The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) – across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church – wouldn’t have come in to being if a white Mayor named David Vann hadn’t visited Europe. There, he learned that Adolf Hitler modeled the Nuremberg Laws after Jim Crow. Vann visited memorials that told the truth about Nazi atrocities and commemorated the victims of the Holocaust. If Germany could face up to its past, he figured, so could Birmingham. But he got no support for a bond to raise the money. As BCRI’s Barry McNealy tells it, “Dogs and water hoses are not chamber of commerce material.”
Vann began selling off city properties. Eventually individual and corporate donations started to come in, and they still do. BCRI is one of the best museums I’ve been in: engaging, experiential, with an emphasis on installations that help you feel the sting of the city’s segregated past.
Before taking us on a bus tour of his hometown, McNealy gives us a spin around Institute where he works. Part of his job is to select and train young people to be docents, keepers and storytellers of Birmingham history. With him as their mentor, I have no doubt that he is reaching and changing many lives.
In one exhibit, McNealy explains that Jim Crow segregation wasn’t just a genteel Southern tradition in which people knew their place. It was a carefully crafted world order that made race mixing a punishable crime. “The Alabama State Constitution is the longest constitution on the face the earth,” says McNealy. “The U.S. Consitution has 27 amendments; Alabama’s has 840 amendments, many of which write second class citizenship for blacks into law.”
McNealy asks me to read one of those amendments aloud. It’s a law that forbids blacks and whites from playing together. Playing. No cards. No dice.
Birmingham had a winning Negro League baseball team with stars like Willie Mays and Satchel Paige. White fans wanted to watch the Black Barons play, so Alabama had to amend its constitution. And, of course, the separate section in the stands built to accommodate whites was more comfortable and covered to block sun and rain.
Factoids, observations and cool stuff from the BCRI:
The actual bars from the cell where MLK wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham jail. I touched them.
Bull Connor’s tank (yes he had a tank) the ultimate symbol of state-sponsored oppression (think Tiananmen Square). I asked Barry McNealy if anyone ever bombed Bull Connor’s house. McNealy said no.
After Brown versus Board of Education, white supremacists bombed many businesses that supported integration. There are still over 50 unsolved bombings that took place in Birmingham.
A article in The New York Times quoted Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth calling Birmingham a “racist city.” The City then sued him – for libel or defamation– and won a two million dollar judgment. CBS News followed up with a famous investigation called,“Who speaks for Birmingham?” McNealy says the documentary is required viewing.
In an exhibit abot racial history, Barry McNealy explained there was once a medical diagnosis called drapetomania. Invented by physicial Samuel Cartwright, who died in 1863, drapetomania was a mental illness that caused black slaves to flee captivity. What might you call a mental/medical diagnosis for slave holders? Please offer up your ideas in the comments section below.
Driving around Birmingham, McNealy pointed out the large white house with a wraparound porch house where black power activist Angela Davis grew up. The home is at the top of “dynamite hill” – so named because of all the bombings of African American properties there. Civil rights attorney Arthur Shores lived around the corner. Davis’ parents sent her north to finish high school because they wanted to make sure she’d live to see her graduation. The neighborhood was once a Jewish community; two Jewish cemeteries are still there.
After the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, Ebony magazine profiled Birmingham’s A.H. Parker High School and called it the largest black high school in the world. It was the only high school in the county for black students and 5000 attended there, on different shifts. Alma Powell (co-founder with her husband Colin Powell of America’s Promise Alliance) graduated from there.
Birmingham is a city that takes pride in many of its traditions. It’s a very patriotic town that has sent many soldiers off to war. Veteran’s Day was started in Birmingham. Football teams from Birmingham are famous for kicking butt. And the tradition of black bands dancing during halftime started at A.H. Parker High School.
But these feelings of pride are marred by shame. This is allegedly the “New South.” African American mayors and police chiefs and successful businesspeople abound. And other more subtle changes demand mention: Nearly every African American tour guide I’ve met here has made the connections between the civil rights movement all the struggles for human equality and dignity that have followed. Even the name of Harvey Milk is on the wall of one museum. That was refreshing and, frankly, impressive.
But, the New South itself is a myth. Sure, the “whites-only” signs are only in museums (or private collections of racists). I’ll believe there’s a New South when I see white youth giving these tours and white adults talking about what it was like growing up with white privilege in a racist town and white elders telling the truth about what it took for them to wake up and see the world as it really was.
Julie Drizin, Silver Spring