Last Sunday I met James Anderson, the African-American father who in 1963 won his lawsuit against the city of Birmingham, Alabama to enroll his children in the local all-white high school (if you’re younger than me–32–you may need a reminder that this was well after Brown v. Board of Education made desegregation a federal law). He is a lovely man, smiling graciously over the white carnation in his buttonhole even as he remembers the “hell that was Birmin’ham in those days.” He quotes Dr. King in his southern drawl and proudly shows off pictures of his children, all college graduates working in various professions across the country.
Mr. Anderson is a docent at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. In the short time Brandon and I have been in this area, several locals have strongly recommended a trip to the museum, and since this is our last week in Alabama (for now), we made a point to get there over the weekend. The impressive historical collection is housed across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church, the infamous site of the 1963 hate bombing that killed four little African-American girls during their Sunday school lesson.
The exhibits are artfully arranged, from the “barriers gallery” where visitors stand before segregated water fountains and stacks of textbooks that tangibly demonstrate the disproportionate ratio of educational resources for black and white students; to the “confrontation gallery” where visitors encounter recordings of black and white men and women saying things sadly common behind closed doors but rightfully shocking when made in public; to the “movement gallery” that utilizes a torched bus, the jail cell door behind which Martin Luther King wrote his famous letter, and various video presentations to bring to life the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Freedom March.
One of the most striking photos is of a wrinkled black woman grinning toothlessly as she signs her voter registration card. After spending at least 60 years as an American citizen with no voice in her government or way of life, the joy on her face is really compelling.
Throughout the museum are reminders that it was Christians (black and white, ordained ministers and lay people) who took the lead in seeking justice for black Americans, especially through the founding of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights.
If you are in the Birmingham area or planning to pass nearby on a summer vacation, I encourage you to include the Civil Rights Institute in your plans. Prepare to be offended, no matter your ethnic background. But you will also be encouraged by the works of reconciliation God has already brought about through his people—and praise him if you are moved to carry on that work in any large or small way as you go about your business. It made me grateful that I was born on Martin Luther King’s birthday, and I pledge to pray for civil justice every year as I celebrate the gift of my own life.