"I am in Birmingham because injustice is here", wrote Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, on April 16, 1963. Today, the Mayor of this city, William A. Bell Sr., strives to make it a "humane place in which citizens can thrive, unencumbered by racism or torment". On the occasion of the first Meeting of the Global Steering Committee of the International Coalition of Cities against Racism (ICCAR), held in Bologna, Italy, from 17 to 18 April 2016, the Mayor shares his thoughts on Birmingham’s cultural legacy and its stewardship.
Fifty-three years ago, on April 16, 1963, in a dank jail cell in the city over which I now govern, Dr. Martin Luther King was held with fifty other protestors for trying to bring national attention to the brutal racism African Americans, including my parents, endured there.
On that day, Dr. King, held in solitary confinement, finished his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” – now a central text in the Civil Rights movement – and in the struggle against global racism and for human rights as well. And though the jail in which Dr. King was held for eight days has since been demolished, the cell in which he wrote still bears his witness, having been carefully preserved in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI).
The BCRI is a cultural and educational research center that promotes a comprehensive understanding and appreciation for the significance of civil rights development in Birmingham with an increasing emphasis on the international struggle for universal human rights. As a living institution, it views the lessons of the past as crucial to understanding our global heritage and helping to define its future. Since it opened its doors in 1992, more than two million visitors from the United States and around the world have come to see the cell where Dr. King wrote words, which still ring in the world’s ears today.
Because stewardship and growth are vital to living institutions, we have set plans in motion to grow Birmingham’s culturally legacy by way of establishing a federal National Civil Rights Historic Park adjacent to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and encompassing the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was the target of a racially motivated bombing, in September 1963, that killed four girls in the midst of the American Civil Rights Movement (1954–1968), and Kelly Ingram Park served as a central staging ground for demonstrations.
The Project will also restore and convert the Gaston Motel. Considered among the most significant civil rights landmarks in Birmingham, it was opened in 1954 by A.G. Gaston, and became the lone stop for African American celebrities including Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, Harry Belafonte and Count Basie. The motel was also a headquarters for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was in Birmingham and its Room 30 was a second floor suite known as the "war room" where the significant marches and peaceful protest movement that broke the back of segregation and led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were held.
While the motel is important historically, it will also offer educational opportunities of the civil rights struggles internationally. To that end, we are working with the U.S. Department of State so that the site will be a part of an international effort to bring greater attention to human rights violations throughout the world.
Birmingham’s past, present and future are relevant to the daily lives of all cities. We must continue to tell our stories, and on the occasion of our timely first gathering, it is my hope that the work in Birmingham, Alabama will encourage dialogue among ICCAR members concerning our collective efforts to tell our stories of struggle and liberation.
William A. Bell
W. A. Bell, serves the City of Birmingham, Alabama, as City Councilor and Council President since over 25 years. He was elected to a full term as Mayor of Birmingham, in 2011, and was re-elected Mayor again in 2013. The U.S. Coalition of Cities against Racism and Discrimination has been launched in Birmingham, on 12 September 2013.