In 1961, the first of a series of brave souls hopped aboard buses and rode through the American South—including Birmingham—to challenge segregation. And what a challenge it was.
The previous year, the United States Supreme Court passed a law that effectively desegregated public interstate transportation, but the law went largely unenforced below the Mason-Dixon Line. These “Freedom Riders"—a diverse, multi-ethnic group—provoked violent reactions throughout the region, but their courage was an inspiration, and ultimately they did not risk their lives in vain: The rides are widely believed to be the boon the Civil Rights Movement needed and they garnered the attention of then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who helped pass legislation that led to the official end of Jim Crow laws in public transit.
“Birmingham … became the cornerstone of the Civil Rights Movement,” explains Dr. Leah Tucker, executive director of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, let's take our own “ride” through town and explore some culturally significant spots that demonstrate why Birmingham is called “the last major Southern city in America.”
First Stop: Civil Rights
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute tells the story of the South through multimedia exhibitions, galleries, and education programs. It also recently unveiled the Civil Rights Heritage Trail, which is a self-guided tour that snakes through downtown, highlighting important landmarks along the historic 1963 Civil Rights march path.
“The events in Birmingham have made it an iconic city in American history,” says Ahmad Ward, head of education at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. “Birmingham has been forced to look at its dark history and make strides to become a place where civil and human rights can be viewed critically and where meaningful dialogue can be encouraged. This history has made Birmingham a beacon for other countries with cultural intolerance and human rights violations.”
The Civil Rights trail kicks off at Kelly Ingram Park, which was an assembly point for anti-segregation sit-ins, marches, boycotts, and arrests in the 1960s. In addition to the tour, groups can take advantage of available spaces here, including a rotunda for up to 300 guests, a lecture room for up to 20, a community meeting room for up to 80, and “The Commons” for up to 80.
Next Stop: Fourth Avenue
Built in 1935, the Carver Theatre for the Performing Arts is located in the historic Fourth Avenue Business District and has hosted such iconic performers as Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. It's no wonder the theater is home to the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, an Art Deco museum honoring jazz greats with ties to the state of Alabama.
“From all the strife and separation, creativity thrived in Birmingham,” Tucker says. “Great jazz artists, poets, painters, and authors broke through all the barriers and made an oasis in sweet home Alabama. Notable struggle makes you noble.”
Third Stop: The Roaring ’20s
The Redmont Hotel—Birmingham's only downtown boutique hotel and home to the city's only rooftop bar— was built in 1925, when the Roaring Twenties and a booming iron industry brought wealth and activity to the young city. More luxury accommodations were needed to lodge affluent visitors, including businessmen, ministers, and politicians, and the Redmont Hotel fit the bill. With glittering chandeliers, marble floors, a stylish ballroom, and the city's first “private bath in every room,” the hotel takes its moniker from the nearby Red Mountains, themselves named for their richness in iron ore.
The Redmont Hotel has seen its share of history, changing hands several times and even serving as campaign headquarters for two different governors in the 1960s—Jim Folsom, among the first governors to embrace civil rights, and his successor, George Wallace. Today, the property is listed in the National Register of Historical Places and has been restored to its original splendor, though the rooms have been enlarged and event space has been added, including a ballroom, mezzanine, and smaller meeting rooms.
Fourth Stop: Union HQ
Rewind the clock further and explore the Arlington Antebellum Home and Gardens, built in 1842 on a site originally settled by a native Georgian in 1822. The sprawling home has seen numerous owners, once even serving as Union headquarters during General James H. Wilson's planning of what would be the largest Union raid into Alabama during the Civil War.
Today it is owned and run by the city and the Arlington Historical Association. Groups can enjoy both the landscaped grounds and the dining room for meal functions and receptions.
Last Stop: Sloss Furnaces
Birmingham is known for its rich natural resources. In particular, Jones Valley is home to all of the necessary minerals used to make iron. It's no surprise that the city became an industrial powerhouse and it wasn't until the late 1960s and early 1970s that the iron industry declined here.
Sloss Furnaces was founded in 1880 by Alabama merchant and railroad magnate Colonel James Withers Sloss. It produced iron for 90 years before shutting down in 1971, and was later deemed a National Historic Landmark. Today, visitors can tour the hulking furnace and view the equipment used to transport raw materials. It's a trip through the South's incredible industrial history and a reminder of the hard work and perseverance that accompany achieving the American dream. The facility can host groups of up 2,500, and available spaces include a courtyard and the water tower.