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Steel City Striving

A trip to the Civil Rights District

By Gary Lloyd

I went to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute on Sunday to earn some hours for a graduate school class in multicultural education.

I took a small notepad and pen, in case there were things I wanted to remember clearly. I read the words Martin Luther King Jr. wrote from a Birmingham jail cell, cringed at photos of hangings, watched short videos about marches and sit-ins, and generally skimmed all the exhibits. It’s quite the educational experience.

There were many photos and information about the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church, which sits just across the street from the institute. Four girls died in the bombing, and two more teenagers were shot and killed later that day. It is one of the seminal moments in a checkered past of Alabama history. But it’s important to see. What is it people say? Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.

The bombing was of great interest to me Sunday, likely because the church itself sat just feet away from where I was learning about it. It’s a very cool thing to read about something, develop an interest in it, and then be able to stand where it happened. You learn so much more that way. I had to go check it out. Most churchgoers had left for the afternoon, so I circled the building just looking and taking pictures. There is a monument just outside the front doors, with the names of the four girls – Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley – engraved on it. As I took a few photos, I heard chatter behind me. A handful of girls emerged from a side door. That moment was chilling.

I headed toward Kelly Ingram Park, which acted as a staging ground during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, where my car was parked. It was in this area that police dogs and firehoses were let loose on student demonstrators. It was here that statues were erected of Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and others. It was here that the “Four Spirits” sculpture of the four girls who died in the bombing was placed. It was here that I went on a whim to learn a little bit about making history come alive through speeches and words from more than fifty years ago, and I was worried about figuring that out. As soon as I stepped out of my car, a sign in the park caught my attention. It included a quote from Odessa Woolfolk, the co-founder of the institute and a former Birmingham City Schools teacher.

“The marches taught the children more about democracy than any classroom lecture,” it read. And how true that is. Do you learn about an event more by reading about it in a stuffy room or standing in the place it happened? Experience wins out every time. Why didn’t we come here when I was a high school student? Was I sick that day?

A man seemed to be waving me down as I walked to my car. He was black, probably in his thirties or early forties, with messed-up hair, torn jeans, and a ratty white T-shirt. We crossed paths.

He said his name was Marcus and that he had just gotten out of a psychiatric hospital because he had attempted suicide. He did not say how or why. I told him that I was sorry to hear that, and my pace quickened, to be quite honest. He said he was homeless and lived in the 16th Street area. I wasn’t sure I believed him. If you’ve been in certain parts of downtown Birmingham, Atlanta, and other major cities, you know there are people asking for money, for hot meals. You want to believe the absolute best in people, that this person somehow fell on hard times, but you do fear the five bucks you give is spent on some bad habit or alcohol. You hope it isn’t.

Marcus didn’t beg. Maybe I didn’t give him enough time to do so, or maybe this was a scheme. Maybe he was just being genuinely honest. It’s hard to tell these days. We’re a skeptical society, and that is unfortunate. I talked to Marcus for a block anyway.

I do know that his name was Marcus because I saw it when he showed me the plastic wristband from whatever hospital he had been in. I couldn’t see his last name. He told me again that he was homeless and that he lived downtown in Kelly Ingram Park, beside 16th Street. He told me that he missed his mother, who had passed away. I again said that I was sorry, and I felt as if this man just wanted someone to talk to. He had “16th Street” tattooed on his left forearm, and he said that he loves this area of Birmingham, the Civil Rights District dedicated to preserving history, even if that face of history has a black eye.

As we walked past the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, he noticed some people drinking and smoking. He told me that he hated that, that he wished people would take pride in the community, an area that has a significant place in history. Was this sincerity? Was this him tugging at a stranger’s heartstrings for money or food?

In recent years, men have been arrested for vandalism in Kelly Ingram Park. There have been shootings and Lord knows what else. I wanted to believe he was being sincere, but I struggled with that. The least I could do was talk to him while walking through the park. Marcus said he sees those fights and the violence in the park he claims is his home. He said he tries to protect 16th Street, and I’m not sure I believe him or want to know what that means if it’s true. I shook his hand and told him to keep protecting the park.

He managed to muster up the slightest grin, and he told me that he would.

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