Last year, I spent the better part of two weeks driving from Alabama, through Mississippi and Louisiana into Texas and then back again, with stops in Florida and Georgia.
On a stagnant September evening, I was asked if I wanted to go on a drive through downtown Birmingham. Since the car had air conditioning, and that I’d get to see more of Alabama’s largest city in the setting summer sun, I accepted. Little did I know, I’d be given a powerful lesson in history and emotional experience that is still applicable long after these tributes were erected.
Around 7:00 pm, we parked on the curb of 6th Avenue North near 16th Street North and exited the vehicle, where I was greeted by a vertical orange sign inscribed with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s book Why We Can’t Wait: “‘Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round’ was not just a song. It was a resolve.” This was their mantra to push forward and not be deterred by any one person or group. It’s just one of many posts placed throughout this city-block sized square. This is Kelly Ingram Park.
For me, we learned about the civil rights movement in school. In Canada, we devoted a few days to cover this topic in social studies; I still remember in high school watching the 1996 film Ghosts of Mississippi and reading the 1960s novels To Kill a Mockingbird and In the Heat of the Night. Never would I have thought I’d find myself in Birmingham and here at a centre of the civil rights movement where so many Black Americans gathered as they struggled to gain recognition for their right to be treated equally as any white person.
Many demonstrations were held in Kelly Ingram Park, with marches to and from this treed plaza throughout the 1950s and 60s. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth would give speeches on the steps of the adjacent 16th Street Baptist Church prior to the start of these gatherings.
The 16th Street Baptist Church is on the opposite corner of the park and the scene of a bomb that killed Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair, young girls who were getting ready for a service on September 15th, 1963. It’s one thing to read about this horrifying attack in a book, but another to stand at that very spot where timed sticks dynamite exploded, ending these promising lives… it’s absolutely heart wrenching. Four bronze statues of the girls; Cynthia Wesley seated with a book in her lap, Carol Denise McNair releasing doves into the sky as Addie Mae Collins fixes Carol’s dress, and Carole Robertson calling out to her friends, are frozen in time across the street; immortalizing their names, life stolen so wantonly.
Crossing the 16th Street back into the park, we followed the winding paths between many installations meant to evoke the same obstacles black people encountered in the 20th and, still, into the 21st century.
Standing behind the memorial to the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church is a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., standing so stoically, holding a book in his left hand, looking towards the house of worship. King was one of many voices calling for the end of segregation and recognition that all people are equal, regardless of the colour of their skin. King found himself at the wrong end of the law many times on his quest, determined to forge a trail towards a better country.
Jail was a place many Black people found themselves, be it for drinking out of the wrong fountain, using the wrong door, or just walking down the street, on their way to work or school. An installation here emulates that; on one side of the path is a wall with bars. Looking through it across the pavement are a boy and girl standing together, with the words “ain’t afraid of your jail” underneath. Black children were thrown into jail indiscriminately; or their parents were arrested, placing huge strains on families struggling to survive. It’s a chilling view and a stark reality that continues.
Atop another pedestal is a male protester falling back, with a dog and a police officer almost in a rigid, authoritative pose, demanding immediate submission. This is to honour the many foot soldiers who attended marches, placing themselves between others and the police, subjugating themselves to severe physical violence. Even though it’s a stationary piece of metal, it feels so real, echoing scenes that are broadcast today with video from protests in many cities throughout the United States and around the globe.
However, one display really gave me the creeps — as the path narrows, three vicious dogs lunge out from both sides, teeth bared, barely kept at bay with their leashes drawn taught. I can’t fathom how it must’ve felt to face rows of police with these canines barking, ferociously pulling at their leads. Closing my eyes, I could imagine the sound, a tension filled with the voices of singing and chanting, commands being yelled, and the growling of dogs. This is a very powerful reminder of what it was like marching through Birmingham’s streets. It’s a sound still audible today.
The monuments and signs in Kelly Ingram Park still show that we have a long way to go in treating each other with the respect, dignity, justice and freedom; we cannot deny someone these rights based on their race. For me, this was a learning opportunity, something for me to empathize with, and a better understanding the struggles the Black community continues to endure. We must be better, we must stand together, we must be loud, and we must be heard to make changes wherever systemic racism exists. The messages and imagery of Kelly Ingram Park are as relevant as ever, now and into the future. Black lives matter.
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