Bombingham, AL — We began this day with a driving tour of downtown Bombingham. The city has rightfully earned this nickname.
The black neighborhood is in the middle of an industrial landscape.
The black/white dividing line for this city was 17th Street. The freedom of African Americans was restricted to areas below 17th street. The Church that was bombed is the 16th Street Baptist Church. This is the famous church where the four little girls died when a bomb exploded in the basement of the church. The girls were putting on their choir robes when the bomb exploded. The African American neighborhood is located in the center of the industrial area. Railroad tracks crisscross through coal yards. Birmingham steel manufacturing used to be the economic backbone of the city and it is known as the “Pittsburgh of the South.” Imagine living within a couple of blocks of a junk yard. This was the reality for the African Americans due to extreme poverty and racism. Because of the strict Jim Crow laws, even middle class black residents were forced to live in an industrial wasteland dotted with hills of coal and coke. Piles of coal still dot otherwise vacant lots all around.
Freedom Rider Catherine Burks-Brooks (the Freedom Rider with attitude)
Catherine-Burk Brooks went to prision four times for the cause.
She sat next to Eugene “Bull” Conner in the car as his driver drove the four Freedom Riders out of town. On the ride, she had a conversation with Bull about the Dixiecrats and invited him to have breakfast at FISK when they arrived in the morning. The vision of her having a political conversation with “Bull” is as frightening as it is funny. She actually fell asleep on the way. When he left them off in the middle of the night at the Mississippi state line, she is the one who told Bull that she would be back in Bombingham by high noon.
The historic district is just a few blocks from the industrial/black residential area
The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is the site where the four little girls died after the church was bombed. Learning the history of Civil Rights Movement in this city brought home the level of terrorism the African American citizens faced everyday. Just about every African American civic leader was threatened and most of their houses were bombed. Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth’s house was bombed twice. His church was also bombed.
Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth led the Birmingham boycott against merchants who enforced the Jim Crow Laws. His church was bombed.
They actually have a neighborhood in town called “Dynamite Hill” because the poor white population was literally trying to bomb out the upper middle class African Americans who were moving into the area. Angela Davis grew up here. The nickname for this city is Bombingham. In fact, a city worker, Robert E. Chandless, known as “Dynamite Bob,” was later convicted of bombing the 16th Street Baptist Church. The complicity of the police was also a major theme during this tour and “Dynamite Bob” is proof. He was well known to Eugene “Bull” Connor, (Hahemm) the commissioner of public safety. This history of terrorism goes on and on in Alabama.
Kelly Ingram Park
Right across the street from 16th Street Baptist Church is Kelly Ingram Park. This is where "Bull" Conner turned the fire hoses and attack dogs on children who were protesting. This picture was taken from the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Kelly Ingram Park is directly across the street. I was impressed that the city had put up monuments showing the dogs and police attacking the children of the Children’s Crusade. The park is welcoming with its well-kept gardens. It’s hard to picture this place as the scene of one of the most famous incidents of police brutality in our history. It is such a contrast to the neat, well-manicured lawns, trimmed trees and colorful flower beds. Birmingham is like that. On the surface, everything looks neat and tidy. This pretty veneer hides an under current of racial intolerance.
The city did acknowledge their dark past with this statute (and others) in Kelly Ingram Park.
One thing I learned from this trip is that racial intolerance is very close to the surface at any given time. It’s an itch that once scratched will not be satisfied until the surface skin is torn and bleeding. Today, states are controlling the African American vote by limiting early voting. African Americans are more likely to vote if they have more options for when, where, and how to cast a ballot.
This is the church were the four little girls died when the church was bombed. It was a meeting place for protest organizers.
This is the city where there are statues honoring Confederate heroes in a downtown park. There were no Confeder
ate battles in the city. Yet, the city is proud of its anti-slavery history.
Odessa Woolfolk taught American Government at the time of the Children's Crusade.
Odessa Woolfolk taught American Government in the African American High School and she supported the students even though she could have lost her job. She credits the women and the children of the movement for helping to win the battle for civil rights. It was often the women who first stood up to authority: Irene Morgan, Rosa Parks, Diane Nash, Catherine Burks-Brooks and Septima Clark, Dorothy Cotton and Fannie Lou Hammer were all at the front line of the movement. When Odessa Woolfolk later moved to Albany, NY., she was told a brownstone she wanted to rent was unavailable. She realized immediately that she was being discriminated against. So, she sent a white friend to look at the same house. The white friend was shown the apartment. Woolfolk filed a discrimination complaint against the state of NY and won. This forced the state of NY to integrate housing. This tiny lady is still an impressive character.
Janice Westly attended a non-violence workshop led by James Bevel.
Janice Westly, a high school student in 1963, participated in the Children's Crusade and went to jail.
Bevel made the students aware that their high school was seriously inferior to the white high school by giving examples. That motivated Janice to get involved. On May 2, 1963, The radio DJs kept referring to “the party in the park” and saying: “We’re going to turn it out!” Janice said she was all excited to be going to jail. When she was arrested for marching in Kelly Ingram Park with the other high school kids, a cop asked if she was comfortable in jail. She said, “I’m as contented as a Carnation Cow.” She said the neighbors threw sandwiches over the fences to the kids who were waiting to be processed. Over 1,000 kids were arrested that day. Today, Janice is a teacher and principal. She says, “It grieves my heart that people have no interest in civil rights.”
Lily Grove Baptist Church Unity Choir
These are members of the original Freedom Choir. Freedom songs were a huge part of the Civil Rights Movement.
One of the most amazing experiences of the trip was to hear the original Civil Rights Movement choir. Carlton-Reese Choir, known at the time as the MLK Unity Breakfast Choir provided the musical soul of the movement. Three of the original members sang for us, including the retired Chief of the Birmingham Police Dept., a African American woman — how ironic is that? In the summer of 1963, they met every night for 40 nights to practice and one night they sang all night long. The constant singing was one way the Freedom Riders could successfully annoy the prison guards. Three of the original members still perform. Singing the freedom songs with the choir was a lot of fun and would get anyone up on their feet to march.
This is a retired Chief of the Birmingham Police Dept.