The day we observe Martin Luther King Jr. day in California is a day for marching, a day for service, or a day for relaxing. Some people still have to work, but most have a 3 day weekend. In Alabama, where Reverend King began his ministry and his public service to the civil rights movement, they celebrate a day for King and a day for Robert E. Lee. Yes, sad isn’t it?
I took the time today to reread Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” from Why We Can’t Wait (1963). Like the Apostle Paul, Reverend King wrote from jail to his fellow clergy both a clear argument for why he joined the direct action in Birmingham, and he invited them to join them, as men of conscience, as men of faith, as citizens. Here are some sparklets from his letter:
“Moreover, I am cognizant of the inter-relatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live in the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
“We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.”
“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
May you find the inspiration for creative action and the courage to always do what is morally right.
On our last day in Alabama, we had a full Monday to explore. Alas, many places including the Sloss Furnaces and the Museum of Art are closed on Mondays. We were staying at a Hampton Inn close to Mountain Brook. Birmingham is a relatively new city formed after the Civil War to take advantage of the ore deposits in the tail end of the Appalachian mountains. Mountain Brook is one of the first “planned communities.” If Birmingham (B’Ham) has a specialty, it might be producing real estate marketers.
I was thirsty for a real cup of coffee, so I looked for a coffee shop near me and hit the bonanza! Church Street Coffee and Books offered two of my favorite things (it’s just missing yarn). I found my way there and enjoyed both the coffee and the latest Brene Brown book. Most of the books offered were either ones I’d read or ones I’d like to read. Whoever does their book list is my kindred spirit!
I zipped back to the hotel so Phyllis and I could go to Vulcan Park. We followed a class field trip of 4th graders up the elevator to the spectacular view at the top of the Vulcan statue monument. Then we took in the small museum that tells the story of Birmingham.
We were also close to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and we decided to spend an hour looking at the beautiful gardens. My favorite was the native woods. The gift shop was fun to browse in too.
Birmingham is a place that visitors could enjoy even if you weren’t focused on civil rights places and events. We were ready to go home to California, and we enjoyed our time in Alabama.
While Montgomery and Selma seem stuck in the past, Birmingham is positively forward facing with a robust economy. Birmingham experienced significant civil rights related strife in 1963, including the Children’s Crusade. The downtown is in the beginning of a renaissance and the Civil Rights scars appear to be healing. We started our Sunday at church.
After worship we sought sustenance in the form of brunch. One of the parishioners recommended a restaurant and we walked several blocks only to read the notice that it is permanently closed. The sign suggested we try Mr. Z’s Take Away. We went off in pursuit and ended up deciding to dine at Roots & Revelry, a newish restaurant in a bank redone as apartments and cafes. My chicken and waffles was divine. I’ve added a rule, besides trying pie whenever the opportunity presents, I am going to try fried chicken when in the South and it is on the menu.
My friend made the mistake of wearing fashionable shoes and we’d done a lot of walking already. We were determined to visit the Civil Rights Institute and Kelly Ingram Park was just alongside both the church and Institute. Ingram Park has most of the stops along the Freedom Walk. There are multiple moving statues that tell the story of the Children’s Crusade. Even with the visual aids it was hard to imagine turning fire hoses and dogs on young children (until the recent tear gas at the border on women and children seeking asylum). Some things change and some things stay the same.
When we saw for ourselves the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church location at one corner of the park, we could better understand how it was used by the children as sanctuary and then how it became a target. This is the church that was bombed resulting in the death of four young girls.
Sometimes when I am sitting towards the back of our big sanctuary in Sacramento, I think of how safe I think I am–how little I worry about someone with violent intent coming into our midst. This is a luxury of a mostly Scandinavian Lutheran congregation. With the Charleston shooting, and church burnings, and then more recently the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, I begin to understand what a violation it is to attack a “sanctuary”–a place where we go to worship God and fellowship, a place were strangers are made welcome. The events of 1963 are still relevant.
We did arrive in time to visit the Civil Rights Institute. It offers a comprehensive timeline of the Civil Rights movement. I wished this was our first stop instead of the last on our crawl. We spent quite a long time reading the exhibits and left just before the museum closed. The sidewalks were starting to roll up, so we made our way to the hotel.
We were excited to learn all we could about civil rights history and our ongoing struggle for justice. At the same time we were looking forward to eating some good southern food. When I stepped off the plane in Birmingham I’d been traveling all day on Southwest Airlines. I didn’t say yes to all the high carb, high salt snacks they offer so I was hungry. It was already 8 p.m. when I left the Payless Rental Car counter. And the first car reeked of cigarette smoke and I had to ask for a different vehicle. This took some time. Now I was almost past hungry, so I reminded myself that in California it was only 6:30 p.m. and I headed for the only place I could find near the airport–Hardee’s. Not exactly hitting the southern spot yet a good charbroiled burger. Interesting to note a different fast food chain. (Or is it? It looks remarkably similar to Carl’s Jr.)
The food at Central was delicious and service was solid.
Chantay, Phyllis and I were all together by the next morning and ready to leave early for Montgomery. The plan was to stop along the way but Chantay doesn’t like fast food, so all of the wayside places were nixed and she got busy looking up options in Montgomery on Yelp. She found Cahawba House and directed us there. It is in the heart of downtown and just up the street from the Central Square Fountain. Within minutes we were enjoying good coffee and just what we wanted to eat. Chantay got her grits with cheese. Phyllis got some pimento concoction. (They do love pimento in ‘bama.) I got an amazing biscuit with bacon.
The rest of our trip was not food-obsessed, but we ate very well. For the best experience, wave off your diet till you get home.
Pie Lab in Greensboro, Alabama
In Montgomery we split a giant plate of barbeque at Dreamland BBQ with four meat and 3 sides. Our waiter was terrific but the food was just okay. Central, a restaurant on same side of block as the Legacy Museum was wonderful. I had a pork chop with sweet potatoes and brussel sprouts that was yummy. Chantay had some lemon pie that she only reluctantly offered to share a bite. We returned to Cahawba House for more of those biscuits. When we searched for a restaurant in Tuskegee, both Yelp and Trip Advisor ranked Subway number 1, so we decided to drive back to Montgomery and eat at Sweet Creek Country Store. The smoked chicken was wonderful. The peach cobbler was also delicious but I would have enjoyed it more without the soft serve ice cream on top. Phyllis was yet to be really impressed by the food. She found Chantay and my fascination with searching for places to eat and enthusiasm to try different dishes amusing.
My friend John’s adopted home of Greensboro had a number of delicious places. We enjoyed breakfast at The Stable coffeehouse and lunch and pie at the Pie Lab. Both of these establishments are relatively new and we hope they will prosper.
Birmingham is a foodie’s delight. There are so many places to try that it was daunting to decide where to eat. We started with a recommendation for brunch after worship at 16th Street Baptist Church. We walked about 5 blocks to the site of Mrs. B’s only to read it is closed. The sign on their door redirected us to Mr. Z’s. We trooped off to eat there and then saw the sign for Roots and Revelry. I couldn’t get enough fried chicken. Chantay couldn’t get enough of po’boys–either oyster or shrimp. And everywhere we wanted to try the pie.
P.S. I also was looking for a bookstore and a coffee shop. I found the perfect blend in Church Street Coffee and Books. I browsed the carefully curated books on sale and noticed I have read about half, which means I’ll love the other half! I bought a few… Coffee is good too.
Alabama looked different than I expected. I’ve been to all of the other Southern states save Kentucky, and I thought Alabama would be flatter and dominated by farm crops. Blame digital map apps. If you are looking up where you are going on a paper map you can’t help but see that the Talladega National Forest is like a green smoothie spilled across the state. With Google Maps I zoom in on where I am going and if I don’t take the time to zoom out or use the other features, I make a mental map that is mostly flat.
I also expected more water. A small part of Alabama touches the gulf shore at Mobile, but for the most part Alabama receives its water from the sky. Far from the Mississippi River, the state and its largest communities are not dominated by rivers in the way so many other places are in the US.
There are more hills than I expected and the forests are the same mix of pine and hardwood that cover the Appalachians. We came for the civil rights history but these woods made me wonder about the indigenous people who were here even earlier. The Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, and Chickasaws, as well as the Alabama-Coushattas and the Yuchis hunted, danced and walked in these woods.
Our adventure is a civil rights crawl. Our plan is to drive our rental car to Montgomery-Tuskegee-Selma-Marion-Greensboro and Birmingham. Phyllis, Chantay and I have done internet research and we are also using the “Alabama Civil Rights Museum Trail” as a guide. We also look forward to eating good food and meeting friendly folks from ‘Bama all along the way.
I have observed MLK Jr holiday in different ways over the years. I’ve marched, read essays by MLK, and volunteered locally. Today, I watched as the Sacramento Black Lives Matter marched up J Street, I thought about my intention to visit Birmingham, Alabama this year. I need to wait until after April so I can experience the National Memorial for Peace and Justice also known as the national lynching memorial. I learned about it from a TED talk by Michael Murphy.
After watching this, are you interested in going too?
This morning I was reading Marcus J. Borg’s Heart of Christianity. Coincidentally he was writing about justice. Something to meditate on today.
“…a common misunderstanding of “God’s justice.” Theologically, we have often seen its opposite as “God’s mercy.” “God’s justice” is understood as God’s deserved punishment for us for our sins, “God’s mercy” as God’s loving forgiveness of us in spite of our guilt. Given this choice, we would all prefer God’s mercy and hope to escape God’s justice. But seeing the opposite of justice as mercy distorts what the Bible means by justice. Most often in the Bible, the opposite of God’s justice is not God’s mercy, but human injustice. The issue is the shape of our life together as societies, not whether the mercy of God will supercede the justice of God in the final judgment.”
P.S. If you have young people in your life, consider sharing Angie Thomas’ novel, The Hate U Give.