Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Civil Rights Institute and a few other things from my travels

I can either assume two things. None of my blog readers are living right or none of you took my suggestion to beseech God on my behalf for a cold front to descend upon the Southeast region of the United States. The official high on Thursday was 98 F. The car said it was 100 yesterday (the newspaper said 96), either way it was too hot. Let me catch you up on a bit.

While in Birmingham this week (Kontan’s old stomping grounds), I took a couple hours to go through the Civil Rights Institute. It’s located across the road from 16th Street Baptist Church, the site of the September 1863 firebombing that killed four girls. Upon entering the museum, they have you watch a video. Sitting in front of me was a young African-American boy about eight. When they showed a picture of two men being lynched, he gasped. I was ashamed and wondered what he was thinking as he watched the video about his ancestor’s struggles to claim their basic rights. Why is it that the white youth in the picture of the lynching, teenagers who appear as if they might be on a date, smile and look like they are enjoying themselves? I remember a North Carolina history book from the fifth or sixth grade showing a lynching in Moore County (my home county). The picture made me ashamed and I didn’t want anyone to know that I was from there and wondered if any of my great-grandparents were involved. When the video concluded, we were ushered back into a world of fear and violence and segregation.

In the 1920s, President Warren Harding spoke in Birmingham at the 50th anniversary of the city’s founding. He encouraged the city fathers to give the blacks the vote, contending that a democracy cannot exist without all having the right to vote. The city didn’t listen to the President, passing even stronger segregation laws in the 40s. Yet, within the city’s black neighborhoods, a thriving community existed. In 1948, at the age of 16, Willie Mays began his major league career with the Birmingham Black Barons in the Negro Leagues. The city was a frequent stop of black entertainers as they toured the South on the Chitlin’ Circuit and featured such greats as Cab Calloway (the Institute had a 1933 videotape of Calloway performing the same song he sang in the movie, The Blues Brothers).

In the early 60s, Birmingham became a center of struggle for African-Americans. The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and other clergy lead the fight. They were joined by others across the south, including the Doctor Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” from the city. The Institute has recreated King’s cell with its actual iron door. Some within the white community in Birmingham felt threatened and struck back. The city gained the infamous status as “Bombingham,” as churches and homes of civil rights workers were firebombed. Most notorious of the bombing was Shuttlesworth’s 16th Street Baptist Church. Nineteen sticks of dynamite, placed in a hole dug next to the foundation of the church, went off on a September Sunday morning in 1963 and killed four girls, ages 11 to 14.

The Institute provides a portrait of the segregated south (with its separate water coolers, bathrooms, and sections of buses), and then catalogs the events between the 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared the “separate but equal” school systems to be unconstitutional up through the 1965 voting rights act. Of course, the “separate but equal” policy was never equal as Birmingham provided almost twice as much per child school expenditures for white schools as it did for black school. Looking at the Institute, and thinking about the way the Federal Government intervened, I was reminded that not all that government does is bad. Here, “big government” helped right a terrible evil.

Upon leaving the Civil Rights Institute, I walked across the street to the 16th Street Baptist Church. The church stands on a corner and jutting out from the corner of the building, so it can be seen from both streets, is a blue metal cross with neon letters identifying the church. I took a tour of the faculty. The area in which the bomb detonated is now a kitchen and there is still a crack in the foundation visible there. Most interesting is a large stained glass window of the famous painting of Jesus knocking on a door (Behold, I stand at the door and knock). The bomb blew out only Jesus’ face. The woman in the gift shop told me about coming to church late that morning and hearing the blast and running to see what happened. There in the basement of the church is a clock that stopped that morning at 10:22 AM, the time of the bombing. Being there brought tears to my eyes as I realize it is almost always the young who suffer the most. As horrible as the girl’s death were, they became a rallying cry for the civil rights movement and their deaths accelerated the cause.

Yesterday, my brother-in-law and I canoed the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta. It was a long trip. He thought we were below a dam, but we were above it. I should have checked the maps! However, we had a great work-out, paddling five or six miles of flat water in near triple digit heat, before portaging around the dam. Once below the dam, the river sped up and we were treated to some small class one rapids. We talked about doing the Etowah River, up near Dahlonega. With my interest in mining history, I’ve long wanted to run that section, but every time I’m down here, the water is too low. There’s a place along the Etowah, where the river is diverted through a long tunnel. The tunnel was constructed to divert water so that the placer deposits in the river bed could be mined for gold. But there's a drought here and the water is so low here that it would was impossible to get through the tunnel. Maybe on the next trip! I fly home tomorrow.


  1. Wow, that sounds like an amazing place to visit. I distinctly remember driving from NY to Florida in 1967 and seeing "Colored Only" restrooms. Even at 12, that was appalling to me. (interestingly, my father was a huge racist at that time, and even voted for George Wallace for President in 1968. I did not subscribe to his views, thankfully.)

    Your rapids experience sounds exciting, but also terrifying! I'm a real wuss when it comes to stuff like that.

    On the other hand, I've had some "adventures" that would scare the crap out of most people. ;)

    Here via michele today!

  2. thanks for the lesson. I was in Birmingham last year on business and did not even think to explore it like you have. I am thinking that is the larger lesson learned in your blog today.

  3. Panthergirl, my parents in many ways were much more enlightened than my friends parents (a capital offense at home was using the N word). Yet, they voted for Wallace (I wrote about my memories from 68 a few months ago). And class 1 rapids are barely rapids, you'd have no problems if you had someone experienced in the back of the boat.

    Mal, if you get back to Birmingham, go to the Institute. I was there on busines too, but a friend who lives there suggested to a group of us that we check it out. I think I was the only one that did, the rest were flying out right after we were finished, but since I'd dropped my daughter in Atlanta to see "cuzzins," I had extra time.

  4. Michele sent me.

    What an important journey you're on.

    I recently read the story of Martin Luther King Jr's work in Birmingham.

    The story of the 8-year old encapsulates the double-edged sword of educating. I'm always ambivalent about the teaching of the cultural history of racism. It's embedded in memories and literature and still explodes into action. We want to prevent such ignorance.

    Still I remember being taught all the categories of people and the epitaphs and seeing the signs that banned "jews, dogs and irish" from premises and couldn't help but feel that was perpetuating and keeping pain alive and recreating for new innocents who didn't know they were a "hated them" until then.

  5. Sage: I'll have to check that '68 post. Fascinating about your parents!

    I hope you've checked out the most recent Cyberia story about you and "Lucy".

  6. Here via Michele's this time.

    I have not spent any time in Birmingham.

  7. Have a good flight. One of my kids lives in Moore Co. now. I wonder if she knows about their illustrious history (not!).

  8. Amazing how BEING in a historical place can bring it all so suddenly to the present. There's places in California sort of like that for me, like when I visited the Donner party Memorial, up at Donner Lake. Realizing so many people froze to death on virtually that spot over a hundred years ago is somehow spooky.

    There's some good class 3 and 4 rapids on the American River just east of Sacramento about 30-40 miiles. This time of year is really awesome because the river is flowing so fast from all the snow melt in the Sierra.

    Oh, and, uhm... 100 Friday, 105 Saturday, 106 today, and should be above 100 for the next 3 days here in Sacramento. 110 further up the valley.

    But, you know... it's a dry heat.

  9. Pearl, you make an interesting point about those not realizing they were a "hated them" until seeing the history. But hopefully, they also realize that they were also loved as a people, whether it was by God (churches were the stronghold of the African-American community) or by the many whites who did try to change things. At this time, in the Institute, there is a history of the freedom riders (blacks and whites who rode the bus together through Alabama and Mississippi where they were beaten and jailed. And maybe too they learn that justice, even though it may take it's time, does prevail.

    Panthergirl, yeah, saw that you had my alter-ego back in the hot tub where I get into all kinds of trouble! You can find the past post in my blog index, listed first under my blog list.

    Welcome to my blog, Miss Cow (I don't like that way that sounds!)

    Kenju, just so you don't get wrong idea about me being from Moore County, my ancestors were not golfers but tobacco farmers.

    Mike, Welcome back! I've been to the Donner Pass many times and recommend "Ordeal by Hunger," the story of the Donner Party. I've never boated in California but have seen some of the rivers while touring gold mining camps. When I was spending a lot of time out there, I was living on the other side of the Mts, and Sacramento felt not only hot, but also humid (compared to Nevada and Utah)! Stay cool!

  10. Michele sent me, Sage!

    I've canoed around the Atlanta area too. I used to live there for about 11 years. The worst water I paddled was Class III that lead into Class III/IV but I pulled out right at a bridge when it made the transition. I have no desire to ever paddle Class IV or V, not even in a kayak. My need for adventure is minimal!

    I'm 45 years old and my first visit to the deep South was around 1970 so there wasn't much evidence left in the tourist towns of the segregated past. Not at least to the eyes of a 9 year old. I'm not sorry to have missed it--things are bad enough now.

  11. Another wonderful journey Sage

    I have never forgot those four girls, they were my age, and it was sadder to me than President Kennedy's assasination and I didn't take that well either

  12. Well welcome home and next time journey on down here to Texas before you start complaining about the temp! ;)

  13. Because I have a self mandated weekend hiatus on blogging, I'm a little late but for what it is worth...

    I'm sure I would have the same feelings as you upon visiting the museum. I remember watching the movie "Dances With Wolves" and feeling like a real a*%hole as I was walking out simply because I was white. I was also embarrassed once over in Europe when a bunch of young cowboys from Texas got on the same train I was riding and started cussing and generally be obnoxious.

    Yeah class one is anything from moving water to small ripples. I've paddled it all from I to V in a kayak but I have to add that paddling a class V rapids does not mean you were actually doing class V paddling. There is almost always a "cheat" route where you can avoid the really dicey stuff. I did the Grand Canyon where their scale goes to 10+ and there was only one rapid that I probably could not have done in a kayak and that was Hance Rapids and there was no "cheat" route short of portaging.

    I envision this tunnel you described and I imagine stainer city and certain death. No way would I paddle into a tunnel with no place to eddy out!

  14. Utenzi, The rapids may have been more than a class one if we had more water. I'm not sure what the book rated them, I was just saying they were fast and okay, but not too exciting (but they sure beat paddling the lake)

    Pia, it was heartbreaking to explore the world in which those girls lived and died and to talk with people who were there when it happened.

    Chana, why don't you invite me down to Texas sometime in January?

    Ed, it's been years since I paddled a kayak regularly. You're right about the "cheat" routes, but they're not always available depending on the water level, however, the water level can increase or decrease the skill one needs in the rapids. As for the tunnel, it's 8 feet wide and around 1000 feet long (from what I'm told). In high water, you're to avoid it and if you can't see light at the end, you're also to watch out since it does pick up stainers. I would like to see it because it is a marvel of mining engineering--diverting a river to get at the rock in the river bed.

  15. I miss river canoeing.

    About ten years ago I drove through North Dakota and saw a sign on a bar: NO INDIANS ALLOWED. Seems illegal, doesn't it?

  16. As always superb post Sage man. For those of us who have never been to Birmingham you've described two national treasures very elegantly.

    Glad to see the canoe trip was a workout and some fun. Did you take any nature pics? Any thoughts on scanning them? Hah, how about an ETA on a digital camera. Lol, sorry for my ill manners it's just that you take a lot of nature trips and us blog neighbors could sure live vicariously through the pictures. Must be lovely over there.

    Great post!

  17. Ing, on that dam lake, I was missing river canoeing too. I remember a bar in a small town in Nevada that had a sign behind that bar saying "No N-- Allowed." I was shocked and that was probably 15 years ago. I would like to explore North Dakota sometime--I've never driven it but did take the train across it once and the towns seemed so sad, but interesting.

    V-I'm cheap, so the ETA on my digital camera is a long ways into the future! Besides, I'm having a heck of a time posting pictures I already have to blogger. Good to see you back around.

  18. Sage - I found out the secret to posting pictures using the blogger tool. Insert the picture first and then paste in your text and last, position your picture to where you want it to be. That way seems to work every time for some reason.