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AN AMERICAN MOMENT: Road to the inauguration

In Birmingham Ala., revolution is frozen in time

Henry Biggs remembers Jim Crow and Kelly Ingram Park, where 1963 protests ignited the civil rights moment.

January 04, 2009|PETER H. KING

BIRMINGHAM, ALA. — Kelly Ingram Park sits on the fringe of downtown Birmingham, flanked by a high-rise and a museum, a one-block square of magnolias and pines and wooden benches that, these commonplace trappings aside, is like no other municipal green in America.

It is a place where children go to stare down sculptures of snarling police dogs, a place where older visitors who know the park's history go to remember and, more recently, to reflect on the distance traveled between what happened here 45 years ago and what will happen in Washington in less than three weeks.

"It all connects," Henry Biggs, a 55-year-old native of Birmingham was saying the other day as he stood at the edge of the park. "This point to that point, it all connects."

Named for a World War I hero, this 4-acre park was at the center of clashes in the spring of 1963 between police and protesters determined to roll back the city's Jim Crow laws -- a struggle that brought infamy to this Southern steel town and ignited the civil rights movement.

In 1991, in anticipation of the opening of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute across the street, the park was made over as a memorial to "revolution and reconciliation." Arrayed along a circular walkway were interactive monuments designed to demonstrate what the protesters, many of them teenagers, endured at the hands of police forces led by Eugene "Bull" Connor.

They might look from a distance like common play structures, but there is nothing playful about them. One depicts two young students, a girl in pigtails, a boy in T-shirt and jeans, standing defiantly in a cell, over the legend: "We ain't afraid of your jail."

At another, two decommissioned water cannons can be pivoted to point toward sculptures of two frightened protesters, bracing for a blast. Farther along the walk, packs of life-sized dogs, sculpted in crude scrap iron, seem to leap into the walkway from both sides -- an imposing phalanx of fangs that causes some children to squeal as they pass through and others to skitter away.

"I came here a few years ago with my son, and he was quite fascinated by those dogs," said Biggs, a music teacher who now lives in Pittsburgh. "When I told him the story, about how the police would turn dogs loose on students about his own age, he couldn't believe something like that could happen. He was quite shocked. It brought tears to my eyes."

Biggs had arrived just before twilight, part of a steady, daylong trickle of visitors. A few were tourists, who wandered over from across the street after exploring the civil rights museum. But many people seemed to go to the park as part of a family outing, grandparents on walkers, toddlers in strollers.

While the kids dashed about, most of the adults paraded along the walk with a sense of quiet purpose, as if making an annual visit to a departed relative's grave.

A third-grader at the time of the protests, Biggs had been too young to take part. He had been old enough, however, to experience the whites-only restrooms and diner counters: "I remember segregation. I remember it all -- although," he added with a smile, "I can't seem to remember if we were supposed to eat at the left counter or the right counter."

Standing beside him was a thin man in a flannel shirt and Taco Bell cap who introduced himself as Dred, only Dred. A park fixture, he had been floating through on a bicycle, offering his services as a freelance tour guide. He was also a bit of a hustler, concluding his theatrical lectures with a pitch for a handout, but Dred did seem to know his history.

Alternating between whispers and roars, he could tell you the name of the terrified young boy in a sculpture who had a police officer at his throat and the precise hydraulic force of the fire hoses. He could explain the meaning of the four reflection pools, one for each child killed in the bombing of the nearby 16th Street Baptist Church, and why the sculptor had rendered the police dogs as enormous, almost otherworldly creatures.

"Because," Dred said, "that is how they looked to the people they were attacking. All of this happened here. People need to know this, especially children, especially African American children. They need to know a price has been paid, a powerful price."

Biggs took in this plea with a bemused silence. Dred was preaching to the choir. The music teacher already had employed the park as a learning tool for his son and a younger foster child.

He also had been told by friends in town that, since the election of Barack Obama, more and more people had been revisiting the park. They were there, he suspected, to contemplate, as he had, the connections between Obama's victory and the historic clashes of 1963.

That Obama was a toddler at the time, playing on the beaches of Hawaii, that he had a white mother and an African father who was not part of the movement -- none of this, in Biggs' view, lessened the meaning of Obama's election for black Americans.

"His election is going to bring about a change," he said. "It's going to bring about more understanding, by people of all colors, of what the civil rights movement was all about. People want to know, why is this so significant? Why is this such a historic moment?

"Well, it would be significant if Obama was simply the first African American president. But it is even more significant if you understand where African Americans have had to come from, and what they have had to go through.

"It all connects," Biggs repeated, standing between a replica of a jail cell for children and a pack of iron police dogs, fangs frozen in time. "It's all part of a spectrum, and it goes back a long way."



Road to the inauguration

Follow Peter H. King and photographer Kirk McKoy in this series as they wend their way to Washington for the Jan. 20inauguration of Barack Obama, sending back reports from across the land in this time of transition.

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