By Jay Jones, Special to Tribune Newspapers
8:02 PM EDT, April 9, 2013
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Carolyn McKinstry longed to visit the zoo.
All Wash Booker wanted was a banana split from the lunch counter.
In 1963, they were teenagers attending different high schools — black schools — in Birmingham.
"Birmingham at the time was known as the most segregated city on the face of the planet, even more so than Johannesburg," Booker said.
"It was a life of horror. It was a life of terror," McKinstry recalled. For her, there was nothing enchanting about growing up "colored" in "The Magic City" in the 1960s.
For many Americans at the time, the images from 1963 Birmingham remain vivid. Martin Luther King Jr. behind bars in the city jail. Fire hoses and police dogs being used to repel peaceful protesters. The bodies of four girls who'd been preparing for worship being carried from the rubble of a bombed church.
While some may choose to forget this ugly chapter, civic officials are embracing it. A wide range of functions will commemorate the 50th anniversary of that momentous year. And, on any given day, visitors to downtown Birmingham can witness evidence of the historic struggle.
The 16th Street Baptist Church (1530 Sixth Ave. North, 205-251-9402, 16thstreetbaptist.org) is the ideal starting point. It was the rallying spot for young demonstrators that May. Four months later, it was where those four children died.
"I was here on Sept. 15, when the church was bombed," McKinstry told a group of students from Duke University. The Duke students were gathered in the sanctuary to view a short film documenting the pivotal events.
The date is "stamped on my heart," said McKinstry, now a minister who preaches reconciliation. Only 15 at the time, she had just left the church office when the bomb, planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan, detonated outside the women's restroom one floor below.
"We must say their names. Addie Collins. Denise McNair. Carole Robertson. Cynthia Wesley," she recited, pausing after each name.
Photos of the victims, ages 11 and 14, are displayed on a brass plaque inside the church's memorial nook. Photos tell the story of the civil rights movement. Above them hangs the church's old oversize clock. Forever frozen by the blast, it reads 10:22.
Kitty-corner from the church, the civil rights story is shared through a series of statues in Kelly Ingram Park, where white policemen confronted black marchers.
Probably the most moving sculpture depicts an officer siccing his snarling dog on a terrified boy. An audio tour of the artwork, accessed by cellphone, provides additional insight.
After King's arrest in April, the number of people willing to protest dwindled. Adults feared losing their jobs and homes. It was Birmingham's black youth, McKinstry and Booker included, who heeded the call to action.
"The movement had kind of fizzled in Birmingham," said Booker, then a ninth-grader. "That one decision, to bring the kids in, changed the course of human history."
The student demonstrations began May 2.
"The first day that the kids were involved, I think it was about 500 (who participated)," he said. "The next day, it was a thousand. Eventually, there were somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000 of us who marched into jail."
"We became what they called the foot soldiers. We filled up the jails, which was Dr. King's objective. We filled up every jail in Jefferson County," Booker explained. "They even had people (detained) at the fairgrounds."
The student marches are labeled "The Children's Miracle" in one of the many exhibits at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (520 16th St. North, 205-328-9696, bcri.org/index.html). Black-and-white photos show students waving from the windows of school buses being used as police wagons.
The museum tells the tale of life in Birmingham under segregation. White kids, for example, went to glitzy movie theaters and afterward to malt shops. Much smaller businesses catered to blacks. The oral histories of those black business people form part of one display.
At another display, guests often pause in front of the reconstructed cell where King spent several days. Locked behind those steel bars, he penned his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail" on April 16, 1963.
"I am in Birmingham because injustice is here," the civil rights leader wrote. "There is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. … It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire."
The outrages of 1963 led Congress to pass the broad-ranging Civil Rights Act the following year. But some question whether Birmingham and, in fact, the country truly have "moved on."
"When you look at the evidence … we're still deep in poverty and racism," McKinstry said.
Booker, however, believes there has been much positive change since those childhood years when he longed to order a banana split at Newberry's Department Store. That dream was realized toward the end of the decade. By then a Marine, Booker got a seat at the counter just days before shipping out for Vietnam.
"(Birmingham) became the model for freedom and justice movements around the world," he said. "We were the children who lived through it, so we're obligated to talk about it, to make sure that people don't forget."
The Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau (800-458-8085, birminghamal.org) has extensive information about civil rights attractions and this year's events.
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