BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — When I told friends I was planning a trip to Birmingham, the reaction was universal.
"Alabama?" one asked. "On purpose?"
I shared their skepticism, viewing the travel literature with the jaundiced eye of a longtime Angeleno who puzzled over the concept of vacationing in the South. But I was flying here for a business meeting that had been scheduled for Presidents Day weekend, so why not take some extra time and look around?
It's not the oldest or most storied city in the South. But Birmingham — about a 21/2-hour drive west of Atlanta — has a complex history that includes post-Civil War industrialization, the corruption of an establishment that planned to carry out that industrialization with nonunionized and African American labor and, decades later, its role as a staging ground in the fight for basic human rights.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of some of the most important events in the civil rights movement, and many of them took place in Birmingham: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From Birmingham Jail"; Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor's use of attack dogs and fire hoses against peaceful demonstrators, many of them children; and the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls.
Official Birmingham is embracing this anniversary with a year of photo and museum exhibitions, concerts, plays, symposiums, festivals, workshops and the National Conference on Civil Rights. I scheduled an extra day at the beginning and the end of my meetings to see the city's historic core, visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and other places that helped me understand the city's legacy.
After a few short days, I found myself becoming a banner carrier for Birmingham: Anyone who cares about U.S. history should plan a trip here.
Downtown's Tutwiler hotel makes a good starting point. The original building was torn down in the 1970s, but with a boost from private and government grants, the Tutwiler family transformed the 1914 Ridgely Apartments into a new Tutwiler hotel — with attractive rooms, a restaurant that pays attention to food and a bar that serves a nice selection of cocktails.
On my first morning here, I left the Tutwiler and headed down 6th Avenue North on my way to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a 58,000-square-foot facility with exhibition space, meeting rooms, multimedia presentations and an extensive oral history collection with more than 500 interviews. Every few hundred yards on 6th Avenue, I stopped to read the markers along the Civil Rights Heritage Trail, signs with photos and quotes that commemorate significant locations on march routes.
The markers lead to Kelly Ingram Park, across the street from the institute and cater-corner from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The 4-acre green space is the site of statues and sculptures — some in welded steel, others in limestone or bronze — that commemorate and, in some cases, depict the civil rights movement and the city's notorious response: police dogs, fire hoses, jail time. The park was once the heartbeat of civil rights activity in Birmingham, but at 10 a.m. on this day, it was empty.
Where were the children on field trips? But then I spotted them, making their way into the Civil Rights Institute. I followed them — fourth-graders, I later learned — into a handsome domed lobby. "Hope this doesn't wreck it for you," a teacher said, smiling ruefully. In truth, their reactions to mid-20th century events enhanced the experience. I trailed the students, waiting to see what engaged them.
Many of the exhibits were designed to re-create life in Birmingham when Jim Crow laws determined how people would function in the segregated city. Displays include a replica of a burned-out bus that had carried Freedom Riders and timelines that track the progress of the civil rights movement. Some of the fourth-graders lingered to read enlargements of newspaper clippings and quotes from leaders of that movement. They halted, a few of them bewildered, in front of a replica of segregated classrooms.
Toward the end of the visit, the kids were asked to sit on the floor and watch a short video on a huge screen. "No talking," a teacher said. "Listen." Scenes from the August 1963 March on Washington flickered on the screen, including clips from King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The fourth-graders applauded. It felt like a benediction.
The Sixteen Street Baptist Church sits across the street from the institute. Once inside, our guide gently reminded the small clutch of visitors that the church is more than a symbol of the civil rights movement; it's a 21st century parish with services, meetings and Sunday school classes. But as we waited, I found it impossible to think about anything but the events of 50 years ago.
On Sept. 15, 1963, soon after the March on Washington, a dynamite blast ripped open the basement of the church, which had become the site of civil rights movement meetings. Four girls died; at least 20 people were injured. It took more than a decade for any of the suspects to be convicted of the real crime, and the reverberations of the blast — national anguish and anger, a slow serving of justice — continue to this day.
After our small group watched a video that focuses on the history of the church and the headlines of 50 years ago, the tour guide, a parishioner, patiently recalled and repeated details of the bombing and its aftermath. It's almost impossible to learn too much about this historical site.
In the afternoon, I ran into a colleague and persuaded her to join me as I explored some older monuments to Birmingham's past. First stop: Sloss Furnaces, which opened just a few years after the town was founded in 1871.
The men who planned Birmingham (and named it after the industrial powerhouse of Birmingham, England) chose a place close to deposits of limestone, coal and iron ore, paving the way for the growth of local iron and steel manufacturing. Sloss Furnaces, now a national historic landmark, helped propel the city into industrial prominence that continued through the 1960s.
The abandoned blast furnaces, in a park-like setting, have a natural, desolate beauty. The size of those furnaces and the cars used to transport molten pig iron made us feel Lilliputian, excellent preparation for our next stop: the Vulcan Park and Museum, atop the city's Red Mountain.
The highlight of any trip up the hill is a gigantic statue of the Roman god of the forge, cast in 1904 and long touted as the world's largest cast-iron figure. He's 56 feet tall and sits atop a 124-foot-high pedestal. A short elevator ride in a tower attached to the pedestal offered great views of the city (the Birmingham-Hoover metropolitan area has more than 1 million people) and on this day, Feb. 14, decent views of several weddings taking place. "It's a big day for weddings," the woman in the ticket booth explained.