By Jeffreen Hayes
Although many of her residents do not believe this, Birmingham is a special place. Since arriving in the Magic City, I have come to know and understand what makes the city so special: the community. Without the horrors of 1963, I would not have had the pleasure of getting to the good, the bad and the ugly of Birmingham. All of these make up the city’s personality. As an outsider — the Mellon Fellow at the art museum — the good welcomed me in without hesitation.
The Birmingham of 1963 provided me an opportunity to move to the city and develop programming related to the public recognition of the Birmingham Movement for the museum. During my tenure, several new and old friends asked me, “What made you choose Birmingham?” For a while, I could not articulate exactly why, except for the job opportunity. After spending the past year and half here, however, I can now express why I chose Birmingham.
As time went on, I realized that as much as I chose Birmingham, Birmingham chose me. Our relationship began my junior of high school when participated in a Black History Bowl. My teammates selected me to cover the history portion, which was probably the hardest section because everything black folks do is somewhat historic, given the difficulty of achieving success due to inequality. To prepare for the bowl, I checked out several books from my public library. I certainly could not rely on my high school textbook for accurate and detailed information pertaining to the contributions of black Americans.
The material that left a lasting impression on me was Eyes on the Prize (both the documentary and the book). I had never seen images like that before: black people demonstrating their dignity and working together, all for the right to be seen and respected as human beings, and withstanding the brutal force against them having what was rightfully theirs. Birmingham’s struggles were front and center — and disturbing — but stayed in my consciousness all of these years. The imagery and what it meant made me do something I never did before: I kept the library book and to this day, it resides at my childhood home. Even though I am a post-Civil Rights baby, I could not bear to let go of a moment that shaped my being.
Fast forward some 20 years, and I am now part of the community that I saw and read so much about over the years. Just as I did then, I feel some of that pain and I feel the weight of the struggle. There is no way for me to fully understand and know what Birmingham was like in the 1960s. I respect the sacrifices, however. I respect those who were on the frontlines of the Movement. I respect those in the shadows who supported the Movement.
Without them, I would not be where I am professionally: a black woman with a doctorate from a public Ivy whose own history with black people is extremely fraught, working in the visual arts as an arts professional in the position to influence change. No, I would not be who and what I am without Birmingham 1963. And because of this, I speak and I fight for equality.
Birmingham gave me permission to speak up and speak out. Actually, Birmingham implores me to speak up and speak out. After all, the hard work was already done. So I do, without thinking about the consequences or whether someone likes being called out for their _____-ist tendencies or attitudes. For this, I am grateful to the Birmingham of 1963: thank you.
Jeffreen Hayes is the Mellon Fellow and curator of African-American art at the Birmingham Museum of Art.