“This is the place. This place is me,” Herbert Simms said, as he walked along the slick, leaf-covered sidewalk. He stopped and hunched over a puddle near a statue of a young boy being violently handled by a police officer and his dog. “They beat me here. That statue right there, for I all I know, that’s me too.” Simms, now 75, spoke quietly as he reflected on his role in this place, Kelly Ingram Park, and how it has shaped his life and the world he’s come to know.
He wondered why it took so long for this particular spot he’s known to be designated as a national historic monument. “This place is all of us…all of us. We changed the world here,” Simms said. Sites such as the A.G. Gaston Motel, where Simms attended meetings organized by opponents of segregation during the 1960s, and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, will be part of a national historic monument to the civil rights movement. On November 28, President Barack Obama announced plans to sign a proclamation in January designating the area as such.
“Back then we couldn’t have been sitting on that bench together without trouble,” Simms said to his girlfriend, who is white and had accompanied him on his stroll through the cold rain on a December morning. “I just hope kids today know that. Hopefully this monument will teach them something about what happened here.”
For the men and women who marched through the days of Jim Crow, the Obama administration’s announcement to dedicate several high-profile sites as a national historic monument in Birmingham — along with a site in Anniston where a bus carrying desegregation activists (“Freedom Riders”) was firebombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan an action to some extent facilitated by local law enforcement officials — was met with both elation and a profound sense of reflection.
As it stands there are 124 national monuments in the United States. Contrary to a belief held by some, the recent presidential designation does not turn a portion of Birmingham into a national park. The president has the unilateral authority to designate a site as a monument but it takes an act of Congress to create a national park as noted in the Antiquities Act of 1906.
Congresswoman Terri Sewell has been working to pass a bill that would do just that. A sign on the side of Boutwell Auditorium reads, “Civil Rights Park Now!” But as one representative of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute said, “National Parks ain’t easy to come by.”
Derrick Richardson, who works for Sewell’s office, said she is not yet ready to make a public statement about the recent monument designation, but continues to push for the area to be dedicated as a national park. The legislation has been held up in committee since earlier this year but has support from the Alabama congressional delegation.
Along with helping to inject the A.G. Gaston Motel with much needed federal funding for renovations, the recent designation could mean additional funding to maintain the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Trail that winds through downtown, according to Birmingham Mayor William Bell. Beyond the funding, the announcement is especially meaningful for people like Simms, who can point to a spot in Birmingham and say, “This is where they beat me.”
On marching to city hall
Bell lived through the movement. Growing up in Birmingham he participated in the demonstrations but was never arrested. He lost loved ones in a church bombing and he saw his friends and family get beaten by the police department he now signs the paychecks for. He saw the ugly face of bigotry more closely than most, he said.
“It was all because good men and women of all races came together and said we have to change our society,” Bell said. “That’s what gave me the opportunity to do something I never dreamed I’d be able to do: serve as the mayor of this great city. It gave African-Americans the chance to participate in the corporate life of this community and the civic life of this community. We needed a way to share that with the world.”
The push for the national monument designation began in earnest in 2012, Bell said. “People were concerned with the deterioration of the A.G. Gaston Motel,” Bell said. “It’s widely known that Dr. Martin Luther King stayed there but more importantly that was the headquarters for the March on Washington, for Operation C, and the organization of the children’s marches in which a lot of young people were hauled off to jail.”
Bell said that the city was “put into a bind” because it had received the property and did not have a plan to maintain it. Bell felt the best way to preserve this history was to reach out to the National Parks Service. Asked if he would continue to push for the area to be a national park, Bell said the main distinction between a national monument and a park is in name only.
“The process and protection of the property is the same. And the portion we would convey to the park service would be taken into their inventory. All of that is the same. It’s just the title. In terms of operation and what it means to us, it’s all the same.”
Numbers provided by the mayor’s office paint a picture of the economic impact that a national monument designation could have on local economies.
“In 2014, the National Park System received over 292 million recreation visits. National Park visitors spent $15.7 billion in local gateway regions (defined as communities within 60 miles of a park). The contribution of this spending to the national economy was 277,000 jobs, $10.3 billion in labor income, $17.1 billion in value added, and $29.7 billion in output,” April Odom, the mayor’s communications director, explained in an email. “The lodging sector saw the highest direct contributions with 48,000 jobs and $4.8 billion in output directly contributed to local gateway economies nationally. The sector with the next greatest direct contributions was restaurants and bars, with 60,000 jobs and $3.2 billion in output directly contributed to local gateway economies nationally.”
While it remains uncertain exactly what kind of economic boost the designation will have, Bell feels confident Birmingham will get “a healthy slice of the pie.”
“People want to know our story,” he said. “When they had the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, to see that bell from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church sitting on stage with the president, with the King family, with other individuals who fought for basic human rights, it sent a message that Birmingham had an impact on the world.”
“You can’t legislate love”
“Having been born in a segregated society, [during] my first 16 years it was just a way of life,” said Janice Kelsey, one of the countless foot soldiers who mobilized against oppression during the civil rights movement. “After being a part of conversations that pointed out some of these specific instances — yes, of course I knew about the different water fountains and the bathrooms; I didn’t like it, but I knew about it — it became personal when I realized my school was less than another school. That really motivated me to want to do something about it.”
Education has always held a special place in Kelsey’s heart. She worked as a teacher and counselor in the Birmingham City School system for 33 years before retiring. It was the inequality in education that she witnessed that “woke [her] up” to the systematic barriers that had been in place when she was a young woman in Titusville.
“I was an 11th grader at Ullman High School when I started attending meetings and getting involved with demonstrations. I was inspired by a speech and interactions I had with Dr. James Bevel. He met with the young people and basically he shared some information about some things, some provisions that were in white schools and compared that to the black schools,” Kelsey said.
One example that Bevel — who was a key figure in organizing the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade and the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 — pointed out was how many electric typewriters Kelsey and her classmates had at Ullman compared to how many there were at Phillips High School, then an all-white school just a few blocks away. Kelsey couldn’t remember the numbers, but she recalls being shocked.
The Children’s Crusade used peaceful methods like sit-ins at libraries and businesses, in addition to marching in the streets in order to protest. Children were beaten and arrested in mass.
As a result, some of the most searing images of the movement were captured by photographers — images that remain closely tied to Birmingham. Still, it’s hard for Kelsey to believe that happened in her lifetime.
“[Bevel] talked about why we got blue and white football helmets and our [school] colors were green and grey. He told us that we were getting Ramsay’s discards and they were just a few blocks from our school. I guess that brought things to the forefront of my mind that I was being mistreated. That’s what really pushed me out to want to do something about it,” Kelsey explained between exchanging greetings with people walking down the hall of Greater Missionary Shiloh Baptist Church, where she now works.
That church is just a few miles away from where one of her friends, Cynthia Wesley, was killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963.
On April 10, 1963, then-Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene “Bull” Connor had barred any further protests and increased the bond from $200 to $1,500 for anyone arrested for doing so. Civil rights leaders such as Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth called this move “a flagrant denial of our constitutional rights.” Still, the demonstrations continued.
Several months prior to the church bombing, Kelsey was arrested, on May 2, 1963, for parading without a permit. (During Jim Crow, organizers were often arrested on the basis of not having the proper city permits to protest, a tactic implemented by Connor, who also instructed his police force to use fire hoses and attack dogs on protesters like Kelsey and her classmates.)
Kelsey spent several days in jail after her arrest. The following year President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Kelsey noticed several immediate differences, but the lingering shadow of inequality did not fade.
“Signs came off the restrooms. Kids were able to go into schools they had been prohibited from going to. When the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964 and we saw this change start to happen nationally I felt like I had a part in making a difference in that. But we have not overcome, that’s for sure. You can’t legislate love,” Kelsey said as her brother walked into her office to grab some work gloves he’d forgotten.
“He was arrested a lot more than I was,” she joked. “You can look around at almost anyone our age (Kelsey is in her 60s) who lived here and know for a fact they played a part in all of this.”
The restraints that kept Kelsey’s family from living in certain neighborhoods may be gone, but she still sees vestiges of inequality. “We can’t go to sleep on this,” Kelsey said firmly. “Because there are people that would love to take all this away from us. We don’t have a truly integrated society, because that has to come by choice, not by laws. I don’t want people to forget what got us here – not just the people who organized and got arrested or the people who were attacked by dogs, I mean the people that died.” That story, Kelsey said, needs to live forever. “I’m obviously very happy that the president recognized the significance of this and the impact it will have on education our young ones.”
Treasures in the basement
There is a historic marker outside the Linn Henley Research Library. It’s one of the places where Bevel and the Children’s Crusade staged a peaceful sit-in. Jim Baggett, head of the archives department at the library, is still in awe of the history being stored in a building that was once segregated.
Baggett considers himself an “accidental archivist” because he originally set out to become a history professor when he started working at the library in 1993. Teaching wasn’t for him. Rather, he fell in love with collecting and preserving the history that he would have been reciting in a classroom. He’s been working in the basement of the library, among the archives, ever since.
The civil rights collection that is housed at the library is the biggest of its kind in the world. “There have been five Pulitzer prize winning books and one national book award winner that were researched here,” Baggett said, gleaming with pride. “Then we have a constant stream of students researching papers too. It’s a very heavily used collection. Which is a good thing.”
Recently that collection was featured in a story in the Atlantic, titled “The Treasures of Birmingham,” that touted the scope and historical significance of the documents and items housed in the basement of the old building. There are “probably over a million documents from the movement” along with artifacts such as bomb fragments from the third and final dynamite attack on Bethel Baptist Church, a site that will also be part of the historic monument.
“Then we went further into the archives, where the best was saved for last,” Deborah Fallows wrote in the Atlantic. “Catherine Oseas, the assistant archivist, disappeared into a back room and emerged with a heavy ledger. It was a book of the warden’s admissions to the Birmingham Jail for 1963. Docket numbers 606 and 607, for April 12, are the names and addresses for Ralph D. Abernathy and Martin L. King, who were cited in violation of Section 1159 of the Birmingham Parade Ordinance. Docket number 561 was Fred L. Shuttlesworth. It was extraordinary to see these ordinary, humble pages—a reminder of the treasures guarded by our public libraries.”
Baggett said it’s fascinating to read over the police documents that were recorded by officers who attended the civil rights meetings. Participants, i.e. foot soldiers, organizers, etc., typically did not keep record of such meetings because they did not want to leave a paper trail, according to Baggett. “It’s interesting how often an oppressed people’s history is recorded by the oppressors. A lot of what we know about slavery comes from the owners. A lot of what we know about the Holocaust was recorded by the Nazis. In this case, the Birmingham Police, in their effort to thwart the movement, they inadvertently recorded the history in very impressive detail.”
In 2013, 50 years after it was penned in a cell not far from the library, Baggett helped organize a public reading of the letter King wrote from the Birmingham jail. He was surprised to learn that people participated in the reading “on every continent…even Antarctica,” Baggett said. “It’s because Birmingham really is inspiring to people and it’s not something that we always understand here.”
In part, King’s letter outlines how the law was applied in order to suppress peaceful protests: “There are some instances when a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I was arrested Friday on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong with an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade, but when the ordinance is used to preserve segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and peaceful protest, then it becomes unjust.”
As a historian, Baggett was overjoyed to hear the news of the national monument designation. “It’s very appropriate,” he said. “I think it’s interesting that this building, like so many around, was segregated. Until 1963 African-Americans couldn’t use this library and now it’s home to a massive collection of documents and artifacts from that very struggle. There were two days of sit-ins here, led by U.W. Clemon [who would later become an attorney and federal judge], who at that time was a student at Miles College. I think it says a lot that once they couldn’t even walk through the door, and now it’s where we’re preserving that story.”
“Birmingham healed the human spirit”
In 1963, Odessa Woolfolk, a history teacher at Ullman High School, had Kelsey in her U.S. government history class at a time when many of her students were being subjected to government-sanctioned tyranny. “Everywhere you went, you were the other,” Woolfolk said, recalling how her students weren’t allowed to go to the main branch of the public library to research assignments she had given them.
“There was a branch for African-Americans, but as you can imagine it wasn’t well-stocked,” Woolfolk said. Students would have to request books from the main branch, which presented additional problems. “You’d hear stories about patrons in the downtown library saying to the librarians, ‘Look, we don’t want you to bring those books back to our library after those colored students used them,’” Woolfolk said. “It was horrible growing up knowing as a kid that you would go with your parents to a department store or something downtown and you couldn’t try on clothes or return them after you left the store.”
In 1965, Woolfolk moved to upstate New York to attend graduate school. She returned a decade later and was struck by the achievements that nonviolent demonstrations had accomplished in her hometown.
“It definitely proved that the nonviolent philosophy of Gandhi, King, and Shuttlesworth worked,” Woolfolk said, relating those actions in Birmingham to what has recently played out on the plains of North Dakota with nonviolent demonstrators backing down aggressive corporate and state agencies who sought to bury a pipeline under the Missouri River, the water source for the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.
Woolfolk was appointed by then-Mayor Richard Arrington in 1986 to spearhead an effort to create an institute in which the struggle for civil rights could be enshrined. Funding for the construction of the institute in the form of bond issues — one for $24 million in 1986 and another for $25 million for various museum projects in 1988 — were both voted down by the council. In 1990, Woolfolk was appointed as president of the board tasked with raising the funds for the proposed institute, which was completed two years later. She would go on to serve as chair emerita for the institute.
The next year, the newly formed Birmingham Civil Rights Institute received a national award from the National Trust of Historic Preservation. Woolfolk recalled a passage from the award that she believed captured the essence of the movement and the subsequent reconciliation in Birmingham.
“There was a sentence that struck me, especially as it relates to the new designation. It said, ‘The district healed the human spirit by fostering an understanding of the events that occurred here.’ Even after Mayor Arrington and the council formed the civil rights district in 1992, it was clear to observers of historic preservation that this was significant.”
Doug Jones, current chair of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, believes the most important aspect of the proposed monument is how that story continues to be told — the story of reconciliation.
“I don’t want the message to get lost,” Jones said over the phone. “I don’t think it’s just about what happened in the 1960s. Where Birmingham has come today is also very important because that is also a message that people need to hear. We need to do a better job in this country of healing our racial and religious wounds, economic and gender wounds, you name it. We are a divided country and Birmingham, I think, over the years, has been a message in healing.
“I think that when you had the courage of foot soldiers here that met what everyone considered to be an immoveable object in Jim Crow and they faced it head on and kept coming at it until it cracked,” Jones said. “I think that courage spurred movements all over the world — movements in this country and movements across the world where people stand up for human dignity and civil rights.”
In 2016, a time Jones described as “the most divided this country has been in 50 years,” the announcement of a national monument to civil rights in Birmingham is particularly poignant.
“We’ve not been immune from those situations but we certainly haven’t seen the same problems that other cities have had,” Jones said, referring to recent high-profile instances of racial unrest that resulted from unarmed black men being killed by the police. “I think it’s because everyone in Birmingham — including public officials and corporate leaders — have all grown up with this stigma that Birmingham had. And over the years they’ve been forced to face that and overcome that stigma.
“The progress of Birmingham has been dependent on black and white, male and female, young and old, trying to overcome the past. We’ve lived for so long in those black and white images. I think in the last couple of decades we’ve been able to show we’re a city of living color.”