Birmingham was not founded until the end of the nineteenth century, but is today the largest city in the state of Alabama, with a population of more than 200,000. In the first half of the twentieth century, the steel, iron and mining industries made Birmingham very wealthy, earning it the nickname ‘Magic City’. Yet, it was not such a magic place to live, and especially for the Afro-American community, as this was also the heyday of race discrimination.
The year 1963 was a turning point in the history of Birmingham. The resistance of the Afro-American community had gathered momentum, with peaceful sit-ins and other protests that the local authorities, led by Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, put down with extreme and excessive violence.
On Good Friday 1963, Martin Luther King led one of the protest marches. He was arrested and, during a short period behind bars, he wrote his well-known Letter from Birmingham Jail.
A next step in the campaign was the involvement of young people and students. During the ‘Children’s Crusade’, hundreds of protestors were arrested and thrown into the cells. King reassured their parents by saying: Don’t worry about your children; they are going to be alright. Don’t hold them back if they want to go to jail, for they are not only doing a job for themselves, but for all of America and for all of mankind.
The rest of America was shocked by overfull prison cells and the violent response of the police in Birmingham, and President John F Kennedy took the resolute decision from that moment to end racial inequality.
A few months later in Washington, Martin Luther King made his ‘I have a dream’ speech, but racism continued to hold sway in Birmingham. Only a few days after King’s legendary speech, there was a bomb attack on the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four Afro-American children. A small memorial in the restored church is a reminder of their tragic fate.
Just opposite the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, opened in 1992, which offers a fascinating retrospective on the decades of racial segregation and the peaceful protests of the American civil rights movement. In the nearby Kelly Ingram Park, you can experience the Freedom Walk Tour. In the exact spot where protest marches took place, you can follow the route past monuments and information panels and learn more about what happened here fifty years ago.
For more information on visiting Birmingham: www.birmingham.travel