Reflections on the Civil Rights Movement in “the most segregated city”
Birmingham, Alabama was once known as “the most segregated city in America.” It can be argued that the 1963 demonstrations in Birmingham and the fierce resistance they provoked changed white attitudes towards civil rights and ultimately led to the most comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in American history.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which opened in 1992, was built to serve as a monument to–and a resource about–the thousands of people who were dedicated to the philosophy of non-violence and risked their lives in struggles and confrontations all over the South.
It was with a mixture of emotions that I first visited the Institute on Dr. King’s birthday, January 15, 1993. I was born in Birmingham and grew up there during the civil rights era, a white child in Mountain Brook, a nearby all-white suburb. I left many years ago and moved north. But back in 1963, I was a nine-year-old elementary school student, and even though I did not participate in the demonstrations, they have indelibly marked my life.
My first conscious awareness of segregation came when I was about six. My father, a lawyer, had some work to do on a Saturday morning and had asked his secretary to come in to the office. After I promised I wouldn’t bother him, he agreed to let me accompany him. We drove downtown to the Brown Marx Building on 20th Street, downtown Birmingham’s main thoroughfare, and took the elevator up to the fourth floor. In my father’s office, I amused myself for a while drawing pictures and then asked his secretary where the bathroom was. She handed me a key, directed me down the hall, and asked if she should accompany me. “No,” I assured her, not wanting to be thought a burden.
Following her instructions, I found myself standing before two identical doors with frosted glass panels. On one panel the letters said “White Ladies” and on the other “Colored Women.” The iron skeleton key weighed heavily in my palm as I stood there, puzzling over the signs. I know the difference between White and Colored, I thought, but what is the difference between Ladies and Women? Aren’t they the same? I couldn’t figure it out.
I opened the door that said “White Ladies.” To the left were two stalls and to the right a sink with a mirror over it that was so high that I could just barely glimpse the top of my head. I used one of the stalls, wondering what was behind the other door, the one marked “Colored Women.” Was the bathroom the same, or was it dirtier, or not as well equipped? Would my key open that door, too? I was curious to try, but afraid that someone might see me breaking the rules and get angry at me. Slowly I retraced my steps back to my father’s office. I wanted to ask my father or his secretary about the difference between Ladies and Women, but I couldn’t. I sensed that if I asked the question, I might be accused of stirring up trouble, and I probably wouldn’t be given the answer.
I mention this incident from my past because the memory of it returned to me in the Institute, when, after a short video about Birmingham’s history, a curtain rose dramatically, revealing, at the entrance of the Barriers gallery, two water fountains marked “White” and “Colored.” As I examined the exhibits in this gallery, which describe life under segregation, I thought of how segregation poisoned white minds as it damaged black lives.
In effect, segregation forbade discussion and debate about many aspects of human relations, race, and culture. As I read Birmingham’s elaborate segregation ordinances listed in the Barriers Gallery (Section 597 of the 1944 Code of Alabama, Reaffirmed by the Birmingham City Clerk on May 25, 1951: “It shall be unlawful to conduct a restaurant for the serving of food in the city, at which white and colored people are served in the same room, unless such white and colored persons are effectually separated by a solid partition extending from the floor upward to a distance of 7 ft. or higher and unless a separate entrance from the street is provide for each compartment;” Section 597 of above code: “Negroes and white persons not to play together: it shall be unlawful for a Negro and white person to play together or in company with each other in any game of cards, dice, dominoes, checkers, baseball, softball, football, or basketball.”) I thought of how isolating segregation was, for whites as well as for blacks.
The winding path through the Institute’s galleries leads visitors to a room with a large picture window framing the view of the 16th Street Baptist Church across Sixth Avenue. Built in 1873, two years after Birmingham’s founding, this handsome red-brick church is the oldest black church in Birmingham. During the demonstrations, it served as a headquarters. From here schoolchildren and other marchers issued forth to meet the police dogs and firehoses.
It was also in this church that a dynamite bomb exploded on September 15, 1963, killing four young girls attending Sunday school classes–Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson–and injuring 19 others. As with the news of President Kennedy’s assassination two months later, I will never forget how I heard of these young girls’ deaths.
I was in Sunday school at Temple Emanu-el, Birmingham’s Reform Jewish temple, and, as my fourth-grade class stood in line in the stairwell on our way to our classroom on the second floor of the Educational Building, a teacher came from the office with the terrible story. I think all of us thought then, If we were Negro children, it could have been us. And it did seem that this virulent hatred of blacks could inspire other latent prejudices–against Jews, for example. Previously, an unexploded bomb had been found in Temple Beth-el, the Conservative temple just up the street on Highland Avenue, and the two temples had hired guards around the clock.
With the bombing, the forces of hatred and evil seemed out of control, and even ardent segregationists said that things had gone too far.
It occurred to me that what I was witnessing on my visit to the Civil Rights Institute was the transformation of Birmingham’s official history. Political power in Birmingham is now wielded by many who were formerly powerless, and the civil rights movement, that the city once excoriated, tried to crush and to ignore, is now–with the opening of the Institute and the designation of the Civil Rights District–celebrated and exalted. I recall how in my childhood Martin Luther King was denounced as “an outside agitator,” “a troublemaker,” and the worst epithet of all, “a Communist.”
“The Negroes and whites in this city were getting along just fine until King came along and stirred things up”–this statement and others like it constituted the reigning wisdom of the day. Even leaders of Birmingham’s black community such as millionaire businessman A.G. Gaston (in whose hotel, just blocks away, Dr. King stayed, and which was also bombed) and attorney Arthur D. Shores (who represented civil rights suits in the courts and whose home was bombed, too,) felt in those days of April and May, 1963, that Dr. King was jeopardizing their delicate, mostly secret, negotiations with the new city government of Albert Boutwell that had just been voted into office.
Dr. King and the other leaders of the movement believed that their cause would eventually triumph even if they did not live to see that day. Birmingham’s Civil Rights District is indeed a shrine, and my visit there gave me a sense of personal solace. For years I–and many others of my generation–felt pained by our city’s shameful past. In laying claim to the civil rights movement and in celebrating it, Birmingham has sought to replace hatred with a vision of brotherhood.
This piece is excerpted from a feature article Anne Whitehouse wrote for the Los Angeles Times, published on April 11, 1993, “Memorial to an Uncivil Era: A Personal Journey to Alabama’s new Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.” A version of the article was reprinted in Reading Our Lives: Southern Autobiography Anthology (Auburn University Center for the Arts & Humanities, 1997). It is posted on KidsInBirmingham1963.org with the permission of the author.