Road Trip - Birmingham, Civil Rights and Martin Luther King

Submitted by Paul Born on January 12, 2011 - 3:53pm
Blog 5 - The adventure continues

Martin Luther King statue

Martin Luther King statue in park outside Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Fred Shuttlesworth statue outside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Fred Shuttlesworth statue outside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

Rosa Sparks action ended bus segregation in Birmingham.

Rosa Sparks action ended bus segregation in Birmingham.

16th street Baptist church was bombed killing 4 young girls.

16th street Baptist church was bombed killing 4 young girls.

Pictures of the children that died in the church and other bombings.

Pictures of the children that died in the church and other bombings.

Will inside 16th street Baptist church

Will inside 16th street Baptist church.

In 1968 I announced to my parents, "I am a black man in white skin." I was six or seven years old. We were Mennonite refugees living sheltered lives on a farm on the West Coast. I have never been able to pinpoint an experience that would have led me to say this to my parents, but you can imagine their shock. "You've never even met a black man," my father said that day. He was right, but all of my life I have had a fascination - some would say a mild obsession - with Martin Luther King Junior and the Civil Rights Movement.

Will and I tried to see the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. We got some pictures on the outside, but we never got inside as it was closed due to the snowstorm. So we drove four hours and arrived at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

The civil rights story of Birmingham is fascinating. The key figure in the struggle here was Fred Shuttlesworth. He led the freedom riders and was the man who asked Martin Luther King to enter the struggle in Birmingham (known to be the most segregated city in the south).

In addition to illuminating Birmingham story, the museum has materials that tell the story of the freedom riders, Rosa Parks and the Birmingham bus boycott, MLK's imprisonment, the bombing of the 16th street Baptist church in which four young girls died, and the March on Washington which includes a moving video clip of Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech.

I was moved not only by the stories of leaders and martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement, but also because the civil rights struggle is also a story of community. A community that worked together to achieve freedom for themselves and their children. That supported each other. Together they created a force that had a spiritual quality to it – that inspired others and spread all over the world. In turn, the energy this spirit created fueled the movement in places like Birmingham. One could see and feel the full force of this cumulative energy at the March on Washington. I call this force collective altruism. The effect of selfless giving by a group of people for the benefit of others. This power has toppled governments in South Africa, Poland and soon in Burma. It has the power to heal injustice and repair that which is broken.

Questions arising for me:

  • What causes communities to create privilege at the expense of others? What are the forces that turn privilege into laws and institutionalize forms of government against others?
  • What sparks collective altruism? Can this be documented? Can it be captured and taught?
  • What stories of collective altruism most inspire, and why?
Comments:
Sorry about the Snow

Paul & Will,

I'm sorry that we Southerners didn't give you a warmer welcome. It's not usually like Canada down here, and we just don't know what to do with all this snow. Sounds like you're making the best of it and taking in some inspiring civil rights history. Sorry you won't be able to make it over here to North Carolina, but keep enjoying the journey, wherever it takes you. Sorta like life...

Joyce