“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously wrote in April 1963 while in solitary confinement in the Birmingham City Jail, arrested after disobeying a court order prohibiting him and others from protesting segregation in the Alabama city. Though the minister and activist is best known for his “I Have a Dream” speech that was delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial later that year, the nonviolent protests led by King and other civil rights leaders in Birmingham forced the removal of Jim Crow signs, desegregated lunch counters and improved Black employment practices in the city once known as “probably the most thoroughly segregated” in the country.
“Birmingham was that crucible where massive resistance met with an unflinching desire for change,” says Barry McNealy, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s education consultant. “Birmingham delivered change that still ripples today.”
From freedom fighters being blasted by high-pressure water hoses to the arrest of African-American student protestors, some of the most pivotal moments of the civil rights movement unfolded in the Downtown area, now recognized as a national monument. Here, a look at the landmarks shaped during the civil rights movement.
Kelly Ingram Park
Sculptures depicting the most powerful moments of Birmingham’s civil rights movement line the walkways of this park, including those of the water cannons and police dogs unleashed on nonviolent protestors. There’s also a statue of King and one called Four Spirits, commemorating the four girls who died in the church bombing. Back then, activists sometimes organized in the park. Today, visitors can listen to an audio tour accessed online or via phone.
Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame
When the building opened as a theater in 1935, it was one of the few that screened first-run films for the African-American community during segregation. Equal parts museum and historic entertainment venue, today this art deco-style hall of fame pays homage to the jazz greats who overcame much adversity to bring their music to the world, including Alabama natives such as Nat King Cole.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
At BCRI, multimedia exhibits detail the fight for civil rights from the 1950s to the movement’s impact and continued struggles in the 2000s. King’s rise is recounted with artifacts, including the actual bars from the prison cell where he wrote his famous Birmingham jailhouse letter.
Jefferson County Courthouse
Martin Luther King, Jr., was imprisoned 29 times in his life. Though he wrote “Letter From Birmingham Jail” from the city jail, he was incarcerated for three days at the county jail on the courthouse’s seventh floor. Last year, work began to preserve the remaining jail cells and create a new visitor experience. The building still functions as a courthouse to this day.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
Shortly after the spring 1963 protests, four girls died in a Ku Klux Klan bombing at Birmingham’s first Black church. King delivered the eulogy at their joint funeral, calling them “the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity.” Today, visitors can sit in the pews for Sunday service or book a tour to learn more of its history.