The landscape of Birmingham and Montgomery, Ala., is dotted with places that were key locations in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.
You need to get to the rain forests before they’re all gone, and the polar ice caps may have melted by the time you try to see them, but it’s Alabama that demands your immediate attention. And by Alabama I mean that place where elegant black ladies of a certain age stand sentinel over the trails through civil-rights country.
Really. They’re lit from within, these women; they glow as only people can who never thought they’d live to see the day but then live to see the day. As they gaze out on the landscape of a country facing agonizing choices, they haven’t a doubt in the world that we’ll get through this. After all, we’ve gotten through far worse.
As I explored Birmingham’s Civil Rights District, pedestrians wandered through Kelly Ingram Park, where pansies grow in dainty rows. Yet in 1963 thousands gathered here to demand an end to racial segregation, and police retaliated by setting attack dogs on children and aiming at people with fire hoses powerful enough to strip bark off trees.
Across the street at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a museum and research center, five massive picture windows overlook the park in a room devoted to the Kelly Ingram chapter of the civil-rights story.
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The institute also houses a charred Greyhound bus, a replica of one that a group of Freedom Riders rode through Alabama before it was firebombed, and the pale-green bars of the cell where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in 1963.
And then you get to museum employee Yvonne Williams’ desk. Before coming to the institute, Williams spent 31 years teaching fourth grade in Birmingham public schools. And still she retired too soon.
“We used to have that poster with all the presidents, you know?” Williams says. “And I distinctly remember this little boy coming up to me one day and saying, ‘Mrs. Williams, where is the black one?’ I thought, Lord, give me the words to say it.” She stops for a moment, collects herself.
“I just said to him, ‘Maybe in your lifetime.’ “
Williams has worked in the institute’s research division for five years now “and will be here till God sends me home.” She worries about the younger generation, for whom nonviolent resistance is a quaint notion, and she wonders if they’ve already forgotten the rocky road to the Obama presidency. They’re up against a lot these days, she says, and toughness in the face of such trials is the only thing that’s going to work.
“We just have to keep fighting. That’s what I tell them. That’s what America’s all about. Don’t stop.”
There isn’t just one civil-rights trail in Alabama, just as there wasn’t a single strand to the civil-rights movement. The state capital, Montgomery, 90 miles south of Birmingham, will forever be associated with Rosa Parks and the 1955 bus boycott.
Selma saw the struggle for voting rights that led to the bloody 1965 confrontation at the Edmund Pettus Bridge and, ultimately, the 54-mile, fiveday march to Montgomery that brought Alabama to the nation’s — and the world’s — attention. The route, along Highway 80, has been designated a historic trail, and the National Park Service operates a terrific visitors center at the route’s midpoint.
Then there is Birmingham, once known as the Magic City thanks to the phenomenal population growth it experienced after its founding in 1871, and later the Tragic City, after it became the most segregated city in the South. Birmingham had separate hotels for blacks and whites, separate cemeteries, ambulances, even elevators.
And the regular eruptions of violence brought with them yet another nickname for Alabama’s largest city: Bombingham.
“Ring the doorbell around the corner. Someone will let you in,” says a woman in the building beside the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. There’s usually a tour, she apologizes over the din, but the guide is sick today.
And so it’s just the church and me, strolling through the stately sanctuary with its wraparound gallery, gazing up at the windows that rained stained glass on church members after 10 sticks of dynamite exploded under a stairway on a Sunday morning in 1963, killing four young girls in the basement.
It was yet another pivotal moment for the civil-rights movement and one that the church honors simply, if powerfully, in the Memorial Nook downstairs. There are portraits of the girls the world came to know simply as Cynthia, Carole, Denise and Addie Mae; the clock from the sanctuary is there, too, forever reading 10:22. There’s also a photo of the lone stained-glass window to survive the bombing, undamaged except for the hole where Jesus’ face used to be.
There’s at least one other church basement of significance in the area, the one on Dexter Avenue in Montgomery. Now known as Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist, it’s the church where King was once senior pastor. It, too, has regular tours, and a woman named Miriam Norri is the 130-year-old church’s tour manager.
“Dr. King was the 20th pastor in our history,” she says, and, sure enough, there’s his framed photo amid those of the 26 other pastors: a 24-year-old, fresh-faced newcomer working on his Boston University doctorate. She shows me King’s office in the basement. In the pastoral office is the blond wood desk on which he planned the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955.
On the other end of Dexter Avenue, just a few blocks away, sits what was once the home of the Montgomery Fair department store. (“It’s loft apartments for yuppies now,” Norris says.) In 1955 it was the place where Rosa Parks worked as an assistant tailor, spending endless hours on her feet before boarding the bus for home at Montgomery and Lee streets a few blocks away.
Now at that corner sits the Rosa Parks Library and Museum, a powerful testament to Rosa Parks, the woman who famously wouldn’t give up her seat on the bus.
Shirley Cherry is yet another Alabama sentinel I meet on my travels. Cherry runs tours of the Dexter Parsonage Museum on Centennial Hill in Montgomery, King’s home while he was a pastor in town. As a girl she worked in a cleaners in Tuskegee and was regularly charged with the task of washing the white robes of Ku Klux Klansmen. (“I always say that the Klan put me through school,” she says with a wry smile.)
Cherry walks slowly but steadily from an adjacent building to the parsonage, a proud 1912 relic of what was once an upscale African-American neighborhood, but is now spiraling downward.
We enter the house and, just like that, it’s the 1950s again. On the coffee table in the parlor, there’s a dish of pecans gathered from the trees out back, crocheted doilies and a few loose cigarettes scattered here and there.
In the living room, afternoon sunlight is falling on an upright piano. Through the window I see the front porch, the one with the sizable gash in its floor, a vivid reminder of the night of Jan. 30, 1956, when the parsonage was firebombed. King’s wife and a friend were in the parlor with the pecans and doilies, his 10-week-old daughter asleep in a crib in the next room.
If you look at the house now, with all its cozy, homey details, at first it’s almost impossible to imagine a bomb blowing a hole in the living room, the family within barely escaping death.
But then you remember that this is Alabama, a place where history has a way of happening anywhere.
On a table in the hallway, a black Bell rotary phone looks just like the one that used to receive 30 to 40 threatening calls a day, so many that an extra line had to be added in King’s study.
“This is not the actual phone where they received the harassing phone calls,” Cherry explains, “but it would have looked just like this.”
And then we come to the kitchen. Cherry sighs. “This is the room you have to see,” she says softly, her eyes wandering from the Maytag hand-cranked washing machine in the corner to King’s own tea kettle on the stove.
“Nobody’s teaching the young people about how they got to where they are,” she says, staring at the dishes on the modest kitchen table. “It’s not just history. It’s a way of saying, ‘You can do anything if you try.’ I’ve had my share of trials, but then I think of Dr. King. … “