When I told friends I was planning a trip to Birmingham, the reaction was universal.
"Alabama?" one asked. "On purpose?"
I shared their skepticism, viewing the travel literature with the jaundiced eye of a longtime Los Angeles resident who puzzled over the concept of vacationing in the South. But I was flying here for a business meeting, so why not take some extra time and look around?
It's not the oldest or most storied city in the South. But Birmingham -- about a 2½-hour drive west of Atlanta -- has a complex history that includes post-Civil War industrialization, the corruption of an establishment that planned to carry out that industrialization with nonunionized and African-American labor and, decades later, its role as a staging ground in the fight for basic human rights.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of some of the most important events in the civil rights movement, and many of them took place in Birmingham: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter From Birmingham Jail"; Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor's use of attack dogs and fire hoses against peaceful demonstrators, including some children; and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls.
Birmingham is embracing this anniversary with a year of photo and museum exhibitions, concerts, plays, symposiums, festivals, workshops and the National Conference on Civil Rights. I scheduled extra time here to see the city's historic core and understand the city's legacy.
After a few short days, I found myself becoming a banner carrier for Birmingham: Anyone who cares about U.S. history should plan a trip here.
Downtown's Tutwiler Hotel makes a good starting point. The original building was torn down in the 1970s, but with a boost from private and government grants, the Tutwiler family transformed the 1914 Ridgely Apartments into a new, attractive hotel.
Hub of the movement
On my first morning here, I left the Tutwiler and headed down Sixth Avenue North on my way to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a facility with an oral history collection of more than 500 interviews. Every few hundred yards, I stopped to read the markers along the Civil Rights Heritage Trail.
The markers lead to Kelly Ingram Park, cater-corner from the 16th Street Baptist Church. The 4-acre green space is the site of statues and sculptures -- some in welded steel, others in limestone or bronze -- that commemorate and, in some cases, depict the civil rights movement and the city's notorious response: police dogs, fire hoses, jail time. The park once was the heartbeat of civil rights activity in Birmingham, but on this day, it was empty.
Where were the children on field trips? But then I spotted them, making their way into the Civil Rights Institute. I followed them -- fourth-graders, I later learned -- into a handsome domed lobby. "Hope this doesn't wreck it for you," a teacher said, smiling ruefully. In truth, their reactions to mid-20th century events enhanced the experience. I trailed the students, waiting to see what engaged them.
Many of the exhibits were designed to re-create life in Birmingham when Jim Crow laws determined how people would function in the segregated city. Displays include a replica of a burned-out bus that had carried Freedom Riders and timelines that track the progress of the civil rights movement. Some of the fourth-graders lingered to read newspaper clippings and quotes from leaders of that movement. They halted, a few of them bewildered, in front of a replica of segregated classrooms.
Later, the kids were asked to sit on the floor and watch a short video. "No talking," a teacher said. "Listen." Scenes from the August 1963 March on Washington flickered on the huge screen, including clips from King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The fourth-graders applauded. It felt like a benediction.
The 16th Street Baptist Church sits across the street from the institute. Once inside, our guide gently reminded the small clutch of visitors that the church is more than a symbol of the civil rights movement; it's an active 21st-century parish. But I found it impossible to think about anything but the events of 50 years ago.
Anguish still remains
On Sept. 15, 1963, soon after the March on Washington, a dynamite blast ripped open the basement of the church, which had become the site of civil rights meetings. Four girls died; at least 20 people were injured. It took more than a decade for any of the suspects to be convicted of the real crime, and the reverberations of the blast -- national anguish and anger, a slow serving of justice -- continue today.
After our small group watched a video that focuses on the history of the church and the headlines of 50 years ago, the tour guide, a parishioner, patiently recalled details of the bombing and its aftermath. It's almost impossible to learn too much about this site.
In the afternoon, a colleague joined me as I explored some older monuments to Birmingham's past. First stop: Sloss Furnaces, which opened just a few years after the town was founded in 1871.
The men who planned Birmingham (and named it after the industrial powerhouse of Birmingham, England) chose a place close to deposits of limestone, coal and iron ore, paving the way for the growth of local iron and steel manufacturing. Sloss Furnaces, now a national historic landmark, helped propel the city into industrial prominence that continued through the 1960s.
The abandoned blast furnaces, in a parklike setting, have a natural, desolate beauty. The size of those furnaces and the cars used to transport molten pig iron made us feel Lilliputian, excellent preparation for our next stop: the Vulcan Park and Museum, atop the city's Red Mountain.
The highlight of any trip up the hill is a gigantic statue of the Roman god of the forge, cast in 1904 and long touted as the world's largest cast-iron figure. He's 56 feet tall and sits atop a 124-foot-high pedestal. A short elevator ride in a tower attached to the pedestal offered great views of the city (the Birmingham-Hoover metropolitan area has more than 1 million people), and on this day, Feb. 14, decent views of several weddings taking place.
The next morning, I spent a couple of hours in the Birmingham Museum of Art, with galleries devoted to European paintings and decorative arts from the 13th through the 19th centuries and works by American artists Gilbert Stuart, John Singer Sargent, Frederick Remington and Georgia O'Keeffe. The top floor includes galleries devoted to African and Asian art, Native American and pre-Columbian works. But some of the most striking pieces are displayed in a gallery devoted to recent acquisitions, including a "wearable sculpture" by artist Nick Cave.
At lunchtime, I picked up three of my colleagues, who were eager to dine at Chez Fonfon in the Five Points area. The French bistro was opened in 2000 by Frank Stitt, who, many believe, has almost single-handedly put Birmingham on the foodie map with Fonfon, the next-door Highlands Bar & Grill and Bottega Restaurant & Cafe.
A taste of Birmingham
Chez Fonfon did not disappoint. Our group sampled a fennel and blue cheese tartine; gravlax with potato cakes and horseradish cream; a shrimp and avocado salad; trout with brown butter, capers and Brabant potatoes; and gulf fish with olives, roasted potatoes and aioli.
A typical Birmingham experience? Perhaps not. The next night, we ate at Saw's Juke Joint, crowded with locals, in the suburb of Mountain Brook. We feasted on fried okra, onions and pickles, pork with grits and turnip greens, and deviled eggs, all served amid buckets of peppers, barbecue sauce, hot sauce and mustard -- and rolls of paper towels.
As we crisscrossed the city to various dining spots and meeting locations, we stopped at other landmarks -- including the Alabama Theater and the Alabama Power Building. But a handful of us wanted to return to the 16th Street Baptist Church for Sunday services.
We needed more time to take in the beauty of the sanctuary. We listened to hymns of praise, readings from Luke and Matthew and a pastor who preached for close to an hour -- seemingly without notes.
Inside, the choir sang "Victory in Jesus." Outside, runners in the Mercedes-Benz Marathon passed by, struggling to complete their task. Just a few minutes away, patrons at the newly opened Todd English P.U.B. at the Westin hotel sipped beers and indulged in another type of worship: the adulation of professional sports figures.
Faith takes many forms in Birmingham, and on this Sunday morning, they all seemed to be on display.
June 1-Oct. 31.
-- Linda Zavoral, Mercury News