This photo was taken from a porch of an empty house across the street from Bethel Baptist Church. It was our first full day in Birmingham – or “Bombingham” as it has come to be known. We started at Bethel Baptist, which is under construction. Bethel Baptist was Fred Shuttlesworth’s church – and if you follow the life of Shuttlesworth, you understand why Birmingham is referred to as “Bombingham.” And a neighborhood near his church, a middle class mixed race neighborhood, came to be known as “Dynamite Hill.”
Shuttlesworth co-founded the SCLC with MLK. When the Freedom Riders were bludgeoned in and outside of Anniston, it was Shuttlesworth who drove to pick them up, brought them to his home, gave them his bed, kept them going, eventually went with them. There were tons of attempts on his life. He was attacked by the Klan in 1957 when he tried to enroll his kids in an all white school. His church was bombed. His parsonage was bombed – he narrowly escaped. During Project C – the big fracas in Birmingham of the dogs and firehoses fame, Shuttlesworth was pinned up against the wall of the 16th Street Baptist Church by a firehose blasting water at full strength, and had to be taken to the hospital. Ironically the Birmingham Airport is now the Shuttlesworth-Birmingham airport – an airport now named for someone who’s always been on the other side of the bomb.
Pivotal to our whole trip, the next stop was the 16th Street Baptist Church. I knew that four cute little girls had been killed in a Sunday morning bombing, while they got dressed for church. I took pictures while the class listened, and found myself drawn to a hallway. On the pages that follow you’ll see a soft shot of window and stairs – at the time I didn’t know why I was shooting it, I just was. Later I learned that hallway was where the bomb went through the building and in the area below it, now a kitchen, was the dressing room area where the little girls were killed. I let that church tell me what to take pictures of.
If you go to 16th Street – take some quiet time and let the church tell you its story. It will.
Standing on the steps, I took some shots of the intersection and street outside the church, into Kelly Ingram Park. It was amazing to me just how calm it was, is. I wanted to feel calm in the spot that produced maybe the most harrowing images from the Civil Rights Movement – teenagers getting attacked by police dogs, sprayed with the same firehoses that were ripping the bark off of trees.
Again, if you go there, stand on the steps for a minute and listen to the street.
Janice Kelsey, a Birmingham school administrator and teacher met us at the Civil Rights Institute. She told us the story of being a teen-ager and having to sneak off to the sit-ins. She rallied as she was called with the other teens by King, Shuttlesworth, Abernathy and Bevel. And she was arrested too. What moved me so about her story – she drove it home that they were teens, kids really. Rallied by the local DJ’s. The last thing they were expecting was to be met by attack dogs and firehoses as they held hands in the park. Janice gave us each a photo of her group as they waited in jail. Yep – they were kids, teen girls.
I didn’t have any tissues left by the time I got to the Rosa Parks section of the museum, and that’s when I needed them the most. You read about it, and she looks so strong and determined in the pictures but in the museum there was an exhibit that was true to size. Rosa was a tiny thing. And she was dressed for work, coming home from work after what was likely an already long day. Something about her size, and her coat and hat, and the fact that it was the end of her day yet her actions would lead to the beginning of a movement took hold of my soul. I wept a little – but had to disappear for a few to let out a good cry here. Not really sure how anyone could holler at a woman like that, call her names, and try to make her move. I cry as I write this.
Freedom Rider Catherine Burks Brooks walked with us through the Civil Rights museum and spent some time with us afterwards. I loved her. She’s cool, gorgeous, and eclectic. She’s the one who kinda ‘hijacked’ a taxi in Montgomery to get herself and some of her fellow riders out of the mob violence safely. I didn’t know what to say to her, I think she recognized that so she just squeezed my hand and we laughed, I forget what we said. Gorgeous spirited woman and fun to photograph – I had trouble imagining her taking it during the Freedom Rides but she did. I wanted to ask her how she did it but I just couldn’t get the words out. It was an emotional day.
Later we were welcomed by the law firm Haskell-Slaughter so we could listen to attorney Doug Jones. Jones was a US Attorney who served as a special prosecutor in the State of Alabama vs. Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr, and State of Alabama vs. Bobby Frank Cherry, where defendants were convicted of murdering four young black girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Jones made the trial about the church as a victim, and the four girls as a victim and told us about the witnesses who eventually came forward to testify against Blanton and Cherry.
Clearly, justice isn’t easy. But worth it.