Birmingham is a vibrant, modern city with first-class attractions and entertainment, continually offering itself up for comparison with other major metropolitan areas. The largest city in Alabama, it has major colleges of medicine, dentistry, optometry, pharmacy, law, engineering, and nursing.
But what's most unique about Birmingham is its beginning. This planned post-Civil War Reconstruction city was founded in 1871, a monument to industrial imagination and urban planning.
Founding fathers situated their dream city at the crossing of two railroad lines where the components for iron and steel production - coal, iron ore, and limestone - were in abundance. Added to this was a ready-made workforce, black and white, clamoring for jobs in the war-riddled South.
In the beginning, black and white residents and businesses existed side by side. But as Jim Crow laws took effect in the early 1900s, segregation and discrimination thrived, finally boiling over into the newsmaking events of 1963.
Waiting for the 16th Street Baptist Church tour to begin, visitors are invited to view photos, displays, and plaques in the Memorial Nook in the basement. Church volunteers conduct tours several times a week to help educate visitors about this time in America's history.
Everything reflects the events of 1963, a dark and determined time in the history of Birmingham and the civil rights movement; a time when peaceful marchers were arrested, white men and women protested school integration, and a bomb took the lives of four young girls.
A young mother reads the girls' names to her daughter: "Denise McNair, aged 11, and Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all aged 14."
"Why, Mommy?" asks the little girl, who's about 6.
The more than 30 men, women, and children gathered to tour the church wonder, too, what kind of hatred could have provoked men to place a bomb outside a church knowing it was filled with parishioners attending Sunday school. A century had passed since the Emancipation Proclamation began the end of slavery, on Jan. 1, 1863, but African Americans were still being discounted.
Everyone is asked to gather in the sanctuary, where church member Lemarse Washington begins telling about the church, the bombing, and Birmingham.
"This congregation was organized by freed slaves in 1873," Washington began. "It was the first black church in Birmingham. A church was built at this location in 1880.
This church was built between 1908 and 1911.
During segregation, "African Americans couldn't go to city auditoriums, so this church, and other black churches in Birmingham, served as meeting places and social centers," he said.
He said there were many public places where blacks were not allowed. "For example, if you were black you couldn't use an elevator," he said. "So if my grandmother needed to get to the fifth floor of a building downtown, she had to walk up five flights."
Washington also painted another vivid picture of 1963, describing the carefully planned nonviolent protests. On May 2 and 3, 5,000 marchers, many schoolchildren, gathered at the church and nearby Kelly Ingram Park to march to City Hall. Their efforts were met with high-pressure fire hoses and police dogs; many were put in jail. News coverage of the demonstration and the city's reaction shocked the nation.
Birmingham had a reputation as one of the South's most segregated cities. When blacks spoke out, they risked violence from white segregationists. From the late 1940s to the mid-1960s, nearly 50 racially directed bombings led to the city's nickname "Bombingham."
On Sept. 5, two high schools and one elementary school were ordered to admit five black students. Ten days later, at 10:22 a.m. Sept. 15, a bomb blew into a restroom at the church, killing the four girls and injuring more than 20 members of the 16th Street Baptist Church congregation.
The children's murders brought international outrage that many credit with boosting the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Before showing a short documentary about the bombing, Washington told of the outpourings of sympathy, concern, and financial help the church received after the tragedy.
"John Petts of Wales came to Birmingham to help repair the broken stained-glass windows," he said. Petts also created a large stained-glass window with the image of a black crucified Christ, a gift from the people of Wales. The window is in the rear center of the sanctuary at the balcony level.
After the film, Washington invited those who hadn't seen the Memorial Nook to do so, and then quietly left the sanctuary, allowing the visitors the opportunity to reflect on the events that took place in this church, this neighborhood, this city.
This area includes the 16th Street Baptist Church, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and Kelly Ingram Park at the intersection of Sixth Avenue North and 16th Street North. A short walk away is the Fourth Avenue Business District and Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.
The institute is a 58,000-square-foot facility with exhibition space, meeting rooms, multimedia presentations, and an extensive oral history collection with more than 500 interviews. The tour starts with a short film chronicling Birmingham's beginnings and continues as visitors are taken on a journey through time. Many exhibits were designed to re-create life in Birmingham when Jim Crow laws determined how people functioned 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 movement. Others depict significant events leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, subsequent struggles, and current world events pointing toward the need for human rights awareness worldwide.
On Sixth Avenue, the Civil Rights Heritage Trail, markers and signs with photos and quotes commemorate significant locations on march routes.
The markers lead to Kelly Ingram Park, across the street from the institute and catty-corner from 16th Street Baptist. The four-acre green space has 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.
The park is where, in May 1963, Birmingham police and firemen, under orders from Public Safety Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor, violently confronted peaceful marchers.
Two blocks away is the Fourth Avenue Business District, where many of the black businesses and entertainment venues were. A highlight of a tour along these historic streets is a visit to the Carver Theatre. Once a blacks-only movie house, it is now a live-performance theater and home of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame. Interactive exhibits recall the contributions to jazz by the likes of Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, and Erskine Hawkins, all with Alabama ties.
To understand the present, we must recognize the past. A visit to Birmingham wouldn't be complete without visiting the Civil Rights District and the year 1963.