Birmingham Spring

May 3, 2016

During my civil rights pilgrimage, I could not help but notice how beautiful the city would have been during the 1963 Birmingham Campaign. In Kelly Ingram Park, which some refer to as “ground zero” for those demonstrations, I was especially struck by the juxtaposition between the ugliness of police dogs and fire hoses turned on nonviolent protestors and the beauty of pink azaleas, red roses, green grass, and white baby’s breath. Iconic photographs from the time, which focus on urban uprising, don’t capture the irony.

I decided to try myself, posting a piece in an online segment for Orion magazine’s “Place Where You Live” series. You can read the piece here: Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, Alabama.

Many of the Birmingham Campaign’s iconic photographs were taken on this day, May 3. In memory of them, here are a few pictures from Kelly Ingram Park today:


Historical marker, Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail, Kelly Ingram Park, Bham, AL. Photograph by Julie Armstrong


Kelly Ingram Park, a Place of Revolution and Reconciliation, Photograph by Julie Armstrong


Historical marker commemorating foot soldiers, featuring a familiar image of a police dog attacking Parker High School student Walter Gadsden. Photograph of historical marker by Julie Armstrong.


Public art work by Ronald McDowell commemorating foot soldiers, based upon the familiar image. Photograph by Julie Armstrong.


Photograph by Julie Armstrong, taken from inside Kelly Ingram Park. This corner of Sixteenth Street and Sixth Avenue North shows Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, bombed in 1963, killing four girls. The public art shown here, Four Spirits, memorializes those girls. This intersection is also where the photograph of the police dog attacking Walter Gadsden was taken (see Foot Soldiers historical marker, above).


Close-up of Four Spirits, by Elizabeth MacQueen, Kelly Ingram Park. Photograph by Julie Armstrong.


Close up of public art work featuring German Shepherd police dogs. Photograph by Julie Armstrong.

Already the German Shepherds rust. When the public art is gone, and the flowers have died, will we remember the ugliness of oppression or the beauty of resistance?


Historical marker, Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail. Photograph by Julie Armstrong.


Historical marker, Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail. Photograph by Julie Armstrong.




A Birmingham School, A Birmingham Jail

April 16, 2016


“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”


I stood in front of Birmingham’s Phillips High School and cried. Here is where the civil rights movement hits home.



Historical marker depicting Fred Shuttlesworth at mass meeting after beating at Phillips High School, in front of the school today. Photograph by Julie Armstrong.

A historical marker describes how a gang of thugs beat Fred Shuttlesworth nearly to death for trying to register a group of teens, including his daughters, here on September 17, 1957. The men used baseball bats, brass knuckles, and chains. An oral history of one of those teens, Walter Wilson III, at Birmingham’s Civil Rights Institute, recounts how Shuttlesworth daughter, held back in the car, screamed for a fork – the only weapon she could conjure – to defend her dad. Later that night, despite his injuries, Shuttlesworth opened up a mass meeting. He wanted to show the racist world he lived in that violence would not deter justice.




Bobby D. Hughes, member of U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division, ready to deploy to Little Rock, Arkansas, 1957. Photograph courtesy of the Hughes family.


A few days after Shuttlesworth’s beating, my uncle, Bobby Hughes – a Phillips High School graduate – shipped out from Kentucky’s Fort Campbell with the rest of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. Their destination was Little Rock, Arkansas, and their mission: to protect nine black students enrolling in the city’s Central High School. The teens had endured taunts, name-calling, threats, and spitting from angry mobs of white adults who did not want them in the school. Arkansas’s Governor Orval Faubus deployed the state’s National Guard to keep them out. Finally, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent the Army to escort them in, and protect them all year.

Uncle Bobby never talked much about his service to movement. “Just doin’ my job,” he’d say. But that “job” made me see, very early in my life, civil rights as more than a story in the past, in a book.

The civil rights movement was real people, like us, with their lives at stake, their bodies on the line,

What made me cry was not Shuttlesworth or Uncle Bobby, but the way we dishonor their work, turn back the clock, and sell out our kids through failing schools, mostly in poor and black neighborhoods.




The Tampa Bay Times recently did an exposé called Failure Factories that vividly lays out the problem.

When I say that the civil rights movement hit home, I refer to my son. His great-uncle Bobby Hughes stood up for educational justice, and now he lives in a Failure Factory system.

Here’s some up-close insight into how that system, known across the nation as the “school-to-prison” pipeline works.

Son attends a somewhat diverse, but mostly white magnet program in his zoned, mostly black public high school. A former foster kid with ADHD, he has issues that often make him late. Past a certain time, the school locks the doors, and he has to go in through the “Intervention Center.” As punishment for being tardy, students must sit with their feet flat on the floor and stare straight ahead for the rest of the period, no talking. I accept the tough love. Infractions need consequences. But, usually, instead of going to “IC” as it’s called, Son and other kids skip school. Informally, IC stands for “Incarceration Training.”

Son isn’t doing so well in the magnet program. Earlier this year, we attended a parent-teacher meeting to figure out ways of getting on track. One teacher asked if we want to give Son “a tour of prison.” He meant the rest of the school outside the magnet program. Son tells me that teachers regularly refer to the school’s “general population” as “inmates.”

I don’t know a lot about how social systems work, but I do know how people work. For the most part, kids shape themselves to fit adults’ expectations. It takes a lot of effort to get outside the box society puts you into. What are your choices when that box is a jail cell?

I’m confident that Son will be ok, despite his time in foster care and “incarceration training.” We are white, reasonably affluent college professors. We’re moving him to private school next year. I didn’t cry in front of Phillips High School for him, but for the kids in Failure Factories who don’t have the options we have.

Today, April 16, 2016, on the anniversary of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King’s words haunt me: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” I don’t know how to fix a broken system. I don’t know how to put my body on the line like Fred Shuttlesworth or Uncle Bobby.

I feel like Shuttlesworth’s daughter crying out for a fork when thugs are all around me with brass knuckles and chains. My only weapons are stories.

Lives are on the line.


History That Counts

April 14, 2016



Street mural of Dynamite Hill, Abraham Woods Boulevard and 4th Street North, Birmingham, AL. Photograph by Julie Armstrong

For part of my civil rights pilgrimage, I stayed at an Airbnb in Birmingham’s College Hills neighborhood, within walking distance of Dynamite Hill. Beginning in the late 1940s, African Americans began integrating an area of North Smithfield, mostly along Center Street. The backlash was vicious. So many racially motivated bombings occurred that the city gained the nickname “Bombingham.” Most of them remain unsolved; although one of the men known to be responsible, Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, was convicted in 1977 for murder in the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four girls.

Today, Dynamite Hill has its own walking tour on Birmingham’s Civil Rights Heritage Trail. The tour follows Center Street up the small rise from Rev. Abraham Woods Boulevard (8th Avenue North), linking to a proposed countywide greenway system at Enon Ridge Trail. Stops on the Dynamite Hill tour include the homes of Arthur Shores, the attorney who filed legal challenges to many of Birmingham’s segregation laws, and to one of Birmingham’s most famous daughters, Angela Davis.

Dynamite Hill has long been a study in Birmingham’s economic geography.



Dynamite Hill historical marker with Smithfield Court Projects in background. Photograph by Julie Armstrong.

At the bottom, closest to Rev. Abraham Wood Boulevard, lie Smithfield Court Projects, built in 1937 to house some of the city’s most impoverished blacks. There I met an enterprising young man named T.J., who had set up a makeshift roadside car wash. He got about 10-15 customers a day, he said, and they paid what they could. He, in turn, paid his “homies” what he could. Money wasn’t the issue, T.J. said. The point was keeping “busy to stay out of trouble.”

On the day I walked up the hill, the police were making him move to a vacant lot across the boulevard. He was excited: the main road would mean more traffic. Each afternoon since, I have driven by to see T.J. and his crew working hard.





Dynamite HIll historical marker with bungalows in the background. Photograph by Julie Armstrong.

Mid-way up the hill sit small, red brick bungalows, most of them built during the 1940s. A man named Earl noticed my camera and beckoned me from his porch: “Hey, picture lady, you walking the trail?”

We chatted about the neighborhood and its history. Earl retired from the Detroit auto industry and lives in the home where he grew up. He was a boy when explosions rocked his house. He remembers one that rattled the dishes off the dinner table. He remembers hearing the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church blast. Earl was too young to join the demonstrations downtown, and when he grew up, he did not stick around. But he did come back. He loves Birmingham and the movement it stands for. He likes to see people walking the trail past his house and wishes there were more.


Earl said, “Young people, they don’t know what happened here. Schools don’t teach history that counts.”



Former home of activist and writer Angela Davis. Dynamite Hill, Birmingham, AL. Photograph by Julie Armstrong.

Up the street from Earl, at the top of the hill, lie the homes of the well-to-do: Arthur Shores’ sprawling ranch, the Davis’s massive Queen Anne, and, tucked behind a poured concrete façade, the ultra-modern Drew home, where Martin Luther King, Jr., hid out when he came to town.

I couldn’t help but wonder how much of this history will stay hidden – in plain sight – as visitors walk, run, and pedal by on the trail just above the tree line. How many will detour down the Civil Rights Heritage Trail, read the historical markers, stop to chat with Earl?




Greenways are leisure space, the realm of affluence. They’re not generally places where guys like T.J. go to keep busy to stay out of trouble. I wonder if he popped up out of the projects, with his bling and his sag, whether trail users would think, “here’s a fine example of a young American entrepreneur.”



See a penny pick it up. I found this 2016 Lincoln heads up in my bed April 14, 2016. Julie Armstrong.

On the morning I left my Airbnb, I awoke to find that I had slept on a shiny 2016 penny, heads up for good luck. I’m taking it as a sign that the book to come out of this civil rights pilgrimage will do well. I stopped by T.J.’s car wash to get the car done, even though it’s a rental. I didn’t pass along the penny, but I did pass along the luck, the green kind, not copper. Kid’s a manager now, with overhead, and a staff.

Movin’ on up.



Beautiful Freedom Surprise

April 9, 2016


Joe Minter, protest sign. Photograph by Julie Armstrong


Arriving into Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport for my civil rights pilgrimage, I felt conflicted. I usually feel a bump of pride when the plane hits the tarmac. The Birmingham International Airport’s Board of Directors voted in 2008 to rename itself after local leader Fred Shuttlesworth (1922-2011), instrumental in the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. How many other airports are named after civil rights heroes?

Since this flight landed from the northeast, however, I realized that the runway was likely passing over the remains of artist Lonnie Holley’s art yard.

Holley (b. 1950) is an African-American artist whose work is on display at the American Museum of Folk Art and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. He works in a variety of media, but what drew the most notoriety was the property he used to own in Birmingham’s Airport Hills. Some called it a sculpture garden, others a junk yard. Either way, when the airport decided to expand, Holley’s yard had to go, despite an outcry from the international art community. The airport authority initially offered Holley $14,000, including the site-specific installations. Holley sued, settling for a meager $165,000, moving expenses included. In late 1997, Holley managed to get out about half of his art before the city bulldozed the rest, moving his family to a piece of foreclosed rural property south of Birmingham. . . .

. . . .next to white people who did not want him for a neighbor. They shot guns into his house and finally shot him. Holley now lives in Atlanta, the “city too busy to hate.” Dust to Digital, the recording label that produces Holley’s improvisational jazz, his new medium of choice, has released a music video that includes images of his art, his yard, and – painfully – the property’s destruction. One can access it at All Rendered Truth.



Detail from Joe Minter’s African Village in America. Photograph by Julie Armstrong

Holley is not Birmingham’s only visionary yard artist. In southwest Birmingham, Joe Minter keeps the “African Village in America.” Minter, the “Peacemaker,” collects material from flea markets, thrift stores, and junkyards, repurposing it into sculpture that comments on the African diaspora, human rights, and God’s work in the world. The more visually striking pieces are fabricated from used auto parts and look out on Grace Hill Cemetery – a hill of 100,000 ancestors, he told me.

I have loved Holley’s and Minter’s work for years, and have a selection from each in my home. These aren’t just folk art collectibles, but roots to my complicated Birmingham legacy.



Visionary artist Joe Minter. Photograph by Julie Armstrong


Imagine my surprise, when, Day 1 of my civil rights pilgrimage brought me face to face with Joe Minter. I was trying to connect two legs of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Heritage Trail at Linn Park, in the city’s center. Minter has been speaking his truth to power there for years.

“Look around,” he said, gesturing at City Hall, the Jefferson County Courthouse, the Birmingham Public Library, and the Birmingham Museum of Art – the institutions that shut out: “Jericho. Jericho. Jericho. Jericho.” He refers to the Palestinian city with an infamous, and infamously strong, protective wall.



A sign on Joe Minter’s truck references a scandal involving the Jefferson County sewer system which led to the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Photograph by Julie Armstrong


What does he protest? Some of it involves specifics: the Jefferson County sewer construction boondoggle that led to the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Some of it involves a general lack of respect: Minter is a talented artist who has not received his due. Holley got a Museum of Art retrospective in 2004, after his property was torn down. When I asked about Minter at the library, the information specialists, who have assisted me before on the most arcane aspects of Birmingham history, looked puzzled: “is he that man who rings the bell?”

The answer is, yes, he used to, but now he has a gourd that says, “I love Jamaica.”

And, now, the final indignity, Minter tells me: his property has been condemned.

I asked him why. His reply: “Because Birmingham condemns everything that is good” and “the city does not want a parcel being free of thought.”

I’m not sure what the facts are at this point, but I do know this: both Holley’s and Minter’s yards gave them artistic, existential, and spiritual freedom in a city where freedom may have been on the books since 1963 but has not always been practiced.

Explaining that last sentence takes a book, not a blog, to tell. Stay tuned – not just to me but to voices like Joe Minter’s. The vision he offers transforms Birmingham’s hardscrabble detritus into beautiful freedom.


Walking Through Birmingham

Starting April 7, 2016


“Kneeling Ministers” statue in Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, AL. Sculptor Raymond Kaskey. Photograph by Julie Buckner Armstrong.

On this day, Sunday April 7, 1963, “Palm Sunday,” three ministers–Nelson Smith, A.D. King, and John Porter–led 2,000 citizens in a march from St. Paul’s Methodist Church to Birmingham’s City Hall. The march protested the previous day’s arrest of Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, and Fred Shuttlesworth. When the city’s Commissioner of Public Safety, Bull Connor, confronted the marchers, the three ministers knelt to pray. To commemorate their brave act of nonviolence in the face of racist power, the city placed a statue of the men in Kelly Ingram Park in 1992. Today the park, which contains several sculptures marking famous events of Birmingham’s civil rights movement, calls itself “A Place of Revolution and Reconciliation.”


Detail from “Kneeling Ministers” statue in Kelly Ingram Park, Birmingham, AL. Sculptor, Raymond Kaskey. Photograph by Julie Armstrong.



Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail Marker. Photograph by Julie Buckner Armstrong.

At the park’s northwest corner, visitors can start two of Birmingham’s Civil Rights Heritage Trails. On Thursday, April 7, 2016 — the anniversary of these three ministers’ Palm Sunday march — I will begin a series of walks through Birmingham. Some of these walks follow official Heritage Trail routes; others move off the beaten path to seek untold civil rights stories.

As a Birmingham native and a civil rights movement scholar, my walk is timed for its historical and spiritual significance. The city’s most contentious civil rights battles took place during April and early May of 1963, coinciding with an Easter season boycott of downtown stores and businesses. Those notorious six weeks, known as the Birmingham Campaign, forever changed the city and the trajectory of the movement. Here, Martin Luther King, Jr., passionately articulated the philosophy of nonviolent direct action in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Here, regular people — iron and steel workers, domestics, school children — showed the world how to take on racial apartheid and win.


Julie Buckner Armstrong on the Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail. Obligatory Tourist Selfie!

Walking in their footsteps and visiting key movement locations acts as a secular version of the religious pilgrimage called Stations of the Cross, where travelers follow a designated path from site to site. For Christians the goal is to reflect upon Christ’s suffering. For this civil rights pilgrim, the goal is to reflect upon the kneeling down and give thanks for the standing up.

If you’re interested in the walk, follow its progress on Twitter: @civilrights_lit


The Birmingham Manifesto

2 April 2016



Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights pin. Image credit: Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, http://www.crmvet.org/info/pins.htm

On this day in 1963 the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) released the Birmingham Manifesto. This short, sometimes forgotten document launched one of the most tumultuous periods in civil rights movement history: the Birmingham Campaign. Six weeks of nonviolent direct action generated a response so fierce that mainstream media still use its images of police dogs, fire hoses, and backlash bombings to signify racism at its worst.

The Manifesto, signed by president Fred Shuttlesworth and secretary Nelson Smith, challenged Birmingham’s citizens to live up to American ideals of equality and justice. For too long, the city’s black population had been “segregated racially, exploited economically, and dominated politically.” The ACMHR – modeled on the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization behind the successful 1955-56 Bus Boycott – had tried unsuccessfully since its 1956 founding to negotiate with white leadership for integration of public facilities and local businesses. The result: “broken faith and broken promises.” Although the group did not spell out specifics of an intended “direct action thrust,” the city found out the next day when demonstrations began.


In retrospect, the ACMHR’s timing proved both lucky and ironic.


Unseen civil rights photos 63-2825 Norman Dean photo Integration Movement Sit in demonstrations (Wednesday April 10 1963) 35 mm frame 8 Jazz Singer Al Hibbler picketing in front of Trailways depot at 4th and 19th. Police refused to arrest Hibbler with 25 other demonstrators, and instead drove him back to the Gaston Motel. The same day, 13 Miles students peacefully integrated the downtown Public Library.

Integration Movement Sit in demonstrations (Wednesday April 10 1963) Jazz Singer Al Hibbler picketing in front of Trailways depot at 4th and 19th. Police refused to arrest Hibbler with 25 other demonstrators, and instead drove him back to the Gaston Motel. Image Credit: Unseen civil rights photos 63-2825 Norman Dean photo

The group distributed the Manifesto as handbills the day after the 1963 mayoral elections, hoping that a new city government might bring new results. What the ACMHR did not count on was a contested election, where the old form of government (a city commission) refused to leave office for its replacement (a mayor and city council) to come in. For a while Birmingham had two governments, effectively leaving no one in charge. The ACMHR was happy to take advantage of the power vacuum with strategic chaos. One day might bring sit-ins of downtown lunch counters and the next, a march. Sundays saw black visitors kneeling in front of white churches to see which ones admitted them. Any given day brought a few dozen picketers before a department store or hundreds of protesters filing from a church toward downtown. White leadership rarely knew what to expect.





Premiere of To Kill a Mockingbird at Birmingham’s Melba Theater, 2022-2024 2nd Avenue North, 3 April 1963. Image origin unknown.


If the ACMHR did not anticipate catching white Birmingham off balance, the group also did not know that its “direct action thrust” of April 3 coincided with the highly anticipated local premiere of the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird featuring local residents Mary Badham as Scout and Phillip Alford as her brother Jem. Based upon Harper Lee’s 1960 novel of the same title, the film’s sentimentalized version of race relations would cause a generation of Southerners to “weep clandestinely,” as Diane McWhorter puts it, “about the racial guilt we shared in rooting for a Negro man” (322).


Tears, however, rarely led to meaningful change.




Seated, L-R: Martin Luther King, Jr., Fred Shuttlesworth, and Ralph Abernathy announce the terms of the compromise after the Birmingham Campaign. May 10, 1963. Image Credit: Birmingham News.

May 10, 1963 saw a truce in the Birmingham Campaign. Federal negotiators, moderate black leaders, and white businessmen worked out a compromise where downtown stores and restaurants agreed to desegregate and hire black workers. ACMHR president Shuttlesworth, injured by a blast of water from a fire hose a few days earlier, at first denounced the compromise as a sellout then checked out of the hospital to present the compromise’s terms to the media. Joining him at the microphones to create the sense of a unified black voice were Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) president Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Mid-press conference, Shuttlesworth passed out from exhaustion and pain. King continued fielding questions.


Starting Spring 2016


Parker High School student Walter Gadsden being attacked by dogs. The New York Times, May 4, 1963. Bill Hudson, photographer.


The Birmingham Stories blog starts in Spring 2016. I’m planning walking tour of the city on the anniversary of the 1963 Birmingham Campaign, beginning at the intersection where this photograph was taken (16th Street and 6th Avenue North).