Dogs, Water and Bombs
May 1, 2010
|‘Bull’ Connor and the Ku Klux Klan
Our pilgrimage has finally led us to Birmingham - poster city for all that was wrong in the South. We camped for the night in a nearby state park, then headed into town in the morning. Our destination, the 16th Street Baptist Church and across the street, the Birmingham Civil Right’s Institute.
The church and Institute are at the edge of the downtown district. Across the street is Kelly Ingram Park, where in 1963 black citizens gathered for marches on City Hall. The purpose of the marches was to protest racial discrimination. Many of the marchers were school children, caught up in the fervor of the movement and determined to add their voices to the call. What they lacked in years they made up for in spirit - and these children were not afraid to face the beast or to risk their lives.
Birmingham’s ‘Public Safety Director’ was a man named Eugene ’Bull’ Connor, and Connor was determined too - to stop the marches. He met the blacks (who under Birmingham’s segregation laws were not even allowed to enter the park) with all the force at his command. Connor’s police were armed with guns, clubs and dogs, and his firemen were armed with fire hoses at the ready. He even had a tank!
What followed made history - and the pictures that document it are both terrible and comical. For the first time the world saw the ugly face of the racist South. Snarling dogs attacked teenagers, fire hoses blew people off their feet and across the park. People’s clothes were torn off - by the dogs and the hoses - and armed cops had a leash in one hand and a club in the other. Children were arrested by the hundreds, carted off to jail in buses that should have been taking them to school - but ironically, therein lies the hope.
If the dogs and hoses and clubs condemned ‘Bull’ Connor, pictures of soaking wet kids laughing at his firemen made a fool of him. For all his angry posturing Bull Connor lost the field - and pictures of his ‘tank’ look ridiculous compared to pictures of children, smiling and waving from buses that were taking them to jail. These events are superbly documented in the fine exhibits of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, an elegant building that now stands across the street from Kelly Ingram Park. But a third presence graces this remarkable corner of Birmingham. It is the 16th Street Baptist Church.
A health fair was in progress when we arrived at Kelly Ingram Park so we parked in the next block, in front of the church rectory. The 16th Street Baptist Church of Birmingham is now designated as a National Historic Site, and is nominated as a World Heritage Site, and if there is such a thing as ‘hallowed ground’ this church is it. Long used as a meeting place for black activists, the church had been threatened many times, but on the Sunday morning of September 15, 1963 a bomb went off.
Four young girls were killed instantly, and the bomb injured more than 20 other members of the congregation. Before the day was over two black boys would also be killed by Birmingham whites - one of them by the police. It was a day of unparalleled infamy, even for the South.
Today the church is restored to it’s original beauty, and while tours of the church are normally not given on Saturday, due to the health fair a young black man was beginning one as we arrived. We were invited to join it, and for the next half hour we stood in awe as he quietly took us through the sanctuary and told us it’s story. He pointed out a stained glass window on the wall that was destroyed. The picture is of Jesus, and he told us the window survived the bombing pretty much in tact - except for Jesus' face which was obliterated.
In the balcony of the church stands a newer stained glass window - this one a gift from the people of Wales. The image is of a black man on the cross, one hand averted to stop the violence, and the other hand extended in peace and reconciliation. It is as beautiful as any image we’ve ever seen. Our guide generously allowed us time to take pictures, and he went out of his way to get us literature and information on the church.
For the next few hours we walked the halls of the Institute (where photography is not allowed) and the paths of the park where it is. From the windows of the Institute, as from the park, one’s eye is constantly drawn back to the church across the street. It stands as a silent reminder of man’s capacity for evil - but it also stands in elegant testimony to man’s capacity for good. Three members of the Ku Klux Klan were eventually convicted of the bombing. It took over 40 years for justice to be served, but all went to prison where two of them have died.
Our interest in Civil Rights has taken us to many places, each with a special focus and each with it’s own story to tell. We came to see and to learn, to remember and to pay our respects. From Montgomery to Topeka, from Memphis to Little Rock, from John Brown’s farm to Selma to Birmingham - the journey has enriched us far beyond our hopes or imagination. It has been a privilege to share it with you - our family and friends.
We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting another of Birmingham’s attractions, a giant statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and forge. The statue is the largest cast iron sculpture in the world, standing 56 feet tall and mounted on a pedestal that puts his fingertips over 180 feet above the ground. He was sculpted by the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Morretti, for the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. At that time Birmingham was one of the country’s leading producers of iron and steel, and the sculpture was commissioned to represent the city to the world. He presently stands high on a hilltop overlooking the city, but for all his size and grandeur Vulcan was anti-climactic to what we had experienced on the streets below.
A short drive north took us to another state park for the night, and we settled in to think and reflect on the day, not to mention to eat and to sleep!