Imagine having to drink from a water fountain labeled “White” or “Colored.” Imagine not being able to go into a restaurant and order a meal because of your race. Imagine living in a city where segregation was the law. For many years, when I thought of the Civil Rights movement, those are the things I thought of. I thought of Martin Luther King Jr. and his epic speech I have a Dream. I pictured images of the men and women marching in Selma for equal rights. I knew that many people struggled for decades for the simple right to be equal, but until recently, I didn’t really understand what the Civil Rights movement was truly like. When I was in school, teachers glossed over the Civil Rights struggle, hitting the high points, but never making me truly understand what really happened in that era. I only had vague ideas of the violence and real, visceral struggles associated with gaining the simple right to cast a vote.
I really didn’t understand the Civil Rights movement, and how truly brave an dedicated the movement members were, until I watched a white man throw a fire bomb into a bus full of interracial CIvil Rights volunteers in the PBS documentary Freedom Riders. I didn’t understand what the movement really was fighting until I saw footage of the Civil Rights participants holed up in a church in Montgomery, AL while white residents outside set cars on fire and threw bricks into the church, with murder in their hearts.
I didn’t really, truly understand until I looked again at a photo from my state in the 1950s of two black men hanging dead in a tree, nooses around their necks, surrounded by a mob of smiling white citizens. I didn’t understand how black men were subject to random acts of brutality for the crime of looking a white man in the eye or smiling at a white woman. I didn’t understand how much the movement fundamentally changed society, especially in the south, until I understood how fully and completely black people were sidelined in politics and culture for so many years.
When I understood more, I wanted to know more. Why did the south hold on for so very long to trying to repress black citizens? Why was the reaction to the Civil Rights movement in Alabama, the beautiful state where I grew up, so violent in the 1960s? How did people who were participating in non-violent protests manage to overcome those fighting so very hard to repress equality, those using violence and fear? I’m in the process of researching a new book about historic travel destinations in Alabama and I knew that I needed to include a whole section on Civil Rights locations around the state. I decided to visit some of the most important sites of the Civil Rights movement, to stand in some of the same spots where some of the bravest people in recent history stood, where they rallied their friends and answered the call to stand up for freedom and equality. Yesterday I visited one of the places mentioned in every documentary I’ve ever seen about the Civil Rights movement, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL.
This church was the first black church in Birmingham and was first called the First Colored Baptist Church of Birmingham. The first church building was a beautiful, Gothic structure with a towering steeple and intricate stonework. When I asked my tour guide at the church why that beautiful structure was demolished, she said it was because the city didn’t want a black church to have such a beautiful building. The city condemned the first church in 1908 and ordered the congregation to tear it down. Church officials hired a black architect to design and build a new church building, and the existing church was completed in 1911. The church became not only a place for worship services, but a center for the community. According to the church’s webpage,
W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson, and Ralph Bunche were among many noted black Americans who spoke at the church during its early years. African-Americans from across the city and neighboring towns came to Sixteenth Street, then called “everybody’s church,” to take part in the special programs it hosted.
In the 1960s, when the Civil Rights movement was starting to gain momentum, Birmingham was a deeply segregated city, but also one of the most important locations for Civil Rights activism. City leaders had long enshrined segregation in the law to make it a crime for black and whites to intermingle in almost any way. It was even a crime for blacks and whites to play checkers together. The 16th Street Baptist Church served as a meeting place for many prominent leaders in the local black community and the Civil Rights movement, becoming the headquarters for many Civil Rights activities. Members of the community would meet in the church to plan marches, sit-ins, and other non-violent protests. They often would then stage large protests and marches across the street at Kelly Ingram Park. Because of the church’s importance to Civil Rights activities, it became a target for violence.
On Sunday, September 15, 1963, the congregation was gathered for church services, children were in their Sunday School rooms, and several young girls were getting ready for choir. They didn’t know that members of the Ku Klux Klan had planted a huge bundle of dynamite inside the wall of the building. At 10:22, the dynamite exploded, destroying part of the church, shattering windows, and killing four young girls: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, and Carole Robertson.
The bombing shocked the world and brought attention to the plight of black citizens in not only Birmingham, but the segregated south in general. Contributions to help repair the damaged church poured in from all over the world. Over $300,000 was raised, a huge sum in the 1960s. The people of Wales donated a new, gorgeous stained glass window to grace the sanctuary designed by Welsh artist John Petts. The window features an image of Christ with his arms stretched out. One hand is pushing away to represent oppresion. The other hand is reaching forward, representing forgiveness. At the bottom of the window are the words “You do it to me.” The church was repaired and reopened in June, 1964.
The bombing, which shattered so many lives in Birmingham, did bring greater attention to the Civil Rights movement and helped to spur momentum towards passage of the Civil Rights Act. Today, the church is a registered national historic landmark and is still a center of the Birmingham community. Visitors can tour the church to learn more of its fascinating history. That’s what I did this week. I arrived at the church when another group was just starting to watch a short documentary about the church’s history and the bombing. We watched the video in silence, then a church volunteer took us on a tour of the church and the actual location where the bomb was placed and the four girls died. We gazed at the mesmerizing stained glass window, and I thought about the people from Wales who were so moved by the events in far-away Alabama that they donated such a meaningful piece of art. I asked the tour guide how long she’d been a member of the church, and she said all of her life. The day of the bombing, she was six years old, but she wasn’t at the church that day. As I stood in the church sanctuary, on a balcony overlooking the pulpit, I pictured what it had been like in the 1960s during the height of the Civil Rights struggle. I imagined the church completely full of people planning the next non-violent protest. I wondered what those people were thinking, knowing they were going out into a situation where they would likely be arrested, brutalized by the local police, and potentially killed. As I thought of those men and women, and even children who participated in the movement, my admiration grew. They were normal people who were willing to give their lives for freedom. After I toured the church, I wandered across the street to Kelly Ingram Park, which is now a nice memorial to all of the people who participated in the Civil Rights struggles in Birmingham. Markers explain what life was like during Jim Crow laws and segregation and how people planned protests in this expansive park. A statue memorializes the four young girls killed in the bombing. Other statutes try to make visitors see and feel what it was like for the protesters, facing jail, beatings, snarling dogs, and powerful water hoses.
As a white woman born in 1969, the Civil Rights movement has always seemed very distant and foreign to me. I simply could not imagine a world where people treated each other so horribly simply because of skin color. I couldn’t conceive of the discrimination and violence blacks in the south had to content with in their daily lives. My trip to the 16th Street Baptist Church, as well as the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (I’ll write about that next), helped me visualize, feel, experience, and understand life in those turbulent times. I think it’s important for all of us to understand the history of the Civil Rights movement and to understand what life was like before brave citizens across the country banded together to fight injustice. For anyone interested in the Civil Rights era, visit this church and park. It’s a powerful place that will help you understand the dedication of devotion of so many average people who struggled so hard for equality and justice in the 1960s. I will visit again. More Information: Church Webpage: http://www.16thstreetbaptist.org/ Address: 1530 6th Ave North, Birmingham, AL 35203 How to visit: Call the church at 205-251-9402 and inquire about tours. The church is open for tours Tuesday through Saturday, but you need to make an appointment to ensure a volunteer guide is available. Parking: Free parking is easy to find in front of the church. Just park in front of Kelly Ingram Park, visit the church, then head back across the street to tour the park. Social Media: the church is active on several social media sites. Check their web page for links. More Resources: Of course, you can find HUGE amounts of information online about the 16th Street Baptist Church and the Civil Rights movement. However, if you’d like to get a really powerful feel for what that time was like in the south, I highly recommend two recent documentaries available for free online via PBS American Experience. These are the documentaries that got me interested in learning more about the Civil Rights era in the south. Freedom Riders (watch the entire documentary here) Freedom Summer (I can’t find the entire documentary online, but you can watch the first chapter here):