Volume 10 Number 3
Meeing the Past in Alabama

01 June 1997

Many whites have no idea what African Americans really feel about the situation.
The images are stark. Bronze German shepherd dogs, menacing as they strain their leashes, bare their teeth at you; a boy and girl try to escape from a water cannon; other children are glimpsed through prison bars. In one corner three ministers kneel in prayer, and dominant in the scene is a statue of Martin Luther King Jr.

It is my first visit to the Freedom Walk in Birmingham, Alabama, the monument in Kelly Ingram Park to commemorate events in the 1963 civil rights campaign. The park was named in 1932 to honour the first US sailor to die in World War I. Added to the park name now are the words 'A place of revolution and reconciliation'. All paths on Freedom Walk converge on the center of the park which is deliberately conceived as a peaceful and meditative life-spring of hope.

On one side of the square is the 16th Street Baptist Church where King and other preachers held nightly mass meetings, exhorting citizens to act and planning strategies. It was the staging area for the marches in May 1963. In September that year the church was brought to world attention when a dynamite blast in the basement killed four girls and injured 19 others. Contributions for its restoration came in from all over the world. A large stained glass window of the image of a black crucified Christ was given by people in Wales.

Across from the church is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, opened in 1992. It is all part of a six-block tribute to the fight for human rights in the country. It includes the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.

My hosts in Birmingham were white. They asked me whether during my tour of the Civil Rights Institute I had been given the slide presentation that ends with a picture of segregated drinking fountains. Indeed I had. The wife, who had grown up in the city, told me that at the end of the presentation when the curtain rises and one sees actual segregated drinking fountains, she burst into tears.

The Institute exhibits focus on the history of African-American life and the struggle for civil rights earlier this century. You walk through powerful displays that evoke the period of segregation, with everything from an iron ore mine and Ku Klux Klan rallies to a burned bus, a lunch counter and a Birmingham jail cell. There are even some of the sound bites and TV pictures of the worst acts of oppression as well as historic moments like the March on Washington.

You pass through the Barriers Gallery, the Confrontation Gallery, the Movement Gallery and, at the end, the Human Rights Gallery. Here you are taken beyond Birmingham to look at human rights issues globally. At the touch of a button you can get up to date on people all around the world who are being persecuted.

The Institute has as its theme, 'Inspired by the past, a vision for the future'. It conducts programmes for schools and public audiences and keeps extensive archives which are supplemented by an oral history project. The exhibits change constantly.

I asked my African-American guide at the Institute what race relations are like now in Birmingham. 'Fair,' she said cautiously. As in Portland, Oregon, where I live, many whites have no idea what African Americans really feel about the situation. Many whites in Birmingham have not yet visited the Civil Rights Institute. Which is sad as it is, as Ron Casey, editorial page editor of the Birmingham News, writes, 'a monument to better understanding, not resentment'.

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