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Birmingham celebrates 50 years of civil rights history

10:51 AM, Jan 21, 2013   |    comments
Maria Knolt (R) and Tracy Hilton walk through the sculpture Water Hose 25 May 2005 at Kelly Ingram Park in the Civil Rights District of Birmingham, AL.
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Javacia Harris Bowser, special for USA TODAY

Birmingham made history in 1963, and in 2013 the Alabama city will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the events that led to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the beginning of the end of racial segregation in the South.

In Birmingham that summer of '63, black residents held sit-ins at whites-only lunch counters to challenge Jim Crow laws. Black youth from area schools participating in what was known as the Children's Crusade were arrested. Some were attacked with fire hoses and police dogs after taking to the streets to protest of racial discrimination. And on Sept. 15, 1963, a bomb planted by a Ku Klux Klansman in the 16th Street Baptist Church exploded, killing four young black girls.

From the ashes and rubble of these devastating acts arose the passion and determination necessary to catapult the fight for equal rights for people of all races. All of it will be on display in 2013 as Birmingham honors the lessons learned from its past. Organizations and institutions throughout the city will tell stories of 1963 through art exhibits, theater productions, musical performances and more.

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You can also visit sites that helped secure victory in the battle for civil rights.

"Birmingham is a beautiful city," Janice Wesley Kelsey, a teenager who marched that summer, says proudly. "I've visited many other places, but [my choice is] to remain where I am. I love where I live, and I want others to see it."

Marching on

Begin your visit at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which features exhibits that chronicle the events of the civil rights movement and celebrate the accomplishments of blacks in Alabama.

From March 12 to Nov. 30, the institute will play host to Marching On: The Children's Movement at Fifty. The exhibit tells the story of the Children's Crusade of 1963 through people who participated, including Kelsey.

On May 2, 1963, Kelsey, then 16, went to school as she would on any other day. But after first period, she left and walked to 16th Street Baptist Church, where she and black teenagers from all over the city were planning to march through downtown Birmingham in protest of racial segregation and discrimination.

Kelsey said she and the other students were lined up in pairs and began to march forward from the church singing We Shall Overcome. But they didn't get far. They were stopped by armed police officers and informed that if they didn't get out of the protest line they'd be arrested.

She spent four days in jail, but said she was never once afraid. "I was excited," she says. "I was anticipating the opportunity to set things right."

Kelsey was arrested outside Kelly Ingram Park (formerly West Park), located at 5th Avenue N. and 16th Street, facing the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. During the civil rights movement from 1955-65, the park often served as an assembly point for protestors. Today it features several sculptures and installations commemorating the movement.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, 520 16th St. N.; 205-328-9696; bcri.org

'A love that forgives'

Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was not only the meeting place for the young foot soldiers of the Children's Crusade, but it is best known as the site of the infamous explosion that claimed the lives of four little girls in 1963.

Ironically, the Sunday School lesson taught that morning was titled "A Love That Forgives." On Sept. 15, the church will teach this lesson in memory of that tragic day.

Carolyn McKinstry, who was at church the morning of the bombing, is working with city officials to have a sculpture erected in memory of the girls who were killed. McKinstry hopes the sculpture will be complete by the 50th anniversary of the bombing.

"We are just trying to keep their memory alive as a reminder to love and to teach love and to share love," McKinstry says.

16th Street Baptist Church, 1530 6th Ave. N.; 205-251-9402; 16thstreetbaptist.org

'This is a different city'

There was a time in Birmingham when black-owned businesses were restricted to certain areas-3rd, 4th and 5th Aves. N. from 15th to 18th St., also known as the Fourth Avenue District.

"This is a different city," Kelsey says. "There are black businesses everywhere."

Those businesses include Green Acres Café, which has been around since 1958 and serves up golden fried chicken wings with a side of Birmingham history.

The Carver Theatre, built in 1935 and later revamped in 1945, screened first-run movies for African Americans. In 1990, the city renovated the theatre, transforming it into a performing arts center that today books local and national groups. The theatre is also home to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and Museum, which honors accomplished jazz musicians with Alabama ties. Green Acres Café, 1705 4th Ave. N.; 205.251.3875; greenacres-cafe.com | The Carver Theatre & Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, 631 4th Ave. N.; 205.254.2731; jazzhall.com

The Lyric Fine Arts Theatre, on the other hand, was one of the first theaters in the South where blacks and whites could see the same show at the same price at the same time (though seating was still segregated). No longer operational, there is a campaign to restore this city landmark to its former glory. Find out more at savethelyric.com.

Lyric Fine Arts Theatre, 1817 3rd. Ave.N.

Where to eat and drink

URBAN STANDARD

This eclectic cafe/coffee house is the place Birmingham's diverse population mixes and caffeinates. 2320 2nd Ave. N, 205-250-8200, urbanstandard.net

WINE LOFT

This bar and lounge features blues acts, wine tastings and more. 2200 1st Ave. N., 205-323-8228, wineloftbham.com

EL BARRIO

Nosh on multi-regional Mexican fare at this restaurant whose interior has warm distressed wood and custom iron work. 2211 2nd Ave. N., 205-868-3737, elbarriobirmingham.com

ROGUE TAVERN

Stop by for happy hour and grab a burger and a beer at this relaxed bar that frequently features music acts. 2312 2nd Ave. N., 205-202-4151, roguetavern.com

This article is excerpted from GoEscape, USA TODAY's travel magazine, on sale now. Buy wherever magazines are sold or at goescape.usatoday.com.

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