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Memorial To An Uncivil Era : A Personal Journey to Alabama's new Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, dedicated to remembering what was once 'the most segregated city in America'

April 11, 1993|Anne Whitehouse | Whitehouse is a New York City-based free-lance writer

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — April and May mark the 30th anniversary of the massive civil rights demonstrations led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in this city, once known as "the most segregated city in America." It can be argued that these demonstrations and the fierce resistance they provoked changed white attitudes toward civil rights, and ultimately led to the most comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in American history.

The new Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which opened Nov. 15, was built to serve as a monument to--and a resource about--the thousands of people who were dedicated to the philosophy of nonviolence and risked their lives in struggles and confrontations all over the South.

It was with a mixture of emotions that I visited the institute this year on Dr. King's birthday, Jan. 15. I was born in Birmingham and grew up there during the civil rights era, a white child in the nearby all-white suburb of Mountain Brook. I left 20 years ago and moved north. But back in 1963 I was a 9-year-old elementary school student, and even though I did not participate in the demonstrations, they have indelibly marked my life.

My first conscious awareness of segregation came when I was about 6. My father, a lawyer, had some work to do on a Saturday morning and had asked his secretary to come in to the office. After I promised I wouldn't bother him, he agreed to let me accompany him. We drove downtown to the Brown Marx Building on 20th Street, downtown Birmingham's main thoroughfare, and took the elevator up to the fourth floor. In my father's office, I amused myself for a while drawing pictures and then asked his secretary where the bathroom was. She handed me a key, directed me down the hall, and asked if she should accompany me. "No," I assured her, not wanting to be thought a burden.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 11, 1993 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 4 Metro Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Travel section--Because of an editing error, in some editions of today's Travel section a color photograph on the cover is misidentified as the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The building pictured is the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, across the street from the new Civil Rights Institute.

Following her instructions, I found myself standing before two identical doors with frosted glass panels. On one panel, the letters said "White Ladies," the other, "Colored Women." The iron skeleton key weighed heavily in my palm as I stood there, puzzling over the signs. I know the difference between White and Colored, I thought, but what is the difference between Ladies and Women? Aren't they the same? I couldn't figure it out.

I opened the door that said "White Ladies." To the left were two stalls and to the right a sink with a mirror over it that was so high that I could just barely glimpse the top of my head. I used one of the stalls, wondering what was behind the other door, the one marked "Colored Women." Was the bathroom the same, or was it dirtier, or not as well equipped? Would my key open that door, too? I was curious to try, but afraid that someone might see me breaking the rules and get angry at me. Slowly I retraced my steps back to my father's office. I wanted to ask my father or his secretary about the difference between Ladies and Women, but I couldn't. I sensed that if I asked the question, I might be accused of stirring up trouble, and I probably wouldn't be given the answer.

I mention this incident because the memory of it returned to me inside the institute, when, after the short video about Birmingham's history, the curtain rose dramatically revealing, at the entrance to the Barriers Gallery, two water fountains marked "White" and "Colored." As I examined the exhibits in this gallery, which describe life under segregation, I thought about how segregation poisoned white minds as it damaged black lives.

In his magisterial "Letter from Birmingham Jail," written 30 years ago today, Dr. King eloquently described the latter process: "You will understand why we find it difficult to wait . . . (when you) see tears welling up in (your daughter's) little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people . . . "

In effect, segregation forbade discussion and debate about many aspects of human relations, race and culture. As I read Birmingham's elaborate segregation ordinances listed in the Barriers Gallery ("It shall be unlawful to conduct a restaurant or other place for the serving of food in the city, at which white and colored people are served in the same room . . . "; "It shall be unlawful for a Negro and white person to play together or in company with each other in any game of cards, dice, dominoes, checkers, baseball, softball, football, or basketball."), I thought of how isolating segregation was, for whites as well as for blacks.

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