I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
January 21, 2019
Years ago, when I was a young reporter for the ABC affiliate in Columbia, South Carolina, I interviewed a minister who’d been a local leader in the Civil Rights Movement and had worked closely with Martin Luther King, Jr. The interview took place in his home, and before we arrived, he’d pulled out albums full of photographs and newspaper clippings from the 1960s to show us. Looking at the photos of sit-ins and separate water fountains and violence between white and Black people on the same downtown streets I walked every day, it was hard for me to comprehend how all that had could have happened just a few decades earlier.
“I feel bad,” I admitted to the man. “It’s hard for me to really take this in, because things are so different now.”
“Don’t feel bad,” he reassured me. “My grandchildren feel the same way. They appreciate what I’ve done, but they don’t really get it. And I consider it a blessing.”
“Why’s that?” I asked, confused.
“Because of the work we did,” he explained, “my grandchildren will never see separate water fountains or attend segregated schools or have to take seats in the back of the bus. They’ll never know what that’s like. And that is a very good thing.”
I never forgot that conversation. Obviously, we still have a long, long way to go when it comes to racism, but I do believe each generation comes out a little better than the one before, and I think many of the issues we’re having now are because attitudes are rapidly changing and those pockets of deep resistance are finally losing their hold. We’re in a period of unrest right now and I have no doubt we’ll come out stronger as a nation.
Still, I don’t want to lose sight of our history. I may not be able to truly understand what happened before I was born, but I never want to stop trying. I hope my children feel the same way — but I know that has to begin with me.
And that’s how we ended up here recently, at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Because of my job as a family travel writer, my kids have gotten to go to more museums and monuments and learning centers than I can count — I think this may have been the most important one they’ve visited yet.
If your children are at least ten years old and you live anywhere even remotely close to Birmingham, you owe it to yourself and to them to visit. Make sure they’re in the right frame of mind when you go. This is a serious experience and you’ll want your children to be respectful of other visitors and their emotions.
My children may be far from the days of segregation, but this interactive experience took them as close to what those days were like as they’ll ever come. For the first time, they saw the separate water fountains. They stood before a replica of a fire-bombed bus and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birmingham jail cell. They watched his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on a gigantic screen.
They saw many photographs of sit-ins and protests and they read many stories from our history that they’d never read before.
Each room is designed to make visitors feel this volatile time period and for me, this was one of the most powerful rooms in the museum– Quotes from the 1960s are displayed on the wall and spoken aloud, quotes that are uncomfortable and often offensive by today’s standards. Surrounded by these ‘ghosts’ from the past, it’s a somber and powerful moment.
I wasn’t prepared for how emotional I’d become as I walked through the museum. Thankfully, these stories are widely shared and discussed today and I was well versed on most of the main events of the Civil Rights Movement, but seeing them all together in one place, I was surprised to almost immediately become overwhelmed with emotion. Honestly, I had a hard time getting through the tour without completely breaking down and attempting to hug everyone in the room, but I was grateful for those feelings because they helped bring the time alive in a way I’d never before experienced.
I thought about the minister I’d interviewed in Columbia all those years ago. I was closer to understanding now, so much closer than I ever had been before.
One of the things that affected my family the most was a small display near the end of the museum tour. It’s a case holding some of the belongings of the four girls killed when the 16th Street Baptist Church (across the street from the Civil Rights Institute) was bombed back in 1963. Seeing the shoes one of the girls was wearing that morning, the purse another of the girls carried, its contents — a Kleenex, a pencil, typical 14-year-old girl stuff — still inside, made this moment in history very real and very personal.
For my children, the payoff here was huge. My 11-year-old son went through with my husband and shared many deep thoughts as he learned about the events of the 1960s for the first time. My 14-year-old and I stayed together as we went through and when we were finished, she told me that for the first time, she felt like she really understood what the Civil Rights Movement was about and why it was important.
A few weeks have passed since our visit, but the kids haven’t forgotten the Civil Rights Institute. When I picked them up from school last Friday, I asked if they were excited about having a three-day weekend.
“I am,” my daughter said, “but I think it’s strange to just give kids the day off on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I think it would be a better idea to have kids go to school that day and maybe just learn about the Civil Rights Movement.”
“Yeah,” my son agreed. “That would be a better idea.”
I’m now completely convinced that every school-aged kid within three hours drive of Birmingham needs to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. It brings the Civil Rights Era to life in a way no classroom experience ever could. It gives them context, perspective, and understanding that will help equip them to handle race-based discussions and interactions with more sensitivity. The more they understand their history, the less likely they are to repeat it.
It’s a great reason to visit Birmingham for a day trip or a weekend. It will change you. And how often can you say that about a visit to a museum?
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
520 16th Street North
Free parking is available behind the building.
College students: $6
Children grades 4-12: $5
Children 0-3rd grade: Free