I spent my Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and (and presidential inauguration weekend) in Birmingham, Ala. Previously, the only thing I knew about Birmingham was segregation and the civil rights movement, so did some research to make sure I didn’t leave there without seeing some historical sights. The top two things on my list were the 16th Street Baptist Church, which was bombed as an of act racial terrorism killing four girls and injuring others, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
When my group entered the Civil Rights Institute we were led into the Odessa Woolfolk Gallery, which houses portraits of famous African American Alabamians. We then watched a brief video about the early history of Birmingham before we were led into the main exhibit halls. The exhibits included the “whites only” and “colored only” water fountains, a display detailing the difference between a white and colored classroom, whites only restaurant counters and so much more. It seemed like I went back 50 years and I was in a completely different country.
But I really didn’t get the full breadth of what I was experiencing until I walked toward the end of one of the exhibit halls and laid eyes on an actual Ku Klux Klan robe, hood and wooden cross.
My heart immediately dropped into the pit of my stomach. I have never been so close to something that symbolized so much racially motivated hatred, terror and destruction. It felt like I stood in front of the robe for five minutes but I know it wasn’t that long. I wanted to make sure that I remembered every detail, including the flawless stitching around the eye cutouts in the hood.
As I walked through a couple of other exhibits I couldn’t get the KKK robe out of my head. There have been rare occasions where I have been discriminated against because of my race and I remember feeling some level of frustration. But my experiences were nothing compared to the generations before me.
I thought I was done until I turned another corner and I started to see images and newspaper articles about the Freedom Riders. There was so much information about riders’ struggles when they were in the segregated South, including the 1961 firebomb attack on a Greyhound bus in Anniston. I was mortified by the hate that people demonstrated to non-whites.
At the same time, I was amazed by the tenacity of the activists that persevered through their journey through the South in order to test the Supreme Court decisions dealing with desegregation. Once again, my heart dropped into my stomach when I saw the front part of fired charred bus that was firebombed in 1961.
As my tour ended at the Institute, I walked out of the dark exhibit halls and ended with a panoramic view of the 16th Street Baptist Church. It was a gorgeous day and the view of the church was breathtaking, the perfect end to my visit.
My trip to Birmingham was informative and I learned much more than I expected. Thank you to all of the people who fought tirelessly and made so many sacrifices in the name of equality.