There’s no beach in Birmingham, no theme park – but you will find a generous helping of humanity, and perhaps rediscover your own

“I have a dream – let freedom reign. Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty we’re free at last…” Martin Luther King Jr.

In the 50s and 60s, the City of Birmingham, Alabama was the focal point of the American Civil Rights Movement. Many of us over 50 years of age remember where we were when JFK was assassinated, and will recall the shooting of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. We all remember his famous “I Have A Dream” speech that still evokes a shiver of emotion.

Located in the Deep South, Birmingham is a relatively new city, incorporated in 1871. The Appalachian foothills that surround the valley contained rich deposits of coal, iron ore and limestone – the three key ingredients for the production of steel. Railway lines assured access to markets for the steel.

Slavery in the Southern States was replaced by the restrictive Jim Crow laws that created segregation, discrimination and the resulting availability of a low cost work force. Simply put, Black miners and foundry workers earned low wages, keeping labour costs down and profits up.

Today, the neighbourhoods and streets that were the scenes of racial strife have been transformed into a marvellous city-centre, dominated by the University of Alabama that occupies an area of 100 city blocks. The now silent steel mills have been replaced by centers of medical research and education – illustrating Birmingham’s renaissance as a knowledge industry centre. Football is the primary sport in The South; and The Alabama Crimson Tide university team has expanded their stadium to accommodate 101,000 fans, making it the 8th largest stadium in the world. Football not only entertains, it also generates tens of $millions for the University, and scholarships for students.

While there are many interesting places (the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, The Birmingham Zoo and the Sloss Furnaces National Historical Landmark and an outstanding museum with a huge Wedgewood collection) – the multifaceted Civil Rights Trail is a primary reason to visit.

As a segregated city, Birmingham had black and white communities living a parallel existence. Black middle class neighbourhoods, Black-owned banks, theatres, insurance companies, a newspaper and churches and schools. Dennis Mallory, our tour guide took us past landmarks where ordinary people did extraordinary acts. The James Armstrong Barbershop, whose owner was a founding member of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights; and who carried the American flag in the annual march for 50 years.

Dennis took us past Dynamite Hill, where black families lived on the left side of the street, and whites on the right.

Whites who sold their houses to black purchasers would sometimes have their houses fire-bombed; as did many civil rights attorneys. Hence the name – Dynamite Hill.

A visit to the 16th Street Baptist Church will affect you deeply, bringing you face-to-face with your own humanity and values. The all-Black Church and congregation was a focal point of the Civil Rights movement; especially during the 50’s and 60’s. Under the leadership of Rev. Fred Shuttleworth and Dr. King, community leaders challenged Birmingham’s segregation laws in 1963. Within days of King’s “I have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, a tragic event took place at the 16th Street Baptist Church that would eventually change America.

In the previous spring, a six year court battle to de-segregate Birmingham schools was coming to a close.

In May, high school students from grades 11 and 12 joined college students to join the “Children’s March”. (During a lunchtime conversation, our guide Dennis Mallory revealed that he was one of the ‘child marchers’.) The students were met by police wielding fire hoses, batons, and dogs – which they set upon the teenagers. Day after day, the students were arrested, and when the jails were filled, they were crowded into football stadiums. Four months later, the laws were finally changed to allow integration of the schools. However, The Ku Klux Klan would retaliate.

It happened on Sunday, September 15th, just before a service dedicated to the congregation’s youth. A bomb placed under the stairs to a side entrance went off, blowing a hole in the side of the church, and knocking our many of the windows. The Ladies Restroom Lounge was just inside, and Reverend Shuttleworth found the bodies of Denise McNair (11 yrs. old), Addie May Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14) and Carole Robertson (14).

The Civil Rights Movement had claimed many victims – but the senseless killing of these four young girls galvanized public opinion in America in favour of the Civil Rights Movement.

It’s a gripping, emotional and in a strange way – an uplifting experience. To imagine and see that out of so much hatred and violence – the city of Birmingham today can commemorate the sacrifices and rejoice in the progress that has been made.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is located across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church, and it too is a powerful experience – especially for those of us who came of age in the 50s and 60s. It’s a superb collection of exhibits, photos, recordings and sculptures from the Civil Rights movement. You’ll see Rosa Parks – refusing to give up her seat on the bus. At the museum’s exit, there is a mural with the faces of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandella, Desmond Tutu, and…. President William Jefferson Clinton.

A few blocks away we visited the Carver Theatre, once a theatre for black audiences and now the home of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.

We had the great good fortune to meet Dr. Frank Adams, who played saxophone for Duke Ellington for 22 years, and who still teaches and performs regularly.

He played at President Barak Obama’s Inauguration. Doc Adams told us about meeting Duke Ellington when he was a boy, when Duke was performing across the street at The Coloured Masonic Temple. Another story Doc told was about buying his first tuxedo at Coin’s Pawn Shop for $1.40 so that he could play with the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra, famous for their composition and recording of Tuxedo Junction.

The Kelly Ingram Park (named in 1932) is located across the street, and is now a peaceful oasis where hatred once flourished. There are some powerful sculptures along the park’s Freedom Walk to serve as a reminder of those difficult days still fresh in memories. Kelly Ingram was a white fireman, and the first American sailor killed in WWI.

Birmingham, Alabama is a worthy destination for anyone interested in the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s. It’s an important part of the history of our lives, of our generation. It’s a trip that will challenge, entertain and above all – reaffirm the strength of the human spirit.

Birmingham has two fine public golf courses, Oxmoor Valley and Ross Bridge, the latter being the 3rd longest course in the world. These courses are part of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail ( The Alabama Sports Hall of Fame is a fine celebration of athletes in all sports who have played at the University of Alabama, including Coach ‘Bear’ Bryant and Olympic champion Jesse Owens.

Travel Planner

Birmingham is easily accessible by air, and it is a comfortable 2 hour drive from Atlanta if you’re driving south for the winter. It well-worth a detour of a few days. You may want to extend the scope of your visit to include a side trip to Monroeville, the hometown of To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee, and the setting for her best-selling novel. The famous Muscle Shoals recording studio is also within a day trip. 2010 is the Year of Small Towns and Downtowns throughout Alabama. 2011 is the Year of Alabama Music. Did you know that Nat King Cole, The Temptations, Lionel Ritchie, and Hank Williams all come from Alabama?

Alabama Tourism:
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute:

We stayed at the Sheraton Birmingham, a large full service convention hotel located close to all the places of interest. The rooms are spacious and recently renovated. Indoor pool and fitness centre. Live jazz featured on the lobby bar.

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