A few weeks ago, I traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, with thirty members of my Unitarian Universalist church for a conference on race. The Living Legacy Project, a national UU committee was hosting “Marching in the Arc of Justice” the same weekend as the 50th anniversary of the March on Selma. And so over five hundred UUs would also be marching in the re-enactment of crossing the bridge with 80,000 others that Sunday. From Thursday through Sunday (although I didn’t arrive until very late Friday night), our conference took place at the Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center in downtown Birmingham. As a few of us took a break from the workshops to make the short jaunt to the Civil Rights Institute, the first thing I noticed was how desolate the streets were. No one was out walking. Cafes, barber shops, and stores were all closed. It was a Saturday, a beautiful 70 degree day for this Minneapolis gal used to temps below zero in March, and no one was outside to enjoy it.
When we arrived at the first bench I spied to take a rest at in Kelly Ingram Park, just across the street from the Institute, there were a few people doing the audio tour of the sculptures in the park that tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. The sit-ins at the lunch counters, the boycotting of the downtown stores, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls, Bull Connor’s brutal methods of attacking the foot soldiers who were marching for their rights as black citizens…These facts and photos were all a part of our history books. If Birmingham’s movement helped build the momentum for the March on Selma, why weren’t there any events scheduled there?
The bleakness even on this beautiful sunny day reminded me of downtown St. Paul, our state capital, where my family and I used to spend many a weekend when we lived in Forest Lake, about half an hour away from the metro area. My younger brother, parents and I would drive down to find the best honeydew melons and cheese at the Farmer’s Market. Then we’d head over to Dayton’s where we would look more than buy, with the possibility of having lunch at The River Room. If not, we’d walk to Town Square just up the street where this nine-year old girl loved having her choice of foods from a plethora of cafes. There were people milling about everywhere, and those who could afford it were definitely shopping ’til they dropped. Families were together en masse, just enjoying being downtown together.
Thirty years later, downtown St. Paul is sadly now a ghost town and has been for many years. Town Square is gone. Dayton’s is gone. The people are gone. When we drive down the street, I see restaurants that are closed at least half of the day because there aren’t enough customers to warrant keeping them open. The pharmacy where Dad worked across from The Ordway has been closed for a long time. In fact, I don’t know if the building where the storefront of Moudry Apothecary Shop once stood, the one where Dad filled prescriptions every day, is even there anymore. It is a sad place for me to be, because I remember the days when this city truly thrived. I recall memories of Grandma J. driving down from South Dakota to be with us and loving every moment we would spend together. And I will always cherish those memories. While downtown St. Paul is architecturally one of the most beautiful cities in the world, I yearn for the days when business was booming and people gathered to meet, greet, and eat with one another. I fear this downtown has been forgotten, just like that of Birmingham. While I am by no means an expert on the current state of the cities of Alabama, Southern Congressman John Lewis also reflected on his own observations in his memoir “Walking with the Wind”, regarding how desolate these areas seem when he goes back to visit them now. Other than our conference on this particular weekend, everyone else was just stopping through on their tour buses as they made their way to Montgomery or Selma, where all of the commemorating events were taking place.
While it felt odd at the time, I had to know for sure. Birmingham surely couldn’t have been forgotten when it came to honoring such a pivotal time in our history as Americans. When I got home, I googled “Events in Birmingham for March on Selma”. And what did I get? The only event was an exhibit I had seen at the Civil Rights Institute of photographs a man named Spider Martin had taken during the original three marches in Selma in 1965. In fact, I am positive that a couple of those photographs had been in my history books as a child. While it was an emotionally moving exhibit, Birmingham seemed to have gotten the short end of the stick when it came to this significant anniversary. In my mind, it was about all the courageous acts that led up to those moments too.
Perhaps, the organizers of the March on Selma felt that Birmingham’s time to shine had already been captured in 2013, when they commemorated their own 50th anniversary of the bombing of the church, among other things. But to me, these are all pieces to the same puzzle. Without Birmingham, there wouldn’t have been a Selma. Without Montgomery, there wouldn’t have been a Birmingham. Any time we are given opportunities to reflect upon the heros and heroines of the Civil Rights Movement, in addition to the racism that still exists today, we need to embrace that chance with every part of our beings. Conversations lead to actions. We must act with our feet like the foot soldiers in Birmingham, not kick back and turn on the tv because there’s only enough room to commemorate one city at a time. As I continued to dig for information, I discovered that the city of Birmingham wasn’t the only thing that was forgotten.