An interesting encounter with a gifted storyteller in Birmingham
Birmingham, Ala., wasn't what I expected. The image I had in my mind was based on the black-and-white television news reports of 42 years ago showing black kids being blasted with fire hoses and attacked by snarling police dogs. In 1963, Birmingham was at the epicenter of the revolution against American apartheid.
The downtown of Gov. George Wallace and the Woolworth's lunch counter has been replaced by a modern city built by the medical, insurance, banking, and telecommunications industries. The steel mills haven't tainted the Birmingham sky for nearly 30 years, and the majority of elected officials are black.
On my first visit to Birmingham, I had a powerful meeting with a homeless man named Juan. At least he said he was homeless. Juan is a 58-year-old black man who speaks in a low but confident voice.
At first I thought he worked for the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute across the street from the park, but that didn't seem quite right. He wasn't a summer intern guide, either; I'm not sure who he was.
"You see that fountain?" Juan pointed toward a low, circular fountain divided into fourths by walkways with a circle embedded in the center. "Each section represents one of the four little girls killed at the 16th Street Baptist Church. The water spilling over the walls represents the eternal tears we shed for the young lives needlessly ended. Dr. King stood on the spot marked by the circle to speak to the thousands of people who filled this park in the spring of 1963.
"There were more bombings here than anywhere else in the country. That's why they used to call this 'Bombingham,'" Juan said. Then he told me the list of rules to which blacks were expected to adhere around whites.
When we got to the southeast corner of the park, Juan said, "Police Commissioner Bull Connor and his police were waiting for us with the dogs and fire hoses." One of the art pieces on the walk is of three bronze police dogs jumping from the walls. (Many of the statues in the park were created by El Paso artist James Drake.)
"You can see the church from here where the four little girls were killed," Juan said. From where we stood, the red brick church seemed to rest on the shoulder of a white limestone monument of three ministers kneeling in prayer. "Our leaders were all ministers because blacks weren't allowed in politics," he said. "Dr. King was arrested on this corner." Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. explained the civil rights movement to the world in his "Letter From the Birmingham Jail."
We walked toward two bronze water cannons aimed at a statue of two children ducking for cover. "The firemen would spray at a kid's knees to knock them down. Then they would wash them down the street like a ride at Water World, only this wasn't any fun," Juan said.
"Notice how the statue of Dr. King has a fresh paint job?" Juan asked as we walked past it going toward the twin towers of the 16th Street Baptist Church. "We still get vandals in the night who deface the statue," he said almost matter-of-factly.
"The first bomb went off at 10:22 outside of the rooms where Sunday school was about to begin. They targeted the children," Juan said as he pointed out the cracks in the church left by 10 sticks of dynamite.
It was an incredible 30-minute walk with a man with a gift for storytelling. At the corner of the church he turned to me and said: "You know there are lots of different kinds of homeless people out here on the street, right? I'm trying to get my life back together. Could you help me out?"
"Let me buy you supper," I said as I handed him bills from my wallet. Juan took the money and disappeared as quickly as he had appeared on the other side of the park. What happened in between was a tour of life in Birmingham 42 years ago. I'm not sure who he is, but the chamber of commerce should put him on the payroll.
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