Looking Ahead

“You can’t just look backward fifty years, but must look forward another fifty years,” proclaimed the Birmingham mayor’s special assistant at the commencement of the Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Walk. If there was ever a theme for the day, that was it.

Our morning started with volunteering at the aforementioned Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Walk. Volunteering took many forms, for me that meant one of my favorite forms of volunteer work: face painting. “I want to be a tiger!” “I want to be half-vampire, half-werewolf!” “I want to be blue!” The children’s creativity was astounding, unchecked by the fact that blue wasn’t an ordinary face-painting request, or that vampires and werewolves were mortal enemies according to popular fiction. As the walk continued, a truly diverse group of walkers including white and black, male and female, Christian and Jewish Birminghamians, and a group of eight Gettysburgians walked together around the park: an unchecked, unchallenged display of unity, and how far the community has come in the past fifty years. However, the dilapidated, forgotten buildings in the surrounding skyline reminded the walkers of how far the community still has to go.

After the Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Walk, we headed to activist Bobby D. Freidman’s home where he welcomed us with open arms, and we met Gwen Webb—another relentless activist who started her career in eighth grade by becoming involved in the Birmingham campaign and continued to challenge boundaries by just living her life: marrying a white man and becoming the second African-American woman to join the Birmingham Police force. Together, Bobby and Gwen answered our questions, shared their past, their advice, and their favorite stories with us as we leaned closer and closer, eager to catch every word. Their message was clear: you must be involved in your community. Injustice exists, fight it. . . . and we’re hear to help. With exchanged phone numbers, handshakes, pats on the back, and final photos Bobby and Gwen sent us on our way to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, like all of our experiences today, was incredible. The exhibits outlined Civil Rights history both in Alabama and on a national stage from 1800 through today. Starting with a early images of segregation, we trudged the slight incline of exhibits through segregated classrooms, replica churches, a haunting room including ghostly images of the variety of individuals opposed to school integration, a KKK robe, and burnt cross, before the slope leveled out, opening up on a presentation of the events of the movement itself, then finally reaching a window displaying the contemporary city skyline and a discussion of post 1960’s Birmingham and international Civil Rights injustices. The highlight of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute the guards, particularly Clarence, who his partner described as “older than Pepsi Cola” and “like a radio . . . he just keeps talking until you turn him off.”

Our day in Birmingham was full of colorful and kind individuals like Clarence. We met the next in Kelly Ingram Park, the park across from the Institute where sixty years ago water hoses blew young protesters across the street, driving the bark from the trees. While some spots on the trees still stood bare, an incredible testament to the power of hate, the park had been transformed, including the installation of a monument filled “Freedom Walk.” There, Jeremy, a homeless Birminghamian, gave us a tour and his own interpretation of the monuments and Birmingham’s Civil Rights progress. Jeremy’s interpretation differed from the many other narratives we’d heard during our trip, serving as a poignant reminder of the multi-faceted nature of history.

As we finished our day, reflecting on the past of the Civil Rights Movement, our personal past and what the future held, we headed to Big Daddy’s Dreamland Bar-B-Que. There, Laura, Michael and Signe provided our last example for the day of the power of individuals in the form of a rib-eating contest. Each of the fierce competitors showed outstanding commitment to the challenge at their hands, but at the end of the day there could only be one victor. And the winner was . . . Signe. However, with Michael’s offer for a rematch looming on the horizon we found ourselves again looking toward tomorrow.



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