Long Road to the Promised Land: Kelly Ingram Park

Kelly Ingram Park is downtown across from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI), and in keeping with other things locals take for granted, it’s doubtful most residents of Birmingham have taken time to visit. After all, it’s always there, so what’s the rush? (It must be a universal truth that locals anywhere  miss whatever is in their own back yard.  I spoke with a New Yorker moving here who said she looked forward to finally getting to visit the Big Apple and enjoy a Broadway show).

Kelly Ingram is no picnic park, despite its broad walkways and shade trees. It is more of a place to think about what happened here in the Birmingham of 1963, in Dr. King’s words, “Probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States.”

The Park has an audio tour available from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, but I find that King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail is an excellent historical background for a visit. You can walk through all the stations in about 30 minutes. Be warned that the statuary is designed to provoke a reaction, and appropriately so. Go in a pensive mood when you can:

  • Walk through a life-size vignette of police dogs with teeth bared, seemingly jumping toward you, and imagine the terror felt by peaceful demonstrators
  • View a young boy and girl as if they are behind bars – open to both literal and figurative interpretations
  • See a figure of a policeman menacing at a young man and think how it must have felt to know you were at the mercy of those in authority
  • Stand practically in the shadow of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which sits across from the northwest corner of the park

When I look at the park’s statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. with its gaze toward the 16th Street Baptist Church, I think of his last speech when he prophetically said he wasn’t concerned about threats to his life; he had been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land.  That is some comfort despite the fact that his likeness is assigned a perpetual view of the site of a national tragedy.

You owe it to yourself to take a stroll here and take it all in. There is parking around the perimeter of the park and in a deck on 17th street. The park is full of open space and is generally quiet.

Think like a tourist and visit Kelly Ingram Park. You don’t have to be a visitor to pause and reflect on this city’s part in our nation’s history.

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