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Historic Display Helps Alabama Reckon With Segregationist Past - 2003-01-26


Alabama has begun embracing a painful part of its past. During the 1960s, the southern state was the site of some of the most infamous events of the Civil Rights Movement: the deadly explosion at Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church, Governor George Wallace's "Stand in the School House Door" to prevent integration at the University of Alabama, and the mob attacks against Freedom Riders. Now, as Butler Cain reports, the state is putting its history on display to teach others the lessons Alabama has so painfully learned.

Birmingham, Alabama has changed dramatically over the past four decades. Once known as a stronghold of segregation, it now ranks among the nation's most integrated metropolitan areas. African Americans hold most of the city's top elected positions, and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is known internationally for its honest depiction of one of America's pivotal historic periods.

That's a source of pride for the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, an Alabama native and one of the top leaders of the Civil Rights movement. "Well, there's no city in the world that I love better than Birmingham. I guess that's because of what happened here, what you, how you went through the worst and are happy to see some of the things better than they were," he said. "But you hope that people don't stop on this line 'cause this isn't the finishing line," he laughed.

Reverend Shuttlesworth now resides in Cincinnati but came back to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to give his perspective to a group of journalists on the "Ride to Freedom" tour, organized by Alabama's Tourism Bureau. Described as a chance to see where the Civil Rights movement began, state officials escorted about a dozen reporters from all over the country to sites that made national headlines 40 years ago.

They began their statewide tour in Birmingham. Kalin Thomas, a reporter for Soul of, a black travel website, said she's been to the Institute four or five times. She always stops at the video display of Martin Luther King Junior's 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C.

"And so I always watch it over and over because it's just amazing that, you know, so many people showed up for an event like that, and that after his death, we are seeing some of the things that he dreamed would happen in this country. And even though, you know, we still have a ways to go in terms of race relations, we have come so far from those times, and it's really amazing to see, back then, what people were going through at the time.

In another part of the museum, Steve Goode, senior writer at Insight Magazine, stood and stared at an exhibit featuring a broken stained glass window. It came from Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church after it was bombed in 1963. Four girls died in that blast. Not until 1977, 14 years later, was one of the bombers convicted. A second suspect was convicted in 2001, and a third person was convicted last year. Mr. Goode said the broken window brought back a flood of memories from his days as a Civil Rights activist in North Carolina.

"It's deeply moving because I knew about all that was happening in Birmingham. I was aware of what was happening in the South. And the deaths of those four young girls was one of the great tragedies of the time. It brought back the memories of the anger and the bitterness that one felt. The helplessness," Mr. Goode said.

Alabama is openly recognizing those emotions. Instead of trying to bury the past, the state Bureau of Tourism and Travel is hoping the Ride to Freedom tour will give journalists an even greater sense of the change that has occurred here. Assistant director Frances Smiley says she hopes, in turn, reporters will take that message to the rest of the nation.

"We have to get people here to tell the story. And we're hoping to continue this effort in telling the story so people will come here, see, touch, feel and enjoy, because we are a new Alabama. And I believe that anything that ever happens in America that's going to change the way we live, that deal with racial equality, it's going to happen in Alabama. Alabama is the chosen state of racial equality. It's going to happen here," Ms. Smiley said.

Later that day, Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth joined the group for an informal discussion about how the lessons of the Civil Rights movement can be applied today. He said everything occurs according to God's timing, and everyone should "always be on the improvement."

"We have to remain committed to what we ought to be about: brotherhood, the beloved community, as Martin used to like to say, and making sure that what happens relates to what ought to be in the future," he said.

After lunch and a tour of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the "Ride to Freedom" tour left Birmingham for its next stop: Selma, where reporters toured the National Voting Rights Museum and marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In 1965, on what became known as Bloody Sunday, state and local police used clubs and tear gas to break up a peaceful protest march at the bridge.

The journalists wrapped up their visit to the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement in Montgomery, the state capital, where it all began in 1954, when Rosa Parks, tired after a day of work, refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. That act and the events that followed are commemorated in the Rosa Parks Library and Museum.

Frances Smiley of the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel said the world needs to know what happened here, and she says the state is ready to tell its story.