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What Do We Tell the Kids? Birmingham’s Story

When it comes to difficult and dreaded conversations to have with your kids, the story of Birmingham’s past ranks right up there with the birds and the bees for discomfort. How do you tell them that a church was bombed? That four young girls were murdered in their Sunday school class and it happened here, on 16th Street?  Further, that there was a culture at the time that disrespected African Americans and denied them their rights?

It’s impossible to view pictures from those days without being moved. Consider the remarkable courage it took for the first African American parents enrolling their children in a white school amidst a rabid, angry mob. Imagine the heartache those moms had for their children, beyond any worry most of us can comprehend. Forget little things like peer pressure or making friends. This was an openly hostile environment – make that world – where moms watched their children scorned even by adults and authority figures.

Birmingham’s past is so painful that even now, when the city has become another place entirely, it still winces at the mention of its painful shadow. But like any family shame, you know you must be the one to tell your children before they hear it from someone else. As uncomfortable as it is, it’s a conversation that needs to happen.

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Hopefully your kids will find it incredulous that distinctions like those in 1963 ever existed in society. But Birmingham’s role in the American story is undeniable. The course of history was changed here; national attention was brought to the Civil Rights Movement at a pivotal time; and most important, we are determined not to let that event define us. Our hope continues through our kids, who can learn from the past to ensure that nothing similar ever gets the chance to happen again.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute has a wealth of information along with riveting exhibits that illustrate daily life in those times. The story unfolds in chronological order, comparing national events alongside those in Alabama. It becomes apparent that civil rights were at issue throughout the country but reached a flashpoint with the 16th Street Church bombing, when even those who had not concerned themselves with the strife realized things had to change.

Moms will most sympathize with the interviews shared in Online Resources and available in more detail at the Institue, which include interviews with Carrie Hamilton Lock, the first African American student at West End, and her mother, Florida Hamilton.  The Human Rights Gallery (recently renovated) draws attention to current situations worldwide, reminding us that struggles are still far from over.

Students residing in Jefferson County are admitted at no charge, but admission is free for everyone on Sundays (except groups). Your kids will probably visit through a school field trip, but don’t wimp out and leave this conversation up to the teachers alone. This city is your kid’s hometown; make sure they know it’s story.


  • Denise B.

    This is an amazing post that should be emailed to everyone we know. So many of my friends have pondered aloud the same question, and unfortunately have shelved the discussion “until later.” Let’s talk about it. Thanks, birminghammom.com.