Birmingham: We can change the world

Andrea L. Taylor, President and CEO Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
Andrea L. Taylor, President & CEO Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

ComebackTown is published by David Sher to begin a discussion on a better Birmingham.

Today’s guest blogger is Andrea Taylor..  If you’d like to be a guest blogger, please click here.

Wish me happy anniversary.  I’m celebrating my first year in Birmingham this month.

I’ve lived, worked, and traveled the U.S. and visited more than 70 countries on seven continents.

I see Birmingham through a unique lens and have been made to feel very welcome here.

If  asked about the history of Birmingham, you might tell me about Bull Connor, dogs and hoses, or the 1963 church bombing.

You might feel embarrassed about Birmingham and prefer the world forgets.

However, Birmingham’s tortuous history may be our biggest strength.

Many of you would agree that human and civil rights appear to be endangered in nearly every corner of the world seeking reconciliation.

We in Birmingham have seen the worst and now we have an opportunity to showcase other possibilities to the world.

A national park for Birmingham

100 years ago, the National Park Service – a unique American tradition, was created in the federal Organic Act of 1916 during Woodrow Wilson’s administration. Recently millions of citizens celebrated this milestone, and the creation of a nationwide system of 400 National Park and Historic Sites in the U.S. which attract over 300 million visitors annually.

On Sunday, August 28, 2016 the March for Birmingham, led by Mayor William A. Bell, Sr., U.S. Representative Terri A. Sewell, Brent Leggs, National Trust for Historic Preservation and their potential partners cited below, launched a public campaign to ask Congress and President Obama to support legislation (H.R. 4817) to create a national park in the Magic City that includes:

  • 16th Street Baptist Church
  • G. Gaston Motel
  • Kelly Ingram Park
  • Bethel Baptist Church
  • Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

 The event, held at the intersection of Sixth Avenue and 16th Street, surrounded by “sacred ground” in the Birmingham Civil Rights District, attracted hundreds of supporters for a 21st century campaign.

Why Birmingham matters

Odessa Woolfolk, Birmingham’s legendary civic leader and a founder and Chair Emerita of the Civil Rights Institute was one of many supportive voices on the mainstage. Her eloquence about Why Birmingham Matters bears repeating and with permission, excerpts from her key points are:

Birmingham matters…

  • because a critical mass of its poorest and less powerful people – mostly Black, risked their meager possessions and their lives for freedom;
  • because it reminded the nation that oppressed people will not remain oppressed forever;
  • because the movement proved that the non-violent philosophy of Gandhi, King and Shuttlesworth is an effective strategy for protest;
  • as an example of inspiring youth activism;
  • because two Presidents and the U.S. Congress came to realize that no nation can survive if some of its citizens are denied basic rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution;
  • because people around the world – in Poland, China, South Africa, Central America, began singing “We Shall Overcome” as they overthrew their oppressors.

This campaign event deliberately coincided with the 53rd anniversary of the iconic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

You may not know that this peaceful demonstration, where Dr. King made his famous “I Have a Dream speech,” was conceived and planned at the A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham in the summer of 1963 just months before the horrific, hate-filled bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Carol Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14).

Growing up as a teenager living in Charleston, WV that year, I attended the March on Washington on a 24-hour bus trip organized by the NAACP since Negroes were not welcome in most public accommodations along the way.

Odessa Woolfolk was also among the 250,000 marchers on the capital Mall that day inspired by Dr. King’s dream and vision for a just society. She traveled to the March with the NAACP and B’Nai Brith while vacationing in New York City.  Our paths didn’t cross then, but more than half a century later we stand together, along with many in the community who enthusiastically endorse legislation to create a national park to preserve the lessons of Birmingham for eternity.

Birmingham National Park would be a valuable addition

Passage of the legislation would add to the legacy of other African American experiences highlighted in more than 25 National Park sites across the U.S., including three in Alabama:

  • Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail
  • Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
  • Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, where we meet and serve people of all ages as a leading tourist attraction in Alabama, becoming a national park would be welcome news, and some may even say, long overdue. It is significant and highly unusual that a bipartisan coalition including all members of the Alabama Congressional delegation supported H.R. 4817 when the bill was introduced in March by Congresswoman Sewell.  Passage, says Sewell, “will forever cement the pivotal role Birmingham played in the Civil Rights Movement.”

Increase Birmingham’s vitality as a tourist attraction

A dramatic increase in visitors to Birmingham’s Civil Rights District is expected along with new economic development opportunities for our district neighbors and Greater Birmingham. Some vendors are already eager to see these changes.   Recently, when dining with friends in a downtown Birmingham restaurant, the chef emerged from the kitchen to extend a warm welcome and ask about the pending national park legislation. He’s already anticipating greater demand and a full house in his eatery, if a Park is established here.

Embracing diversity in our nation demands that we seek to understand and be understood by historical traditions beyond our own families and communities. A visit to a national park, monument or historical site enables families and multiple generations to explore, learn and see history together while having shared conversations about the past, present and future.

“Birmingham reminds the world that remembrance of horror can be therapeutic for a country,” says Ms. Woolfolk. Few would doubt that our nation has made progress since 1963. However, race and reconciliation in our democracy is a continuing journey and the unique “story of triumph from tragedy” is compelling and must never be forgotten.

We’re optimistic that Congress and the President also understand this imperative and will vote affirmatively or sign an Executive Order to make this dream a reality. Indeed, Birmingham matters, and we can set an example for the world.

Andrea L. Taylor, President and CEO Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, previously was the director of citizenship and public affairs, North America for Microsoft.

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David Sher is Co-Founder of AmSher Compassionate Collections.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak to your group about a better Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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