I’m traveling with 24 teachers to study the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham Alabama this week (to be honest, it’s 21 at the moment: two missed the flight – one should arrive later tonight, another is hoping to arrive via stand-by connections tomorrow, and the third is AWOL; yet another moment I’m reminded of how much easier it is to do this with adults than children). The Causes of Conflict Teaching American History project focuses on a different historical episode each year: this year, it’s been the Civil Rights Movement. As part of that annual study, there are two History on Location programs – one in the teachers’ region of southwest Washington State (in partnership with the Center for Columbia River History), the other elsewhere in the country (working with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.) This trip to Birmingham (and Montgomery and Selma) marks the first of our national trips.
We’ll spend the week engaged in a variety of activities: lecture/discussions with Georgia State University Professor Glenn Eskew; classroom implementation strategies with Martha Bouyer (who directs the Stony the Road project); panel discussions with Movement “footsoldiers”; tours of historic sites and museums; etc. Take a look at the agenda for greater detail.
Why Birmingham? The following passages from the two books we’re studying jump out as rationale:
(President) Kennedy identified Birmingham as the turning point when he invited national civil rights leaders to the White House on June 22 (1963) and joked: “I don’t think you should all be totally harsh on Bull Connor. After all he has done more for civil rights than almost anybody else.” (Fred) Shuttlesworth heard the president say something different: “But for Birmingham, we would not be here today.”
Indeed, the response of the federal government convinced national civil rights leaders of the success of the Birmingham campaign. In celebration they planned a national demonstration for later that summer. Integrationists designed the March on Washington to express the hope for the future that filled their hearts.
Paradoxically, the national victory won in the streets of Birmingham did little for many black folk back home.”
Glenn Eskew, But for Birmingham: The Local and National Movements in the Civil Rights Struggle
“(Martin Luther) King’s name never would touch immortality had it not been for Birmingham.”
Fred Shuttlesworth in Howell Raines, My Soul is Rested: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South
Eskew and Raines paint complex and nuanced portraits of a turning point moment in US history likely to deepen students’ engagement with historical inquiry.
Walking through the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute this afternoon, we witnessed the history of Birmingham – from its industrial 1871 origins through the following century. The BCRI included many artifacts of interest (the cell bars behind which Martin Luther King, Jr wrote the Letter; Bull Connor’s tank); many videos (I especially liked a CBS program called “Who Speaks for Birmingham” and dimensional exhibits focusing on Jim Crow living and protests to dismantle it. Highlighted amongst the exhibits were many of the people we’ll be meeting this week. It’s sure to be an exciting, rewarding, and moving week. I hope to report on a daily basis a few of the things I’ve learned and post some photos and audio files.
Final note for the night – though there is always more to say: Friday, Birmingham will hold a ceremony renaming it’s airport after Fred Shuttlesworth, the thorn in segregationist Birmingham’s side for decades. What a change…
Want to read about the rest of the trip?