When someone mentions the Birmingham Civil Rights Campaign, certain images come to mind: Martin Luther King Jr., mass marches and church bombings prominent among them. But before the 1963 campaign took place, events were occurring throughout Birmingham that would prepare the city — and the state — to make history.
This summer, a new exhibition at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is telling the story of the people who set those events in motion.
Hope in Motion opened on June 18, coinciding with the anniversary month of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. The exhibition highlights the ACMHR, as well as a number of major events which occurred from 1955 to 1957 and which were crucial in laying the groundwork for the rest of the movement.
The background of the exhibition and the event which led to the ACMHR’s formation is the Montgomery Bus Boycott. “Brown vs. Board, even though it was an important legislation, had loopholes,” said Ahmad Ward, vice president of Education and Exhibitions at the BCRI. When the Supreme Court declared that segregation within schools was unconstitutional, they ordered desegregation “with all deliberate speed.”
“Some counties and school districts took that to mean ‘whenever we get to it’,” said Ward. “With the bus boycott, it quickly became a big story because of the fact that it was crippling the city economy.”
It was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s involvement in the boycott that led to an Alabama judge banning the organization from operating within the state. “And so, Fred Shuttlesworth and other local leaders… created the ACMHR — Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights — to serve as the civil rights arm of the state,” said Ward.
The exhibition, which was created in partnership with Al.com, includes images that have never before been on display. “The Alabama Media Group, Al.com, they had these negatives that had been sitting for a long time,” said Ward. “Some of this stuff we had never seen before, so it was a great opportunity to bring some of the things we have in our collection out on ACMHR, but also show these images.”
From Autherine Lucy’s stand at the University of Alabama to the Christmas Day bombing of Shuttlesworth’s house, the events highlighted in the exhibition were instrumental in preparing Birmingham for what was to come. “It was a lot happening in not just the city, but the state, and it really was the setup for us to be on the grand stage for civil rights,” said Ward. “This is kind of the foreshadowing; this is the pre-game show that sets the tone for all the things that are happening.”
The exhibition also places a spotlight on Shuttlesworth, who led the ACMHR and organized Birmingham’s own bus protest. “Anytime that we have the opportunity to highlight how important Shuttlesworth is to the Birmingham story, we do that,” said Ward.
Ward hopes that visitors will leave the exhibition with a better understanding of the ACMHR and the organization’s importance in the state’s history. “[W]e want people to understand all of what was taking place and how it really leads to everything else that happens after the fact,” he said. “We would like people to know a little bit more about that organization, the impact that it had and why it’s important that we recognize it.”
While the images in the exhibition may not be iconic, they document an important period in Birmingham’s history. By paving the way for the movement in 1963, the events shown ultimately had an influence in the way the world saw the city, the state and the people who lived there.
Hope in Motion: The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights will be on display through December 31. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is located at 520 16th St N and is open Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday 1 p.m.-5 p.m. For more information and ticket pricing, visit BCRI.org.