After my disappointment in Memphis at only getting to see part of the Civil Rights Museum, I was glad to hear the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham had also received rave reviews. The museum begins with a short film about the history and origins of the “separate but equal” state we found ourselves in during the 20th century. The last shot of the film shows a set of water fountains – one for blacks and one for whites. The screen then rises up and reveals a set of matching replicas that mark the entrance to the museum. Because a person could walk on either side of the constructed fountains, it almost seemed to imply that one entrance was for whites and one for blacks. Most of the other patrons watching the film were black, and walked on the side marked with the black fountain. Whether this was by choice, accident, or unconscious implication I’m not sure. I crossed to the other side of the theater to follow them, even though it was more crowded. In the end, no one entered on the white side.
The museum has replicas of black and white school houses, info boards about important court decisions, and old advertisements that played on black stereotypes. There’s a full Ku Klux Klan robe on display with a placard listing it as an “anonymous donation.” At one point I walked into a room filled with faceless, life-sized human figures etched in glass. Over the speakers I heard voices reciting the old white sentiments of the era, and a projector showed the words on the wall. Some were polite. “I don’t believe there is a race problem in Alabama.” Others were not. “I don’t want my kids in school with niggers.” Other museum patrons passed through the room as I stood there, staring at the wall. I couldn’t move. I listened to the whole horrific tape, only leaving when it began to loop. I wanted to cry.
The exhibits continued, talking about bus boycotts and freedom riders. More-so than in most history books, the institute gives a sense of the danger of the time. These were protests that could end your life. This was a world in which you could be murdered by a mob and no one would stop them. A world where fighting for justice meant dying without it. Walking out of the Institute, two different black men nodded hello to me as I passed them on the street. I thought about the things I’d read inside. For a black man in the south in the 1950s, looking at a white woman the wrong way could get you killed.
I had lunch at Miss D’s, a soul food place down the street that was recommended to me by my host. He told me it was a classic “meat and three,” meaning a serving of meat plus three kinds of vegetables. The definition of vegetable was pretty broad however, and encompassed any number of other side dishes. I sat down with my comforting plate full of starch, the only white person in the restaurant. It was two days after the Treyon Martin verdict, and the story was playing on the TV. The newscaster was speaking with viewers who would call in with their two cents, and a man on the telephone was saying, “I can’t believe that in 2013 we’re still talking about racisim.” The host seemed to stumble a bit, and I will admit I also wasn’t sure what sentiment the man was trying to get across. There was an awkward pause before he elaborated that it seemed to him that we should be done with this already, and that we sorted out this kind of racism a long time ago. I remembered a video I’d seen inside the institute. An older white woman from the 1950s was saying how she didn’t think they had a problem with prejudice in Birmingham. She told a story about her involvement organizing an art contest for children, and the winner was a young black boy. When the boy and his family tried to visit the exhibit where his art was on display, they were turned away. They were not allowed in to see the art. They contacted this woman to explain the situation, she made a few phone calls, and the family was let in. She didn’t see that it was much of a problem. It was just a misunderstanding and besides, everything worked out in the end.
Across the street from the Civil Rights Institute is Kelly Ingram Park, which hosts a number of commemorative statues, especially in reference to the violence against the Children’s March that took place there in 1963. On TripAdvisor, many people had recommended the park for it’s beautiful and moving statues, but complained that there were an awful lot of panhandlers there. When I first walked up to the park, an older black man approached me. In my normal life I admit that I probably would have done my best to ignore him and get him to go away. But I’m on an adventure, and standing in broad daylight twenty feet from a parked police car seemed as good a place as any to start a conversation with a homeless man. His first words were to let me know that he was not a danger and not trying to hassle me, and then asked if I was about to see the park. I told him I was, and he offered to walk with me inside for awhile. He gestured to the statues and said he was about 8 years old “when all this happened.” He’s lived in Birmingham ever since. I asked him if things had changed, and he said yes, they certainly have. He hesitated as though he was about to say more, but then only repeated, “Yes, they have.” At one point in our conversation he asked if he could have twenty dollars, and I told him I could give him one dollar. I handed it over and we talked some more. After a while he told me he should probably go sit down somewhere, because to be honest, he was “a little drunk.” As he was leaving, he handed the dollar back to me, telling me to have a nice day.
I continued around the park, and found a shady spot next to a fountain to sit down. There were many seemingly homeless people in the park. Most were keeping to themselves. All were black. A man got my attention, but I couldn’t hear him very well. Once again, in my everyday life I probably would have used that as an excuse to ignore him, but instead I got up and went to sit beside him. We talked for awhile, and I learned he was an army veteran. He told me he wasn’t homeless, that he had a home. But his home was a long way out of town, and there was no bus from here to there. He had to be in the city to get his benefits from the V.A., so “this is where I am.” He asked if I could spare $1.36 for him to buy some comfort, and I gave him the dollar the first man gave back to me. He thanked me, and said with an earnestness that I could not help but believe, “this will come back to you two-fold.” As I left I casually said, “Take care of yourself.” He pointed to the sky and replied, “He’s taking care of me.”
I thought a lot about how to end this. I thought about other times in my life I’ve experienced or witness racism. I thought about a busker in Scotland yelling out offensive noises to a friend of mine who sometimes seemed like the only black person in the U.K. I thought about that same friend explaining that his last name comes from the salve holders who owned his family. I thought about George Zimmerman, and how someone had said that if his last name were Martinez we wouldn’t even be talking about it. It reads like a bad tree falling in a forest joke: “if a hispanic man shoots a black man in Florida, does anyone care?” I thought about a friend of mine in high school, whose college admittance essay was about moving from North Dakota to Seattle and encountering racial diversity for the first time. I thought about the church in Mobile, and the park manager in Chickasaw. And I got no where. I can’t think of a single insightful thing to say that hasn’t been said a thousand times before. And that is our legacy in the United States. We can talk it to death and still not fix it. This is something we did that got us where we are, for better and for worse. And sometimes it makes me angry, sometimes I feel guilty, sometimes I don’t even notice, and sometimes I want to cry. And sometimes the best I’ll be able to do is take the word of an old drunk man I met in a park who told me that things have changed. Yes, they have.