Day 2 of our action-packed Civil Rights adventure took us to Birmingham, Alabama – home of some of the worst violence of the Movement in the 60’s. Our first stop was Kelly Ingram Park, a memorial to the violence against the “foot soldiers” who marched from 16th Street Baptist Church, protesting. This is where “Bull” Connor ordered his men to unleash fire hoses and police dogs on the protesters – most of whom were children. It was freezing cold Friday morning, but it was a moving experience.
After wandering through the park, we went for a tour of 16th Street Baptist Church (which is just kitty-corner). At this church, a bomb was planted during youth Sunday school, and 4 little girls were killed. Although the man who planted the bomb was widely suspected (and practically bragged about it), he wasn’t brought to justice until decades later.
After visiting the church, we toured the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (where pictures were not allowed). It was one of the most emotional experiences of the trip for me, because it described just how intense the oppression and hatred were that black people had to face; as I walked through the exhibits, I felt the pain and suffering of my friends, while I felt the guilt of my own race. I stopped to pray for a while, and was later comforted by pictures of protesters with white faces in the crowd. It really brought it home for me that the struggle was not one race against the other, but humanity against inhumanity – all colors included.
After lunch was the highlight of the day: Catherine Burks Brooks.
Catherine, now in her 80’s, met with us at the Alabama Power building and told us about her experience as a Freedom Rider. She boarded a bus, along with other black and white students who supported integration, and rode down from Memphis, Tennessee to Montgomery, Alabama in protest of Alabama’s segregated bus system. Upon reaching Alabama, buses were firebombed, riders were beaten nearly to death and jailed, and promised police protection failed to arrive or respond. Catherine told us about being arrested and dropped off near the state border – dangerously close to a white town, which would ensure their further abuse or even lynching. She told us about flirting with “Bull” Connor and giving him a piece of her mind. She told us about her group picking their way back to a safe area, where they could board the next bus and try it all over again. According to Mrs. Brooks, the best thing to do was just to “keep on keepin’ on;” not to get bogged down in the details or scared of how monumental the task was, but to take it one day at a time. She told us that was the best way to make the world better today – do a little every day, and just keep on keepin’ on. ◊