First Walk through Civil Rights District

First Walk through Civil Rights District

I write this post largely in the spirit of gratitude, awe and admiration for those who made sacrifices, went to the edge of what was deemed comfortable or “safe”- sacrificed their own safety in fact- that others might see a more just and civil world, at least in their immediate environs to begin with.

I never dreamed, thought or foresaw that I’d be taking a walk through downtown Birmingham one day, receiving a brief, yet information packed, history tour volunteered by a kind gentleman (who I shall later refer to as D.) who happened to be sitting on a bench when we walked up to the park. Ok, maybe the park was basically his living room, I really don’t know, but he certainly was passionate about history and the course of events portrayed through the sculptures at Kelly Ingram Park.  His curious and timely presence was appreciated, indeed.

Birmingham was a critical city in the whole tapestry of the Civil Rights movement and this park was the heart of many  demonstrations and protests. Formerly known as West End Park, it was rededicated as A Place of Revolution and Reconciliation in 1992 and sits beside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

“I ain’t afraid of your jail”

Sculpture commemorating the 1963 Children’s March to protest the arrest of Dr. King in Birmingham

Though we had requested no tour guide, D. sort of discreetly accompanied us through the small park, providing information along the way.  Each statue in the distance had an important story which he eagerly urged us towards.

Police and Dog Attack, Statue by James Drake

Depiction of the use of German Shepherds by police to intimidate and ward off demonstrators

Kneeling ministers statue, by Raymond Kasky

The sculpture depicts the moment when  three ministers- John Thomas Porter, Nelson H. Smith and Alfred D. King- kneeled to the ground to pray when confronted by police during a march they were leading in protest of the jailing of Martin Luther King Jr, Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth.

D. remarked on my passion for taking photos to my husband as I knelt before this statue.  At the moment I was indeed seeking a good shot, and then thinking how strange it sometimes feel to be fixated on the statue- a cold material portraying a moment and exchange so packed with emotion that I can’t even imagine the response from seeing the actual photos from this moment in time, much less being there.

What I realize I’m feeling is some sort of odd time-place guilt, like a voyeur upon the remains of a historic moment who is armed with nothing but the faculty of observation and memory. This is what I have to witness.  The historic turmoil and cathartic moments that occurred in this place did so over a decade before I was born.

I realize later that acknowledging our freedom of passage through the town is an observer’s testimony to the hard won results of the phenomenally courageous, and at times dangerous, labor these individuals sought and endured.

Although, on a Sunday afternoon in Birmingham, there isn’t exactly much to pass through but mostly empty streets.  This we did freely. D. informs us that one street over is 4th Avenue which used to be the “blacks only” shopping street. I later read about it and attempt a bit of visual time travel, with the streetscape now in mind.  After a walk through the park, we depart, offering our thanks to D.

Up on 4th street we stop in an old school diner for a cup of joe. While waiting, I notice the clientele, a very mixed group (in terms of ethnicity) indeed. To their probable (but not intended) disturbance, I find myself actually staring at all the tables and their company.  Sorry folks, I am an observer. It wasn’t so long ago that this sight just was not a possibility.

Thanks for the morning Birmingham.