As Birmingham’s yearlong commemoration of its civil rights history reaches a climax this week, the international community prepares to make the Magic City the beginning of a worldwide conversation on human rights.
Representatives of the United Nations and the United States Department of State are expected to announce Wednesday that what happened in Birmingham half a century ago will become a key point in discussions with world leaders on human rights.
“It’s a conversation as to how we can recognize and coalesce together and appreciate our diversity,” said Birmingham Mayor William Bell. “Oftentimes we look at diversity as being a barrier, when really, we need to embrace the differences in order for us to find our commonalities.”
Although the full shape of the UN’s global conversation is not yet clear, Bell said that “here in Birmingham, they want to highlight the fact that it is a diverse community, it is a place that you can coalesce together regardless of your social background, and I think that they will do that across the world.”
Birmingham’s international impact is the reason Birmingham has been invited to be a part of the UN’s ongoing Do One Thing for Diversity and Inclusion event, the mayor said. “If you think back to what existed in our community 50 years ago, many people thought Birmingham would never change. Many people thought that the bombings, the killings, the maimings, the jailings would always continue.
“We stand today as a beacon of hope,” Bell said, “especially for citizens around the world who may be in oppressed situations where they think bombings will never stop in Afghanistan, murders will never stop in Iraq, Syria will never come together. But they only have to look at Birmingham to see that when good men and women really want to make changes, it can happen.”
The UN announcement comes as Birmingham’s Empowerment Week is in full swing, bookended by commemorations of national tragedies set in different eras: The 12th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the 50th anniversary of the horrific bombing September 15, 1963 that took the lives of four young girls at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Throughout 2013, Birmingham politicians, activists, churches, schools and other institutions have been commemorating what has been labeled “50 Years Forward,” referring to the half century since 1963. That year saw Civil Rights demonstrations take center stage through the Birmingham Movement led by Martin Luther King and Fred Shuttlesworth along with other ministers from the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. That movement was given its mass by thousands of rank and file “foot soldiers,” men, women and children who staged sit-ins, pickets and protest marches in Birmingham’s streets, only to be attacked by police and their dogs and firemen with water cannons.
That year, King was arrested and wrote his seminal “Letter from Birmingham Jail”; the international community became riveted by the pivotal April and May mass demonstrations that led to the crippling of legal segregation in the city; arch-segregationist Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor was removed from office by the electorate; and Birmingham suffered a series of bombings by the Klan that only ended after the church was dynamited and national leaders were shaken into action.
Empowerment Week “gives us an opportunity to look back at the city’s history and who we were,” Bell said, “but also it gives us greater appreciation for who we are today and the impact that we made – that this city has made – not just from a local perspective, but from a national and international perspective.”
An important aspect of the week’s many panel discussions and symposiums is the convening of “representatives of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, who will be coming here to have discussions about what it is that we still need to do in order to combat racism in our cities throughout the country and that Birmingham is representative of what a city can be,” Bell said. “Oftentimes we look back at our tragic history just from the negative side. But I like to remind people that it made good men and women come together, both black and white across religious lines, to say, ‘How can we change our society from a society where we allow our churches to be bombed and innocent children to be killed?’”
Bell cited an often quoted fact: when Nelson Mandela visited Birmingham some years ago, he noted how the Civil Rights victories won here gave him encouragement during the dark days of his struggle against apartheid. “It gave him the assurance that if change could come to Birmingham and the American South, then change could come to South Africa as well.”
The diversity in 21st century Birmingham is due, in large part, to the attraction of the acclaimed research going on at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Whereas once we had a society that was just broken down between black and white, now we have a lot of browns, we have a lot of reds, we have a lot of yellows,” Bell said. “We have a rainbow of fabric here in this city and each culture brings something special and different to the table. And that’s what makes us the Birmingham who we are today and we need to share that, and I think the UN wants to capitalize on that in other places around the world as well.”
The activities slated for Empowerment Week, bringing together locals, visitors, celebrities, dignitaries and a wide range of events, are designed to connect the city to its past. But the activities are also designed to draw inspiration from the most dramatic and impactful events being commemorated: the terrorist attacks on New York and at a Birmingham church.
Bell noted that as the shocking attacks unfolded in New York and at the Pentagon, Americans came together despite their differences. “We forgot about whether we were black or white, Asian, Catholic, Christian, Muslim – everyone came together to say, ‘No, we are Americans.’
“A day of service is to remind us again that we are still Americans and we are our brothers’ keepers and as part of the American way of life and that citizenship that we have we must always find time to give back.”
The mayor said that the first day of Empowerment Week, designed to bring masses of Birminghamians together in a series of joint public projects and civic improvement efforts , helps connect people to the lessons to be learned from the tragedies.
“The further we move away from that event, from Sept. 11, 2001, the less people may remember about it,” Bell said. “The same thing about what happened here in the city 50 years ago. New generations don’t fully understand the impact of what was happening then. They don’t have an appreciation for signs over a water fountain that says, ‘Colored,’ or ‘White only.’ They can’t have an appreciation of riding public transportation but being required to sit in a certain location, the idea that you’re restricted in your travel, that you can’t ride a Greyhound bus with other races. Well, all that’s gone. But it’s gone because of the sacrifices that were made. It’s gone because people said, ‘We can’t live like that.’ And the day of service will remind us again of who we are as a nation.”
Empowerment Week Activities
There are a host of activities planned for Empowerment Week. Here are some of the highlights, taken from the 50 Years Forward website.
September 12-14: The National Conference on Civil Rights: “50 Scholars Speak on the 50th” will take place at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex with collaborative discussions between scholars, foot soldiers and young people about civil rights. The panels will include 10 mayors from Civil Rights/Sister Cities “planning a first time national cultural heritage tourism network.” The event will include the announcement of the winner of a national design competition for a Monument to Foot Soldiers, which will be located at Kelly Ingram Park.
Wednesday Sept. 11 – A Day of Service
— More than 5,000 volunteers from the faith-based organizations, companies, colleges, universities, the city and civic organizations are expected to clean up city parks, libraries and communities throughout the city.
— Volunteers will gather at Kelly Ingram Park and share stories of “restoration and renewal’’ at 4 p.m. as Trinity Broadcasting Network collects footage to telecast to an international audience estimated at 2 billion. The broadcast will feature appearances by Grammy award-winning gospel singers CeCe Winans and Donnie McClurkin, the Rev. Bernice King and actor Clifton Davis, among others.
9 a.m.-2:30 p.m.: Volunteers take part in Day of Service Projects
4-6 p.m.: Local musical acts perform at Kelly Ingram Park
6-8 p.m.: Evening of “Commemoration and Praise” with TBN
Thursday Sept. 12 – A Day of Reflection
The U.S. Conference of Mayors will join civic leaders to discuss events surrounding the 1963 Movement and the progress made since in America. Panel discussions will be held at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church throughout the day.
9 a.m.-noon: Morning Panels on “Reaching Economic Justice” followed by
“Building Tolerance” at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
Noon: U.S. Conference of Mayors Press Conference, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
12:30-2 p.m.: Luncheon at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
1:45-3 p.m.: Panel on Civil Rights/Legal Impact
3:10-4:25 p.m.: Panel on Civil Rights/Education
5-7 p.m.: Premiere Screening of The Watsons Go to Birmingham: Road Trip of a Lifetime at the Alabama Theatre.
8-10 p.m.: “A Walk to Freedom: We Remember” concert in Linn Park.
Friday Sept. 13 – A Day of Restoration
Internationally known civic and opinion leaders and mayors from around the world will join U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell to address the movement and its effects on international human rights at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
— Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will address the movement’s impact in afternoon sessions.
— Members of the National Conference of Black Mayors will lead civil rights and human rights panel discussion at the church.
10-11:30 a.m.: Panel on Civil Rights/National Impact at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
Composed of U.S. Congressional Representatives led by Sewell.
1-3:10 p.m.: Panel on Civil Rights/International Impact
Led by Rice, webcast from Regions Bank.
3:45-5:45 p.m.: Panel on Civil Rights/Human Rights Impact at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
7-10 p.m.: U.S. Conference of Mayors Uptown Cityfest
Bands representing Sacramento, New Orleans, Birmingham and Philadelphia will perform at the Uptown Entertainment District. Todd English P.U.B. will be open and various food trucks will be on hand. Free and open to the public.
Saturday Sept. 14 – A Day of Reconciliation
— Bill Cosby and other national arts, culture and entertainment figures will host conversations and a screening on the movement and its effects at the BJCC.
— A diversity fair with career workshops, cooking demonstrations, a Kids’ Zone, art display and vendors and entertainment from various cultures will be held at the BJCC.
— The BBVA Compass Concert for Human Rights, co-produced by Live Nation, will include an all-star list of musicians and comedians at the BJCC, 7 p.m.
10 a.m.-4 p.m.: Diversity Fair
10 a.m.-noon: Emerging Young Leaders Community Summit
6 p.m.: VIP Reception before BBVA Compass Concert for Human Rights
8 p.m.: BBVA Compass Concert for Human Rights
All day: International Civil Rights Food Festival with Birmingham International Center and International Sister Cities
Guest performers celebrate “Birmingham’s present cultural diversity.”
Kelly Ingram Park Light and Sound Show
Preparation for Sunday’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Sunday Sept. 15 – A Day of Commemoration
— A 3 p.m. worship service to commemorate the day will be held at the church.
— After church, live theatrical events will be held at Kelly Ingram Park, Linn Park and Railroad Park, each park representing either Birmingham’s past, present or future.
— Special presentations saluting Birmingham’s Civil Rights foot soldiers and the four girls will be made in Kelly Ingram Park.
Noon: Family Reunion/Expo with the Greater Birmingham Area Convention and Visitors Bureau at the Breezeway of Regions Field Stadium
12:30-4 p.m.: Eric Holder and Condoleezza Rice Panel and Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963, both at UAB’s Alys Stephens Center
In one of the most important commemorations for the 50th anniversary of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing, the Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center (ASC) will present a panel of eminent political minds, followed by a staged reading of Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963, in a combined event on Sunday, September 15.
U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and political scientist, author, former secretary of state and Birmingham native Condoleezza Rice will speak at 12:30 p.m. The discussion will be moderated by UAB President Ray L. Watts.
After 20-minute intermission, Alys Stephens and ArtPlay will join Project1Voice, the Kennedy Center and theater companies and groups across the country for a reading of Christina M. Ham’s play Four Little Girls: Birmingham 1963 in the center’s Jemison Concert Hall. ArtPlay’s teen Make It Happen Performing Ensemble and ArtPlay students will participate in the staged reading, along with a multi-generational cast of community actors and performers.
The play portrays Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Addie Mae Collins, four girls who share their hopes and dreams against the backdrop of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. Then, of course, it all comes crashing down when the girls are killed by a bomb while preparing for Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church’s Youth Day service.
Though the event is free, would-be attendees need to reserve their place by calling (205) 975-2787 and ordering a ticket.
3 p.m.: Commemorative Program for the 50th Anniversary of the church bombing, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
3-6 p.m.: Birmingham Originals’ Taste of Birmingham Food Festival, located at the First Avenue South edge of Railroad Park
5-6 p.m. TBN entertainers The Power Hour at Kelly Ingram Park
Hosted by Mayor William Bell and Arthur Blessitt, featuring guests Rod Parsley and Pastor George Matthews and singers.
6:30 p.m.: American Idols Concert at Linn Park
Featuring Ruben Studdard, Taylor Hicks and Sarah Evans.
8 p.m. Alabama Symphony, local youth choirs and Jeremy Rosado in concert at Railroad Park