Host Site – Birmingham, AL
The meteoric rise of Birmingham from the place where two railroad lines intersected to a place that forever changed the social, cultural, political, economic, and judicial landscape of the United States of America, and inspired freedom struggles around the world is nothing short of phenomenal.
In 1871 the city of Birmingham rose out of the center of a corn field in Jones Valley to become the industrial capital of the State of Alabama. The surrounding red ore fields, the mountains of black coal, and the rich beds of limestone beckoned newly freed slaves, immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, and farmers alike. They all saw an opportunity to make a living in Birmingham and improve their overall quality of life. As the iron and steel industries continued to catapult forward, so did the phenomenal growth of Birmingham. The young city sprang up, thrived and grew so quickly that many observers said it happened “just like magic.” Soon the nickname “The Magic City” was applied to Birmingham.
Rapid growth brought with it growth pains and a plethora of social, economic, cultural, and political baggage that would shape and define Birmingham’s role in U.S. history for the next one hundred plus years. The mild weather, the valleys and mountains of potential wealth waiting to be harvested, the flora and fauna, broad avenues, and the bee hives of cultural and social activities of this “New South,” city welcomed migrants from across the nation as well as newly freed slaves from across the “Deep South.”
Birmingham was built by land barons at a time when railroads literally ran the country. Named after England’s industrial giant, the new town became a commercial hub, with railroads crisscrossing throughout the community.
Nearly wiped out by cholera and then by an economic depression in the late 1870s, the little boomtown found its resurgence in a natural abundance of coal, iron ore and limestone, all the ingredients necessary to make steel. Then, the steel making industry took off in a big way and so Birmingham!
Throughout the Great Depression, Birmingham used “Yankee” capital and an infusion of labor from European immigrants, planting the beginnings of the city’s strongly diverse ethnic character.
The Civil Rights Years
After a shaky post World War II recovery, Birmingham entered the decade of the 1950s with pots of frustrations brewing and boiling over in communities all over the city.
Returning veterans who had fought for freedom in Europe sought those same freedoms that they had fought for others, for themselves and their families. Denied equal access and justice in the courts, they sought it in the streets in organized protest marches, sit-ins, pray-ins, and in the form of economic pressure in the form of selective buying campaigns. They followed the example of other frustrated people across the state of Alabama and around the United States and
launched new strategies.
“It Began at Bethel”
The recognized leaders of the Modern Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham were Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth and the congregation of the Historic Bethel Baptist Church.
The parsonage and church survived three bombings. Most cities had freedom struggles that focused on one area of injustice. What was different in Birmingham was the fact that Rev. Shuttlesworth attacked segregation at all levels seeking justice in all of its forms including access to public schools, public libraries, job opportunities, the right to vote, the right to seek public office, drink from water fountains, access to public restrooms, the right to be served a meal in restaurants, and the right to be treated fairly and justly in the courts.
The 1960s brought events that would forever change the image of the city. This was the historic era of police dogs and fire hoses turned on civil rights demonstrators, and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The city’s national reputation was near ruins. Nonetheless, it was the occurrences in Birmingham that played the pivotal role in the success of America’s Modern Civil Rights Movement. In 1963, Rev. Shuttlesworth was successful in convincing Rev. Dr. Martin L. King, Jr., and the SCLC to come to Birmingham and join him in the freedom struggles taking place in the city on almost a daily basis.
The opening of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in 1993 did more to heal the city from within and in the eyes of the nation than any other single event. Now the city has developed an entire district devoted to Birmingham’s historic struggle for human rights and common decency for the African American citizens of Alabama and the entire country.
“The Institute set out to “focus on what happened in the past, to portray it realistically and interestingly, and to understand it in relationship to the present and future developments of human relations in Birmingham, the United States and perhaps the world.”
As participants in this institute, our quest for meaning and knowledge will take us from Birmingham to Selma and the apex of the Edmund Pettus Bridge where marchers were attacked by armed deputies for trying to secure the right to vote.
Leaving Selma, we will retrace the historic route of the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March on our way to Montgomery, the birth place of the Confederacy and the site of the Bus Boycott inspired by the courage of Rosa Parks. In Montgomery, participants will visit Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, The Dexter Parsonage, The Rosa Parks Museum and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Civil Rights Teacher’s Center.
Participants will visit Tuskegee, home of the first college for African Americans in Alabama. The college, established by Booker T. Washington, is well known for the agricultural revolution inspired by the work of Dr. George Washington Carver. This city is also the home of The Tuskegee Airmen. We will tour the refurbished training site that prepared the men to serve in the Army Air Corp. Events in Tuskegee, as they relate to voting, caused the nation to enforce the “one man-one vote” principle as a result of Gomillion v Lightfoot. Our last stop in this landmark city will be the Tuskegee Multicultural Center where we learn about the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment conducted on unsuspecting patients by the local Veterans Administration Hospital.