Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

I grew up in Indiana. As a child, I had no direct experience with the awful Jim Crow laws which were, even then, in effect in Alabama. I was peripherally aware of the civil rights movement – it was all over the news – but didn’t fully understand why there was such racial tension.

The Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham is a large interpretive museum that depicts the civil rights struggles of the 1950’s and 60’s. The museum starts with a short video that shares the city’s founding and early history. Then the screen retreats into the ceiling and you are invited into a walking tour through the history of Birmingham’s role and contribution to the civil rights movement.

006Although intellectually I understood the fundamental issues behind the struggle, the museum brings them to life. I was alternately shocked and horrified as I walked through the museum exhibits depicting the unfair treatment of Black’s in the 50’s, their struggles to overturn unjust laws, and the lengths that White authorities went to keep everything the same. The “Separate but Equal” philosophy is hardly equal when spending for Black schools and facilities were half of that spent on White schools. Blacks were paid less and relegated to less desirable jobs. A Black man could be lynched for simply smiling at a White woman. And Blacks had no voice, as most were prevented from registering to vote by rigged “literacy” tests. (A example of the type of questions asked included “How many bubbles are on a bar of soap?”). Deplorable.

The most shocking part is the video footage and depiction of the violence around that time. Riders protesting segregation on buses were bombed, beaten and arrested. Peaceful protest marchers (including children!) were arrested, beaten, and set upon by vicious dogs and fire hoses. Churches were bombed, including the 16th Street Baptist Church, located across the street from the Civil Rights Institute. Four innocent little girls were killed in that bombing – a statue erected in their memory stands across the street. What were the white supremacists so afraid of?

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Thankfully, the exhibits don’t end there. Ultimately, right prevailed. Discriminatory laws were struck down and the culture began to change. A Black mayor was elected in 1979 and served faithfully for 20 years. Significant progress has been made, but as a country, we still seem to be divided along racial lines. What will it take before we can all see past the externals, and simply accept people for who they are on the inside?

My first conscious memory of interaction with a person of color was at the nursing home that my grandmother managed (we lived next door). I was maybe 3 years old at the time and visited often with my grandmother or parents who all worked there. The cook was a lovely Black woman who would indulge me in the vegetable beef baby food that I loved. I remember her gently helping me wash my hands at the sink one day and I asked her about her black skin. A childish, innocent question – “Are your hands dirty too?” And I’ll never forget her kindly chuckle as she replied, “No honey, that’s just how I’m made. My skin is dark and yours is light. See? God makes people all different ways and in all different colors. We’re the same on the inside, just different on the outside.” It made perfect sense in my 3 year old world.

And it still does.

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