I was in Birmingham, Alabama last month. First time I was ever in the state. I surprised myself at how strongly I was affected by visiting the city’s old civil rights battlegrounds. Standing in the Sixth Street Baptist Church where the four little girls died in a terrorist bomb blast and walking in the park, right there by the church where Bull Conner and his dogs and fire hoses waited for the marchers, delivered a powerful shot of spiritual adrenaline to the soul of this despairing middle-aged progressive.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute has gone up across from the park since those bad old days. When I talked to the people that work there and visited their museum, I began to understand why Birmingham had affected me so. It speaks of a time when the movement for justice in this country was in ascendance. I imagine that King and the other civil rights leaders and activists who engaged in that struggle were not certain back then that their cause would prevail, but it did prevail and in retrospect we can see that Americans were watching what was happening in Birmingham and it changed enough of them to end legal segregation.
In the museum, I watched a film interview of a Freedom Rider who had been nearly killed by a white mob. He spoke of the power of non-violent resistance and his willingness to die if necessary to end segregation. And I heard a black woman explaining her emotions back in ’63 when she joined the Children’s March. She and her classmates were going to jail, she explained, “to get our freedom”.
The movement for justice is not in ascendance in America now. Money has locked up our political system, and it’s a different kind of struggle, but the time I spent in Birmingham revived my faith that we’ll overcome this time too.