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(part of an ongoing series about activities during my sabbatical)

The final stop on our Civil Rights tour was the Birmgingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) in Birmingham, AL. The BCRI told the story of the Civil Rights movement primarily through the eyes of Birmingham which was one of the most racially segregated cities in the US in the 1960s. Even after many days of learning, there were still new things to discover as we read and heard different perspectives of those involved.

Entering the museum, we came into the “Barriers Gallery” which documented the experience of segregation in everyday life. We got to see a segregated streetcar, a newspaper office, a church, and a classroom. In the schoolhouse display, we saw the disparity between the facilities and materials for the black students and the white students. Such inequalities were the result of Plessy v Ferguson, arguably one of the Supreme Court’s worst decisions. In that case, the Court advanced the idea of “separate but equal”, essentially legalizing segregation and because of the vague nature of the statement and the power of the individual states, it was far too often the case that the facilities and resources were far from equal.

Through sounds and signs, the BCRI also gave us the smallest taste of what it would be like for Black citizens to experience degradation and violence on the streets. Speakers played the intimidating words of politicians and the police, like the infamous Eugene “Bull” Connor who was Commissioner of Public Safety for Birmingham. Under Connor’s direction, police used fire hoses and dogs on protestors, including children. It was not unusual for Connor to have police delayed while the local KKK or other White Supremacists attacked protestors. Connor also oversaw the closing of 60 Birmingham parks, rather then have them desegregated.

Throughout these displays and all of our time at the various museums and memorials, I wondered how I would have responded. How would I have responded were I a Black man to be regularly called boy or n****r, forced to drink from separate fountains, unable to take my children to some of the local parks, and to perhaps be beaten with little hope of the police intervening? Or, how would I have responded as a White man? Would I have stood by and done nothing? Or maybe joined in the name calling and even violence for the sake of fitting in, or maybe worse? Or would I have been brave enough to join groups like the Freedom Riders and risk my own life for the sake of others?

Another display showed the burned out shell of a bus ridden by the Freedom Riders. The Freedom Riders were groups of blacks and whites who would get on buses and ride them into various cities to challenge the segregation there (primarily in 1961. As alluded to above, these Freedom Riders were often met by armed mobs who would beat them with iron pipes and chains. It was not unusual for local police to show up 15 or 30 minutes after the bus arrived and the passengers had been attacked, sometimes only to arrest the riders for trespassing or unlawful assembly. Subsequent documentation showed that the police had often coordinated with local mobs and the KKK to allow the attacks to occur.

Acts of violence like those against the Freedom Riders or the nearly 50 unsolved racially motivated bombings that took place in Birmingham from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s terrorized local citizens. We were reminded that no place was safe, as the case of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church reminded us. There was a powerful display that traced the history of the investigation and prosecution of those responsible. Closed by the FBI in 1968 at the direction of J Edgar Hoover, the case was reopened by the Alabama governor in 1971. It’s a long story, but eventually 3 of the 4 suspected bombers were arrested, tried, and jailed (the last two in 2002). One died before being brought to trial.

Near the end of the displays is a procession of life-size statues inviting us to join with them in the journey toward the dream of freedom. It was a powerful reminder of two lessons I learned and explored many times over the time of our trip: the strength, courage, and faith of ordinary people and the need to continue the struggle. I was reminded of the progress we have made as well as the ways in which the past has shaped the present. This is not ancient history but instead are events from which I am only one generation removed - this all happened when my parents and their siblings were adults. For you, it may have been your generation, your childhood, or maybe that of your parents or grandparents. We are all invited to remember and work together toward a more just and equitable society.

We are all called to join in as participants. Like those before us, we may be called as leaders and organizers or simply to be the person who chooses to walk to work, or sit in a segregated section, or use our voice to cry out for justice. The work is different now and each of us will find different ways to participate.

I don’t know what my next step is, but I know that I see things differently now and have been inspired as I seek to walk in the footsteps of Fred Shuttlesworth, Mamie Till, John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Ida B. Wells, Carrie Tuggle, Arthur Shores, Thurgood Marshall, George Sallie, and so many more.

We will remember,
Carl Franzon, Pastor

NOTE: This will be the last in the series on our Civil Rights trip. Next week I will be sharing about my experience on the Camino de Santiago.