Learning from Birmingham


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

Learning from Birmingham examines the iconic civil rights movement city where I was born. Photographs such as the one taken here freeze Birmingham in memory at a specific place and time: 16th Street and 6th Avenue North in 1963. What happens when one looks beyond the frames of familiar images to examine intersections that are geographical, metaphorical, and even personal?


Detail, AAA Map of Birmingham, with author’s proposed walking, driving, and kayaking routes highlighted. Photograph by Julie Armstrong.

Thirty years after moving away from Birmingham, I returned home as a scholar of civil rights movement literature to look at my hometown from a new perspective. I began with a walking tour of Birmingham’s civil rights memorial complex, branched out to other routes, and began writing about people connected to these places. Some are famous, others are not; some are alive, others have died; some are related to me; others are people I never met. They remind us how the civil rights movement continues “moving” through our lives in ways we often do not recognize or acknowledge. They reveal a city far more nuanced than its historical reputation suggests. They show us the varied ways human beings counter the ugliness of oppression with complexity, dignity, courage, and beauty.

My travels through Birmingham began in the early 2010s. The Birmingham Stories Blog records a walk I took in 2016.