The battleground of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, Birmingham, Ala., was bombed so often that it was sometimes referred to as “Bombingham.” Today, this city in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains has overcome this turbulent past and is growing so fast that a more appropriate sobriquet might be “Boomingham.”
Also known as “the magic city” because of its ability to succeed against the odds, Birmingham was the South’s foremost industrial center in the early 1900s until it succumbed to the Great Depression. It rebounded with a mix of manufacturing and service-oriented jobs and a solid pool of scientific professionals to become a vibrant cosmopolitan city with a small-town appeal. Perhaps its greatest strength and strongest appeal now is its cultural diversity. Not only is the Magic City today home to people of various ethnic backgrounds, it also is a popular vacation destination for tourists from all over the world.
As part of the Civil Rights Trail, which also includes sites in Montgomery and Selma, two equally famous Alabama cities, Birmingham is best known internationally for its Civil Rights Institute, which serves as a museum and culture center. The most popular tourist and cultural site in Birmingham, the institute is one of the South’s finest and most important repositories of civil rights history. Visitors can see old water fountains that were marked ‘white’ and ‘colored,’ a lunch counter and other exhibits that symbolized segregation in public places. History lessons on how the city has evolved since the 1960s, as well as photos, videos and audio recordings, give visitors a feel for what life was like during the civil rights era. The cell door where Martin Luther King Jr. wrote the famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” is also housed at the Civil rights Institute.
Located directly in front of the Civil Rights Institute is the Kelly Ingram Park, the central point for grassroots demonstrations in the 1960s. Events that unfolded at the park horrified the nation, especially in May 1963 when Birmingham police and firefighters attacked civil rights demonstrators, beating them with batons and unleashing dogs on the crowd, while the Birmingham Fire Department hosed down the peaceful demonstration with fire extinguishers. Thousands were arrested and jailed, including children as young as six years old. Visitors can take the Freedom Walk tour through the park to view sculptures that capture dramatic moments during some of the demonstrations, such as two children peering through jail bars, a trio of praying ministers, a dog attacking a man and demonstrators being sprayed by firemen’s water hose.
Across the street from Kelly Park stands the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where the most horrific act of violence of the Civil Rights Movement occurred. After a six-year court battle ended in favor of integrating Birmingham schools, opponents bombed the church in 1963, killing four girls who were in the basement preparing for Sunday school. Photos and exhibits in the basement of the church show the damage from the bombing. Pictures honoring the slain girls are also displayed and visitors can watch a video that recounts the incidents surrounding the bombing. A majestic stained-glass window portraying the figure of Christ occupies a prominent place in the church. It is a gift from the people of Wales, Britain, after the bombing.
Another Birmingham church, Bethel Baptist, was a staging ground for meetings during the Civil Rights Movement, under the leadership of Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth. Built in 1926, it was also the headquarters of the Alabama Christians Movement for Human Rights, which used nonviolent tactics to achieve its goals. Bombed three times in six years during the civil rights era, Bethel Baptist is now located a block away from its original site. A statue of Rev. Shuttlesworth stands in front of the Civil Rights Institute in honor of the leaders of Birmingham’s 1963 demonstrations.
Birmingham’s Civil rights Trail also includes the Dynamite Hill Community, where the home of famed civil rights attorney Arthur Shores was bombed, and the Fourth Avenue Business District. The Dynamite Hill Community is home to the Old Sardis Baptist Church, a civil rights meeting place; Tuggle Elementary School, the first Black elementary school in Alabama, which was once an orphanage; and the childhood home of scholar-activist Angela Davis. The Fourth Avenue District shows off a memorial to Eddie Kendrick, an original member of the Temptations singing group, and the Alabama Penny Savings Bank, the first African-American bank in Birmingham.
No visitor should leave Birmingham without seeing the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame at Historic Carver Theatre. This art-deco museum honors great jazz artists with ties to Alabama, such as Erskine Hawkins, who penned “Tuxedo Junction” that became popular worldwide. At Barber Motorsports Park, you can view hundreds of different types of motorcycles and learn about the legends that made the sport what it is today. At Old Car Heaven, a great place for casual dining and entertainment, you can view all types of cars since the automobile came into existence. Another great place for casual dining is the Magnolia at the Highland Hotel Conference complex, with its cozy, modern décor and the sounds of soothing or upbeat music.
A visit to the Magic City is a real treat, especially if you stay at the Tutwiler Hotel, with its timeless exterior that suggests luxury and comfort within. The hotel is nestled in a beautiful urban setting, adjacent to the city’s civic park and bustling financial district. It is a great place to host meetings and events. Following its $9 million preservation makeover in 2007, the Tutwiler offers totally new interiors and furnishings, as well as an innovative slate of services and amenities. The hotel is evidence of how much the city is booming. Each room has a unique layout, with large, wooden windows that open to a view of the city that seems to be an extension of the room.
The Vulcan Park and Museum houses the world’s largest cast iron statue, where visitors can experience a panoramic view of Birmingham on top of Red Mountain. Conveniently located on a plateau between Red Mountain and the heart of downtown is the lively Five Points South, one of Birmingham’s most celebrated historic neighborhoods. Here you will find many restaurants, bars, specialty shops, a hotel and a theater. Other places to visit while in Birmingham include the Birmingham Museum of Art; Alabama Adventure, the state’s first amusement park; the Birmingham Zoo; McWayne Science Center; the Southern Museum of Flight and the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. The city regularly hosts special events worth catching, such as the Side Walk Moving Picture Festival, a celebration of independent cinemas, and City Stages, Birmingham’s popular annual music festival.