighborhoods and opening its own restaurants, boarding houses and nightclubs. These clubs are where the likes of Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway got their starts.

Inequality reigned in the American justice system, too.

There are photos of public lynchings of black men. Audio stops allow you to hear quotes featuring racial slurs and other verbal bigotry, too awful to repeat.

The 1950s brought unrest. A Supreme Court ruling (Brown vs. Board of Education) attempted to desegregate schools. A quiet, little black woman refused to surrender her seat to a white person on a public bus. Rosa Parks' memory is revered in a museum named for her in Montgomery, where the incident happened.

In the 1960s, things exploded. College students - black and white - became involved in the protests of this unfair treatment. In 1961, the Freedom Riders gained national attention when they were beaten severely by police upon their arrival in Montgomery. The bus also was firebombed at one point and met by angry mobs. When they arrived in Jackson, Miss., they were arrested.

Birmingham, then the largest city in Alabama, became the epicenter of the civil rights movement. The Rev. King preached equality at 16th Street Baptist Church and was arrested during demonstrations that followed. It was in this racially torn city that he wrote his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

As visitors - more white than black on most days - wander the exhibits, the audio in the next exhibit begins to penetrate their consciousness. It's the resonant voice of King delivering his "I Have a Dream" speech, which runs continuously in a room set aside exclusively for that.

"Let freedom ring!" he pleads, and you can feel your heart swell at his passion. "From every mountain, let freedom ring!"

And when he gets to the "Free at last . thank God Almighty we're free at last" part, it might bring tears to your eyes or at least a lump to your throat. One older couple visiting that day stood there, holding hands, and listened to it several times before moving on in silence.

Events fast-forward from here. In August 1963, upward of 250,000 civil rights supporters marched on Washington. In September, the bombing of the church that killed those little girls caught the world's attention in a way nothing else had.

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed what commonly is referred to as the Civil Rights Act. Title VII, its official name, prohibited employment discrimination based on race, sex, national origin or religion. It prohibited public access discrimination and later led to the federal fair housing law. In 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited states from imposing voting practices that would deny a U.S. citizen the right to vote because of race or color. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, recently deemed parts of that law no longer necessary.

"The institution doesn't have a position on (the recent ruling), but we've been very concerned about any attempt to disenfranchise voters or that limits people's access to voting," says Priscilla Hancock Cooper, vice president of institutional programs for the institute.

For visitors of a certain age, the museum's exhibits, photos, videos and recordings will revive memories of a time they might want to forget - but maybe shouldn't. For those who are younger, it lays out the issues and actions of the times in an easy-to-follow, chronological order. From its roots in slavery to the election of America's first African-American president, the museum "is a story of tragedy, but also of triumph," Cooper says. "It shows how ordinary people, with conviction and commitment, can change the world."

At the end of this illustrated timeline, an exhibit celebrates the fact that in 1979 Birmingham elected its first black mayor, who went on to serve five terms. There's a room where guests can hear the recorded recollections of people who marched for equality. Finally, visitors can record their own memories or reflections for posterity.

A powerful memorial

A visit to Montgomery, several hours away, will solidify this experience. The city is home base for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which to this day fights for civil rights for all. Across the street from its headquarters is a memorial commemorating the lives of those who died during the peak of the civil rights movement. It covers the era from 1954 (Brown vs. Board of Education) to 1968 (the assassination of King).

The Civil Rights Memorial is a striking fountain designed by Maya Lin, the same artist who created the Vietnam Memorial, and features a flat, black granite disc or table engraved with dozens of names around the perimeter. Water rises from the center of the disc and flows over their names, then cascades like so many tears over the edge to a catch basin.

Inside the adjacent, 5,000- square-foot Civil Rights Memorial Center, guests go through security similar to that of airports (the center receives threats of violence even today). In the main room, there are portraits of those who died from hate crimes. Each one's story is told below his or her photo, sometimes including the hate-filled words of the killers. Many of the victims are black. Some are white. Some are gay.

It's a heart-breaking litany.

"When we opened the memorial, we were unprepared for the emotional reaction we got" from visitors, director Lecia Brooks says.

The photos line a curved hallway leading to a large room. Here, in a dark space, the only light is the Wall of Tolerance, an enormous, multistory screen. Rolling down its face are 600,000 names of people who have pledged to support civil rights. It's a thrill to see your name on it, and you can add it while you're there.

"It makes people feel very engaged," Brooks says. "They can say, 'I'm part of it.'"

The memorial is around the corner from Dexter Street Baptist Church, where King was pastor during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and '56, and not far from the capitol steps where the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march ended.

Also in Montgomery are the Rosa Parks Museum, the Greyhound bus station where the Freedom Riders were beaten and other significant civil rights sites. Visiting these places might make you uncomfortable. Or indignant. Or incredibly sad. In any case, it'll be memorable.


DuVal is a former travel editor for The Gazette, a freelance writer and co-author of "Insider's Guide to Colorado Springs."

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