Birmingham: The winners make the memorials by Owen Dwyer

Day Five of our tour and we visited  Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama. The park occupies a central location in the city’s civil rights history. It sits across the street from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Nearby the park is 16th Avenue Baptist Church and the Gaston Motel. The park itself is (in)famous as the site where uniformed officers and firefighters confronted peaceful protesters with dogs and water hoses. Walking amid these sites, the location of pivotal events in the country’s history, I felt something akin to a heavy emotional gravity weighing on me. 

Today, the park bears a subtitle, “A Place of Revolution and Reconciliation.” The park’s walkways are lined with plaques and statues. Historical plaques share information and statues memorialize iconic moments from the campaign to desegregate the city. These statues are arranged in such a way along the park’s path that visitors cannot avoid confronting lunging dogs and jailhouse bars. The uncompromising presence of the statues presents a visceral lesson in the power of the police to terrorize citizens.

It’s a cliche that history books (and museums) are written by the winners. The manifest reality of Kelly Ingram Park’s statuary and plaques clearly proves who won! Through their courage and sacrifice, African Americans in Birmingham composed a scathing indictment of state-sanctioned terror and the corruption of racism. The winner’s history book, unfortunately, is far from finished. The painful reality of police violence indicates that Birmingham was a single chapter in what will apparently be a much longer book. There’s more writing to be done.

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