As 2013 approaches, Birmingham is preparing for the 50th anniversary of a crucial year in the Civil Rights Movement. Several cultural institutions in the city, including the Birmingham Museum of Art, Vulcan Park and Museum, and several officials at City Hall, are preparing to recognize the impact of the historical events that occurred in the city’s streets in 1963.
The girls who died in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing–Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley–are the focus of an exhibition going on now at Birmingham City Hall. “Birmingham Now. Fifty Years Forward” is an interactive and educational exhibit is located on the second floor of City Hall, in the Gallery of Distinguished Citizens.
The display includes a mural of quotations by visionaries such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. On the walls are covers of Time and Life magazines which reflect important figures and moments in the struggle for racial equality. A pair of drinking fountains designated “COLORED” and “WHITE” and a small, gray box containing bits of twisted metal shrapnel from the second bombing of the Bethel Baptist Church bring the past into the present and immerse visitors in the turmoil of the civil rights movement.
Some displays are interactive, such as the row of iPads featuring slideshows of important documents from 1963. These include Birmingham Police incident reports from the Sixteenth Street bombing, a record of fires, and a letter reporting a meeting of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights which took place on May 3 of that year. One display features a pair of headphones which visitors may wear while watching a video of news clips and interviews from men and women who experienced this turbulent period in history firsthand. There is also a repeating video of scenes from the Spike Lee documentary 4 Little Girls (released in 1997), which may be watched from one of a pair of church pews.
The City Hall display also includes documents such as the mug shots of protestors, police statements, and the minutes of City Council meetings from September 11, 1963, discussing the protests against integration at three local schools, and other documents from September 15, the day of the Sixteenth Street bombing. The exhibit, which is free to view, has been in place since October 2012 and will remain on display at City Hall throughout 2013.
The full extent of city government’s plans to commemorate 1963 is not known. However, some of the proposed events have been revealed. For instance, in his forward to the new book, 1963: How the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement Changed America and the World, Mayor William A. Bell outlines the following: beginning with the designation as a “Civil Rights Capital of Culture” for the duration of 2013, the city of Birmingham will host “a series of educational, cultural, and tourism events to celebrate the legacy of our collective civil rights heritage.” This series of events includes the city’s hosting of the National Conference on Civil Rights, entitled “50 Scholars Speak on the 50th,” which is to be held in September 2013, in addition to “an international culture, food and book fair; a charitable gala; and Empowerment Sunday, which will include the 50th commemoration of the bombing of the [16th] Street Baptist Church.”
Birmingham Museum of Art
The Birmingham Museum of Art will be recognizing the anniversary through its own series of events which celebrate African-American heritage and remember the Civil Rights Movement. The museum’s first scheduled event, to be held on April 25, 2013, will be a musical performance by Theaster Gates with the Black Monks of Mississippi, with a lecture by Gates to be given the following day. This will be followed by an exhibition, open June 9 to September 1, to honor the contributions of the museum support group the Sankofa Society to the BMA’s permanent African-American art collection.
“Etched in Collective History,” an exhibition honoring artists who were inspired to participate in the Civil Rights Movement both in person and through their art, and recognizing later generations of artists that they inspired, will be on display at the BMA from August 18 through November 17, 2013. This exhibit will represent a multi-generational reaction to both the Movement as a whole and the Sixteenth Street bombing itself through the viewpoints of multiple artists, male and female, local and national. The exhibition is meant to challenge singular interpretations of African-Americans and their history.
Jefferson Pinder, a mixed media artist, will orchestrate a musical performance at the Lyric Theatre, August 22, 2013. The performance, entitled “Belly of the Beast,” will be a “vocal duel” between a black gospel choir and white bluegrass singers. The performance is aimed at acknowledging and celebrating differences and similarities between the groups, to capture “the complexity of segregation but also [working] as a bridge between communities.”
From September 8 through December 2, BMA will display the work of portrait photographer Dawoud Bey as part of his “Birmingham Project,” symbolically commemorating the loss of the four girls in the Sixteenth Street bombing, and the two boys, Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson, who died violently later that day. Bey will accomplish this through photos and videos of children the same age as those who diedt and of adults at the age those children would be today, were they still alive.
The BMA’s final exhibition in honor of the 50th anniversary will be a project entitled “Question Bridge,” which will present videotaped interviews of dozens of African-American men addressing the issues that they face daily while representing and redefining black male identity in America. “Question Bridge” will be on display from October 6 through December 29.
Vulcan Park and Museum
Vulcan Park and Museum (VPM) also plans to commemorate the anniversary. “As the unifying symbol of our region for more than 100 years, Vulcan serves as an important link to our past–and to generations yet to come,” said Vulcan marketing coordinator, Melanie Goodsell. “We are committed to preserving and sharing the stories that have shaped our community. And there is no event that has had a greater or father-reaching impact than the 1963 Birmingham Campaign. It is critical that every generation understand what took place here.
“To that end, Vulcan Park and Museum, like many of our area’s cultural institutions, plans to commemorate that city’s 50th anniversary through special exhibitions, programs, and events.”
These events are part of an ongoing schedule of activities at Vulcan in connection with the anniversary; on October 31, 2012, VPM presented an education symposium featuring Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, III, a Titusville native who was jailed as a 12-year-old in 1963 for marching in Birmingham, before growing up to become a respected author and educator, listed this year as one of Time Magazine‘s Top 100 Most Influential People in the World.
That symposium at Vulcan was attended by educators from across the region with the purpose of making the anniversary relevant to students. The symposium inspired participants such as Kimberly Johnson, teacher at Vestavia Hills High School.
“I was genuinely touched and inspired as a teacher as well as educated about what it was really like to be a part of the living fabric of history,” Johnson says of the symposium. “I feel that what I learned at [the] event will help me strengthen the materials and lecture that I bring to my students.”
Vulcan’s effort to inspire children will continue throughout 2013. In February, the artwork of Ramsay High School students will be on display in VPM’s Linn-Henley Gallery as part of the “What Makes the Magic City so Magical?” exhibition. As described by the Gallery’s exhibition schedule, these will be “forward-looking works inspired by 1963 Birmingham” and will depict a “positive aspect of Magic City” that the students find to be inspirational.
For “Imagine Birmingham,” which will be on display at the Linn-Henley Gallery in March, students citywide are invited submit visual artwork that has been inspired by the students’ own interviews with neighbors who experienced the events of 1963 first-hand. Once the exhibition ends on March 24, the artwork will be displayed in downtown storefronts in cooperation with REV Birmingham, “as part of a citywide commemoration of 1963 Birmingham.”
Beginning in April and ongoing until September 30, VPM will host “A Place of Our Own: The Fourth Avenue District, Civil Rights, and the Rise of Birmingham’s Black Middle Class,” an exhibit which acknowledges the vital role that the Fourth Avenue District played in serving as a center for African American business and entertainment in Jim Crow Birmingham. VPM will also be presenting a one-woman play on April 18, as part of their Birmingham Revealed! Series. The play, entitled Crossing Lines, is set during the inaugural meeting of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in 1938 and provides a glimpse into the lives of some of the conference’s participants.
Other plans may be afoot to commemorate the history made in Birmingham 50 years ago. What are they? Time will tell, as will Weld in future stories.