The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

by Melannie Svoboda SND on June 30, 2014

While in Alabama a few weeks ago, I went to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute with one of the Benedictine Sisters, Sr. Madeline. Notice, the building is not called a museum although it chronicles the Civil Rights struggle through pictures, film, and artifacts. It’s called an institute since it links the struggle for equality in Birmingham to movements for equality throughout the world. I was deeply moved by my time there, and I’d like to share a few thoughts with you. 

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

When we got there we parked our car on the street right next to the 16th Street Baptist Church where, on September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded killing four young Black girls and injuring 22 others. I got chills as I got out of the car a few feet from where the bomb went off. The event, as tragic as it was, became a turning point for the Civil Rights Movement, eventually leading to the passage of the Civil Rights Act signed by President Johnson on July 2, 1964.  Diagonal to the church is a park with beautiful sculptures of the four girls: Addie (14), Cynthia (14), Carole (14), and Denise (11).

Our self-guided tour began with the “Barriers Gallery” which depicts the contrast between the life of Whites and Blacks in Birmingham from 1920 to 1954: separate water fountains, separate schools, separate neighborhoods, and separate employment opportunities. The remaining galleries took us through 1955 to 1962, highlighting the various confrontations of the movement.

One part has the actual door from the jail cell where Martin Luther King, Jr., was incarcerated when he came to Birmingham to support the non-violent demonstrations. On the wall is a letter addressed to him from the clergymen of the churches in Birmingham calling his actions “unwise and untimely.” They ask King to stop the demonstrations and to negotiate instead. The signatures include clergy of various Christian Churches (including the Catholic Bishop) and a Rabbi. Sister Madeline informed me that later that Catholic Bishop publicly repented for having signed that letter and became very active in the Civil Rights Movement.

When I got home I went online and read King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” his reply to those clergymen. In it he answers their arguments one by one. He notes that they deplore the demonstrations but not the unjust conditions that led to the

Depiction of Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus.

Depiction of Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus.

demonstrations. He states he cannot follow their advice “to wait,” saying that “wait” has almost always meant “never.”

Through pictures, film clips, and life-size sculptures, the Institute chronicles the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Bus Ride to Freedom, the struggle for the right to vote, and The March on Washington. At the end of our tour, I asked myself, “Where was I when all of this was going on?”

In the 50’s and early 60’s I was on that small farm in Willoughby Hills, Ohio, seemingly far removed from the violence in Birmingham, Montgomery, and Jackson. But our area too had injustices with regard to race—though not as overt as those in the South. I do remember seeing pictures on TV of dogs and fire hoses being used on demonstrators and I was appalled that this was happening in my country. And I was amazed at the courage of those “freedom riders” and those first Black students being escorted by the National Guard into those previously White schools past angry mobs shouting all kinds of terrible things at them.

On September 15, 1963, the day of the bombing of that Baptist Church, I was already a first-year novice. That day was also my first nameday celebration as a nun, the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. Back in those days, we novices were totally cut off from all newspapers, radio, and TV so I probably didn’t learn of this incident until later.

The sculpture (entitled "The Four Spirits) of the four young girls killed in the September 15, 1963 bombing.

The sculpture (entitled “The Four Spirits) of the four young girls killed in the September 15, 1963 bombing.

My visit to the Civil Rights Institute made me realize just how bad things were for non-Whites in my own country. It made me appreciate those individuals—both Blacks and Whites—who risked their lives through non-violent demonstrations to win equal rights for citizens who were being denied them. It also made me more aware of some of the movements for human rights in our own day—both in the US. and beyond. I ask myself, what am I doing about these issues: racism, poverty, war, ecology, abortion, immigration reform, women’s rights, capital punishment, human trafficking?

I realize some of you are too young to remember the Civil Rights movement. But if you are old enough to remember, what do you remember about these events while they were taking place?

As we Americans celebrate Independence Day on July 4th, it is good for us to give thanks for the freedoms we already have and for the many individuals who secured these freedoms for us. It is also good for us to ask God to give us the grace to work tirelessly to insure these same freedoms for others.

Any thoughts about all of this?

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Kathleen Magiera June 30, 2014 at 6:36 am

Thanks for sharing your visit to the institute Sr. Melannie. Places like the institute remind mw where we came from in this country regarding injustice. I was touched that the Catholic bishop repented for signing the letter. There is always room for a second chance.

Kathleen

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Melannie Svoboda SND July 1, 2014 at 2:07 pm

Dear Kathleen, I was also touched by that bishop who publicly repented for signing that letter to King. You say, “There is always room for a second chance.” I agree wholeheartedly. The incident reminds us of a saying I like: “Being truly human is so challenging, no one gets it right ever time.” I appreciate your writing! Sr. Melannie

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Tom June 30, 2014 at 10:27 am

As July 4th approaches, I appreciate the reminder that I should also reflect on all these battles on the home front, which may have had more validity than those we have engaged in around the world, often with less than worthy motives.

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Melannie Svoboda SND July 1, 2014 at 2:05 pm

Dear Tom, Yes, those “battles on the home front” deserve our prayers and attention…And you’re right to raise the question of our motives for engaging in battles all over the world…Thanks! Melannie

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Skip Meadows June 30, 2014 at 10:50 am

Your comments also awakened my thoughts about how I could stand by and let this happen. I was taking care of my first son, born in March of 1963, and I must have been selfishly in my own little world. Thanks for reminding me.

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Melannie Svoboda SND July 1, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Dear Skip, Please do not be too hard on yourself. I can’t think of anything more selfless than to have and raise a child! Sr. Melannie

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Lisa Mitchell June 30, 2014 at 11:04 am

Hi Sr. Melanie!
Thank you for taking the time to write a reflection on your visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. I don’t remember too much at the time, (I was 7 years old and in my own little world I think) but I do remember that there were some race riots in my own town and saw those pictures on TV without having much understanding of the why behind it. My current work involves assisting any kind of organization, congregation or business to create racism-free workplace environments. We have a lot of work to do to eliminate the racism that exists and is embedded in the fabric of our society. We continue to need voices like yours! Thank you!

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Melannie Svoboda SND July 1, 2014 at 2:02 pm

Dear Lisa, I’m impressed by your work. Thank you for reminding us that “racism exists and is embedded in the fabric of society.” It’s the “unacknowledged sin” that is the most harmful, isn’t it? May God bless you and your work! Sr. Melannie

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Celeste Albers June 30, 2014 at 11:30 am

I entered the Great Bend Dominicans on August 28th of 1963 and I too heard no news of all that was going on in the civil rights movement at that time. However, we did get to watch television when Kennedy was killed because of great benefactors who brought in several tv’s -small at that time–so that several could be set up throughout the convent. Now I am more motivated than ever to serve on our Immigration committee of our newly formed Dominican Sisters of Peace. I have worked with undocumented people in the parishes where I have served and have seen the terror in their eyes when rumors have spread that the INS is coming to the town. And we all see how devastatingly slow any kind of immigration reform is happening. But with mentors like Martin Luther King, we will continue to work together to do everything we can to help these people. Thanks so much for your reflection. I had no idea that this institute existed, but it is now on my bucket list to see. Thanks so much for your weekly reflections. They open my eyes to new realities! Peace to you!

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Melannie Svoboda SND July 1, 2014 at 2:00 pm

Dear Celeste, Yes, we too had a TV brought into the novitiate so we could watch the funeral of President Kennedy. (It was quickly removed afterwards!) I applaud you for working on immigration reform. Good thing we have many “mentors” who give us the courage and wisdom to carry on even in the face of many obstacles…I wish you blessings on your work! …And I’m glad you like this blog! Thanks again! Melannie

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Mary Mitchell June 30, 2014 at 3:25 pm

Thank you for your reflections, Melanie. Your experience sounds similar to what I felt in Memphis this past Palm Sunday when I visited the National Civil Rights Museum, attached to the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was assassinated. It was a true Passion Sunday experience for me. I was fairly young in the ’60s and only vaguely aware of the civil rights struggle until MLK was killed. Your blog today especially touched me by reminding me that children who were my own age were participants, witnesses, and even innocent victims.
And continue to be as the struggle continues throughout the world….

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Melannie Svoboda SND July 1, 2014 at 1:55 pm

Dear Mary, I’ve heard about the museum in Memphis and I’d love to visit it someday. I’d also love to see the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. It was designed by the same woman who designed the Vietnam Memorial in DC. Yes, the Civil Rights movement had many young people in it–even children. The Freedom Bus riders were often college students. PBS ran several documentaries about them these past few weeks. I was amazed at how young some were. And you make a good point that children are often the innocent victims of injustice and violence. And yes, the struggle continues on…Thanks for responding, Mary! Sr. Melannie

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Maggie Dunn June 30, 2014 at 3:37 pm

My husband was a history lover. We too were in Alabama and visited the sight of the bombing. Close by was a commemorative fountain. It wasn’t real visible it seems. We walked back off the street to view it. It was made of black marble with the water coming up in the center and flowing over the names of those who had lost their lives in their efforts for equality. And behind it was water flowing over these words.
“Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
It was such an emotional event for me for I too had been a young Mother of 5 and wondered how I hadn’t followed all this more closely. I will never forget that day and was so grateful my husband took us there. He isn’t living but if he were I would have had him read today’s sharing. He would want to take another trip. 🙂 And so do I to learn more.
Thank you Sister for all your sharings. Hope you can come to Ventura, Ca. one day. Your Sisters in Thousand Oaks are so close by!! We would love to have you give a retreat in our area.

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Melannie Svoboda SND July 1, 2014 at 1:51 pm

Dear Maggie, Thank you for giving us more details about this site. I’m glad your visit to this place was “an emotional event” for you too…If I ever return to California to give a talk or retreat you can be sure I’ll post it on my blog! Sr. Melannie

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Jean Shott June 30, 2014 at 4:30 pm

We lived in a racially mixed neighborhood Cleveland in the 60’s. I was a teenager. Though it was mixed, it wasn’t “stable” – it was mixed because blacks were moving in and whites were moving out. Our house had been sold to a black family, but we hadn’t yet moved out. The Hough riots were happening, and the family asked if they could move some things in to get them out of harm’s way. Our freedoms had been somewhat curtailed due to the changing nature of the neighborhood, but I never worried about the house being fire-bombed. I didn’t worry about drive-by shootings, but I later found out my parents were concerned about possible gunfire from the next-door neighbor’s house.
I can’t imagine the full impact daily violence has on the people who live in that area. Another blessing I hadn’t recognized.

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Melannie Svoboda SND July 1, 2014 at 1:47 pm

Dear Jean, Yes, I remember your house, but, back then, I wasn’t aware of how unstable the neighborhood was. You remind all of us of an important point: what is “the full impact” that violence has on people’s lives? Many people live in very frightening conditions. Thanks again for writing! Your cousin, Dolly

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Christina Ross July 14, 2014 at 2:24 pm

Dear Sr. Melannie, I had the pleasure of attending the retreat at Sacred Heart in Cullman. Today was the first I took time to find and read your blog. It was on my “to do” list. 🙂 Having moved to Birmingham 22 years ago from Pennsylvania, attending the Civil Rights Institute and the 16th St. Baptist Church was a high priority for me. I was 12 years old in 1963, attended a Catholic grade school and I remember being so appalled at what was going on in the south. Our family had several “colored folks” ( the term used in the 60’s rather than Negro, Black or African American ) who we employed as “the Help”. I truly loved them. I remember them as family, like my grandparents, whom I never knew. They loved us and we loved them. So I couldn’t imagine treating other humans the way they were treated at that time, in the south. I remember the television reports. I was proud of the work that JFK and the OTHERS were able to accomplish with regard to Civil Rights and Justice. There is still so much to be done, here in our country and in other countries. LOVE your blog. Enjoying your books too. God Bless you. Chris P.S. This past November I saw a professional presentation entitled “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” There was a professional actor who played MLK, and the roles for the clergy were portrayed by local business professionals. This performance toured throughout the state. At each of the different locations “locals” played the roles of the clergy. It was a very powerful presentation. Before that I had never read the Letter from the Birmingham Jail. I applaud you for researching it.

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Dorothy August 4, 2014 at 1:25 pm

Sister Melannie, You visited the Civil rights Museum after the 1 day Retreat in Cullman that I attended. I surely reaped rewards from your program & prayers of the day. Coming from Michigan a few years ago I really have had my eyes opened to past history in the south & elsewhere. May God continue to bring us leaders with His Grace to follow in the Lords footsteps. God Bless your ministry.

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