Soon after crossing into Alabama from Tennessee on I-65, near Ardmore, you hit the welcome center. These welcome center deals vary from state to state. Some are just the first rest area on the interstate when you cross the state line with an extra rack of pamphlets in the lobby. Others are built out, tricked up, staffed, and designed to be special. Alabama went all out in its center welcoming visitors on Interstate 65. I rarely miss a visit to a welcome center, whether I have to use the facilities or not, but this one is especially hard to ignore.
That’s a 224’ Saturn 1B rocket sitting on a concrete pad near the entrance of the Alabama Welcome Center. Huntsville, Alabama is home to the second largest research park in the United States and to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center and its popular educational program “Space Camp.” German scientist Wernher Von Braun arrived in Huntsville in 1950 and led the development of rocket technology that carried American astronauts in space, and at the same time of course advanced the reach of long range intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to carry lethal nuclear warheads.
Along a more pastoral vein, also near Huntsville is one of the northern most golf course along the Robert Trent Jones golf trail, Hampton Cove. That trail of beautiful old golf courses, 26 in all, at 11 locations, offering 468 holes of golf, was designed by famous golfer Bobby Jones and stretches from The Shoals course in Muscle Shoals to Lake Wood in Point Clear on Alabama’s gulf coast.
I’m told if you get started on one end or the other you can golf 18 in the morning, drive to the next course, find yourself some good southern food and hospitality, libations most likely throughout the afternoon and evening, play a nearby golf course the next morning, and repeat for as many days as you like. Sounds like a wonderful way to spend a couple weeks or more. But I digress.
This Alabama welcome center had what looked like a recently added building housing a staffed information counter and racks and racks of pamphlets for all the wonderful things you can do in Alabama. Swim on the beaches of Gulf Shores, gamble in the casinos near Mobile, raft in the rivers, fish, take your kids to a water park, visit old mansions and plantations, all the stuff. But I couldn’t find what I was looking for.
“Excuse me ma’am,” I said to one of the older women behind the counter. “Where is the information about the civil rights sites?”
She looked at me quizzically. A younger man with a name tag and a vest, just coming in the building, heard me.
“Did I hear you asking about the civil rights sites?”
“We keep those over here.”
He pointed to a counter in the corner where sat a small rack with space for four pamphlets. Three were filled. There was a pamphlet called United States Civil Rights Trail which listed museums and other sites in 14 states, a pamphlet printed by the U.S. Dept. of the Interior on the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, and a pamphlet for the new national Memorial for Peace and Justice, commonly known as the lynching museum, in Montgomery. I took one of each.
“Do you have anything for Selma?”
“I think that’s the one that’s missing. We may be out of those. Sorry.”
Of equal interest to me was the stone marker outside the welcome center. It was inscribed with the state motto “We Dare Defend our Rights” which I found out was adopted in 1923. Alabama’s motto begs two questions. What rights were they talking about in 1923? And whose?
I drove straight to Birmingham, Alabama and made my way downtown to the 16th Street Baptist Church. When I walked in the sanctuary a man was speaking to an all black audience of school kids and teachers. I took a seat in the back pew and listened.
I learned that 15 sticks of dynamite were planted beneath the steps on the east side of the building, outside the church’s Sunday school rooms. They were connected to a timing device set to explode at 10:00 a.m., well after Sunday school started, on Sunday, September15, 1963. That explosion killed 4 black girls: Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14), and Carol Denise McNair (11). 22 others were injured in the blast.
Four white segregationists, known members of the Ku Klux Klan, were implicated in the crime: Thomas Edward Blanton Jr, Herman Frank Cash, Robert Edward Chambliss, and Bobby Frank Cherry. There were no prosecutions until 1977, when Robert Chambliss was tried and convicted of first degree murder of Carol Denise McNair. Thomas Blanton and Bobby Cherry were each convicted on four counts of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2001 and 2002 respectively. Herman Cash died in 1994 and was never charged for his alleged involvement.
At the end of his talk the speaker took questions. A young black student raised his hand and asked this:
“Why did it take so long to punish the men who did that?”
The speaker took a long time to answer.
“There was no interest among the white controlled police department, prosecutors or the courts in Birmingham, or Alabama for that matter, to seriously pursue those suspects. The FBI took over those cases almost immediately, but they proved to be very slow and methodical in their investigation.”
“1963 was a very different time in Birmingham and America. To understand what it was like there is a lot your need to know. You can start learning about that time across the street at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.”
While I was inside I went to the lower floor of the church into a large conference room with smaller rooms on the outside wall. They were the Sunday school rooms being used that morning the four girls were killed by the bomb. I walked outside the building to the east side of the church where the bomb was planted under the stairs and looked in the window. A new brick wall separated the bomb was planted the Sunday school rooms I’d just seen from the inside. The dynamite, that morning in 1963, blew the bricks and mortar of the old wall into the rooms where children were gathered. I took a big breath, stood up, and walked across the street.
Outside the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is a life size statue of Fred Shuttlesworth. Here he is pictured in a more familiar role. Speaking loudly, above a bible, from a pulpit.