Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Civil Rights: Lessons worth remembering

Birmingham was called “the most segregated city in America.’’ The torturous struggle for change is memorialized at the Civil Rights Institute in downtown Birmingham, my assignment for Tuesday.

This is no dry museum. Black life of the time is recreated in music, sets, videos and photos. Here you can read the language of the town’s segregation laws dictating that blacks and whites could not eat in the same room in a restaurant; play cards or checkers or sports together; sit in the same sections in movies, streetcars and buses. Bathrooms, water fountains – everything was segregated.

And this wasn’t a case of “separate but equal.’’ In 1950, the average class size was 35 in white schools, 48 in black schools. The school board spent $120 per white child, half that on a black student. The stereotypes of hapless black man as servant were widely reinforced in advertising and pop culture.

It was a system perpetuated by lynchings attended by laughing white teens and perpetrated by cross-burning Ku Klux Klansmen. For a black man, even looking at a white man the wrong way could lead to death.

When the U.S. Supreme Court banned segregation in schools in 1954, Alabama ignored the ruling. The next decade became a battle between Americans – black and white – who believed segregation to be egregious, and those in Alabama and elsewhere who believed their way was the right way.

The museum recounts in detail the efforts of black and white Freedom Riders, who sought to integrate the interstate bus system in 1961 and were severely beaten for it. Of a local judge who was kidnapped and castrated by the KKK for trying to enforce desegregation. Of sit-ins and boycotts and voter registration drives. And bombings of black-owned homes, businesses and churches – including the 16th Street Baptist Church where four young girls were killed in 1963. One of their murders, Thomas Blanton, was finally convicted of the crime in 2000.

One of the most poignant confrontations was May 4, 1963, when thousands
of Birmingham children rallied in a park kitty-corner from the 16th Street Church – and across the street from today’s Institute. On hand were the Reverends Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth. The gathering was peaceful until former mayor and police chief Bull Connor – one of the most vehement defenders of segregation – turned up with attack dogs and water canons. More than 800 youths were arrested that day; the horrifying images shocked the universe, and within days desegregation in Birmingham officially ended.

That day is commemorated in the park by bronzes of water canons, the dogs, and the actual jail bars that were used to incarcerate Dr. King for eight days, during which he wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.’’

If you’re young enough to have bypassed Jim Crow, this is a kind of textbook history, awful though it is. “It’s historical,’’ said visitor Robert Sanders, who grew up in Alabama during segregation and now lives in Boston. “Kids today have no real idea of that this means, and that’s a good thing.’’

It’s personal too for Carlton Harper. He was 11 years old when he attended the rally in the park on that May day. He escaped the dogs and water canons by scrambling over a fence, but his sister was among those arrested.

Harper hangs out in the park many days, explaining what happened here to anyone who cares to listen. A welder by trade, he’s been out of work since the local factories closed up years ago, and now he’s mostly homeless, getting by through day labor and chatting politely, articulately, with tourists. He wants to them to understand what happened. “This is holy ground,’’ he says.

PHOTOS: Top, sculpture of attack dog used by Bull Connor; above, Carlton Harper.

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