BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- When I told friends I was planning a trip to Birmingham, the reaction was universal.
“Alabama?” one asked. “On purpose?”
I shared their skepticism, viewing the travel literature with the jaundiced eye of a longtime Californian who puzzled over the concept of vacationing in the South. But I was flying here for a business meeting, so why not take some extra time and look around?
It’s not the oldest or most storied city in the South. But Birmingham has a complex history that includes post-Civil War industrialization, the corruption of an establishment that planned to carry out that industrialization with nonunionized and African American labor and, decades later, its role as a staging ground in the fight for basic human rights.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of some of the most important events in the civil rights movement, and many of them took place in Birmingham: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail”; Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor’s use of attack dogs and fire hoses against peaceful demonstrators, many of them children; and the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls.
Official Birmingham is embracing this anniversary with a year of photo and museum exhibitions, concerts, plays, symposiums, festivals, workshops and the National Conference on Civil Rights. I scheduled an extra day at the beginning and the end of my meetings to see the city’s historic core, visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and other places that helped me understand the city’s legacy.
After a few short days, I found myself becoming a banner carrier for Birmingham: Anyone who cares about U.S. history should plan a trip here.
Downtown’s Tutwiler hotel makes a good starting point. The original building was torn down in the 1970s, but with a boost from private and government grants, the Tutwiler family transformed the 1914 Ridgely Apartments into a new Tutwiler hotel — with attractive rooms, a restaurant that pays attention to food and a bar that serves a nice selection of cocktails.
On my first morning here, I left the Tutwiler and headed down Sixth Avenue North on my way to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a 58,000-square-foot facility with exhibition space, meeting rooms, multimedia presentations and an extensive oral history collection with more than 500 interviews. Every few hundred yards on Sixth Avenue, I stopped to read the markers along the Civil Rights Heritage Trail, signs with photos and quotes that commemorate significant locations on march routes.
The markers lead to Kelly Ingram Park, a 4-acre green space with statues and sculptures — some in welded steel, others in limestone or bronze — that commemorate and, in some cases, depict the civil rights movement and the city’s notorious response: police dogs, fire hoses, jail time.
I followed a group of fourth-graders into the handsome domed lobby of the Civil Rights Institute. “Hope this doesn’t wreck it for you,” a teacher said, smiling ruefully. In truth, their reactions to mid-20th century events enhanced the experience. I trailed the students, waiting to see what engaged them.
Many of the exhibits were designed to re-create life in Birmingham when Jim Crow laws determined how people would function in the segregated city. Displays include a replica of a burned-out bus that had carried Freedom Riders and timelines that track the progress of the civil rights movement. Some of the fourth-graders lingered to read enlargements of newspaper clippings and quotes from leaders of that movement. They halted, a few of them bewildered, in front of a replica of segregated classrooms.