A journey through history along the Birmingham Civil Rights Trail

Travels with Deb

Debbie Stone | Mar 20, 2017, 6 a.m.
Sculpture of praying ministers at Kelly Ingram Park. Photo by Debbie Stone

At Bethel, you’ll hear this story and learn of Shuttlesworth’s significant role, while having the opportunity to look at relevant photos, news articles and artifacts from the era. To set the scene, gospel music plays in the background, emphasizing the crucial question of the time, “Do you want your freedom?” Nearby on a counter is a jar of beans to illustrate one of the outlandish methods used to determine if a black person was eligible to vote. If the individual could guess the exact number of beans in the container, then he/she would be allowed to cast his/her vote. As this was nearly impossible, it almost guaranteed that blacks would not be able to participate in the process.


The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the scene of one of the deadliest moments in the civil rights era. Photo by Debbie Stone

The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church should also be on the list of places to include during your Birmingham Civil Rights tour. The church, a popular rallying point for the movement, became an obvious target for Klansmen. It is connected with one of the deadliest moments of the civil rights era. Days after a six-year court battle ended in favor of integrating Birmingham schools, four Klansmen retaliated. On September 15, 1963, they bombed the church, killing four girls (Addie Mae Collins, 14, Carol Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14) who had been in the basement preparing for Sunday worship. Numerous others were injured. A short video, “Angels of Change,” explains the events of that day, while photos on display in the basement of the building show the damage of the dynamite blast. All but one of the stained glass windows in the church were destroyed. The damage that the sole remaining window incurred rendered the figure of Christ faceless. It is said that though terrorists tried to take away the vision of the movement, the body remained standing.

This incident burned a lasting impression around the country and all over the world, drawing overwhelming sympathy for the cause. There’s a marker at the site where the bomb was placed, as well as one at the front of the church, dedicated to the girls who perished. All four subsequently received Congressional Gold Medals. Two other black teens (Johnny Robinson, 16, and Robert Ware, 13) also died that same day, in separate incidents of violence.


At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, visitors are confronted with the cruel inequities of life for blacks living under segregation. Photo by Debbie Stone

Across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Since its opening twenty-five years ago, over 2.5 million people have visited this impressive educational and interactive museum. Through photos, videos, audio recordings and exhibits, visitors are placed in the midst of the integration movement. In the Barriers Gallery for example, the cruel inequity of life for blacks living under segregation is conveyed, while in the Confrontation Gallery, voices of adults and children, both black and white, are heard saying things they would only share behind closed doors. The Movement Gallery takes you through the history of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1963, highlighting the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. A series of dramatic media presentations features the Freedom Rides, the history of the struggle to vote, the pivotal events in Birmingham in 1963, accompanied by actual news footage from the period, and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom with a large screen projection and audio including King’s stirring “I Have A Dream” speech.

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