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A couple of weeks ago the AJC Project Program Director Sara Kugler and I decided to take a trip to Birmingham to commemorate the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Sitting in the balcony fifty years to the day after it was bombed, as the music swelled and the pews filled with people seeking true worship, I felt the way I realized that I’ve always felt about being in church. I felt welcomed, supported and safe. I felt at home. These are the thoughts that frame my understanding of just how horrific the bombing of this church and the killing of those four young girls certainly must have been. They were simply preparing for youth Sunday service as they had been trained to do. In the moments before the explosion, they were in what most likely felt like their second home. This tragic event served to mobilize the community to even greater zeal and is an example of the inhumanity that jarred the nation’s collective conscious during the civil rights movement. While Sara and I were interested in witnessing residents come together to reflect on such a horrific event, the weekend offered an unexpected opportunity for personal reflection as well.

When we first arrived in Birmingham we decided to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute located next to Kelly Ingram Park, the site of many of the iconic photos of police brutality during the peaceful Birmingham Campaign. As it so happened, when we got to the park we discovered that the city was holding an unveiling ceremony for a statue of the four young women who were killed. It was there that we met Ms. Myrna Carter Jackson, First Vice President of Metro Birmingham’s NAACP Chapter. Instantly warm and incredibly gracious, she agreed to answer any questions we had and began recounting her experiences during the 1963 Birmingham Campaign.

Fifty years ago Mrs. Jackson was what I am now, a 22-year old young black woman from the South with big dreams about the way the world should be. She got involved in the movement during Monday night mass meetings held at various churches around town and devoted her self to the civil disobedience occurring in her hometown. In a showcase of genuine loyalty, she remained dedicated to the city after the campaign and has spent her entire life fighting for equal justice and living with purpose, drive and significance.

After our conversation with Mrs. Jackson we talked to Ms. Nancy Moore, a truly engaging and delightful woman who grew up on the other side of segregated Birmingham during the 1950s. After only a few minutes we discovered that after high school she, as both Sara and I had, left home for New Orleans, Louisiana to attend Newcomb College, then the sister school of Tulane University before the two eventually merged. At that time the campus was only open to white students, a segregated environment with which Ms. Moore was certainly familiar. As a young white woman growing up in Birmingham at the same time as Mrs. Jackson, Ms. Moore stated that while growing up she only knew one black person, her family’s maid, but that her family was not racist. They existed in a place where rules were established and she followed them, though as she grew older she began to question the need for separate facilities and the fairness of relegating black citizens to the margins and treating them as second class. Speaking with her was illuminating in that though I had often heard stories of the past from those working in and around the movement, I can’t remember ever hearing stories from the childhood of a white child in segregated Birmingham. Her interview provided for a more holistic understanding of the realities of the unequal racial environment.

As the crowd that had gathered outside of 16th Street Baptist for the memorial service began to sing “We Shall Overcome”, Sara and I left Kelly Ingram Park to catch our ride out of Birmingham. Though the unexpected three hour delay in Tuscaloosa could have been seriously awful, instead it was wonderful to slow down for a bit and recap the best and worst parts of our trip. This was most likely due to the fact that Sara isn’t just my Cooper Project traveling companion; she’s also one of my very best friends. Sara is a genuine friend, one who will laugh with you and keep your secrets, talk you off the edge of a life crisis (read as being 22), sulk with you/not judge you for ordering a large gelato when you’re having an awful day and carry your suitcase the last few blocks to your hotel because you’ve yet again over packed and you’re obviously struggling. She also happens to be white, a fact that rarely, if ever, crosses my mind.

In life you are blessed if you have even one true friend, and Sara certainly fits that bill. As we sat together on the train heading back to New Orleans, laughing about Wi-Fi issues and sharing a pack of peanut M&Ms, it suddenly struck me how improbable our friendship, and consequently our trip, would have been in 1963. Over the weekend we rode public transportation together throughout Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and didn’t give it a second thought. We ate together, shared a hotel room, used the same bathroom and even borrowed each other’s shoes. This friendship, as well as our subsequent experiences, is the stuff of which Ms. Moore and Mrs. Jackson could never have known at 22.

It is apparent that things in Birmingham, as well as throughout areas that previously operated under Jim Crow laws, have greatly improved over the past fifty years. Today, the mayor of Birmingham, Alabama is an African American gentleman named William A. Bell. His election would have been an unthinkable reality in 1963. At the “Four Sprits” sculpture unveiling the mayor stated, “It’s time for Birmingham to move on to a higher height.” It is true that there are no physical signs enforcing segregation, and public facilities are open to all. Yet though there has been serious progress, largely due to the efforts of those demonstrators and civil rights activists who refused to accept the unfavorable status quo and pushed for change, there is still work to be done. According to the Urban Institute the Birmingham Hoover Metro area earned a “D” grade in terms of racial equity in 2012. Fifty years after the signs came down, Birmingham still exists with de facto residential segregation, large test score gaps between children of different races, and a huge average income gap.

Over that weekend there were many that seemingly shared the sentiment of “look at the difference that fifty years can make.” Though accurate, it is necessary to acknowledge that the passage of time would mean little without the associated passage of legislation that stemmed from progressive activism. As Reverend Julius Scruggs said in his sermon on that commemorative Sunday, “May I say this morning, let us remain vigilant.” After our trip I hope to remain not only vigilant but also hopeful, passionate, and incredibly grateful.

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