We all learn about Martin Luther King, in school. We can quote him, “I have a dream….” But there’s a big difference between a chapter in a history book about civil rights and the beginnings of true understanding. A visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute takes the words off the page and brings this important part of our shared history to life.
My visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute had more impact on my heart and mind than any other cultural destination I have visited. The history shared here is powerful and so carefully curated that I am fairly certain it’s impossible to visit and leave unmoved. Unchanged. Unchallenged.
What is the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute?
The Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama is far more than a museum. Like a museum, it shares stories and artifacts, particularly those of the Civil Rights movement. Following the timeline of the civil rights movement in the United States, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute uses the timeline to organize information, events and artifacts to provide context to the information we read in those textbooks.
The important stories of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks are presented in a way that children can understand at their level but that provide deeper context for adults. It does not shy away from Civil Rights movement facts, even the hard ones like the KKK and attacks made on Civil Rights activists.
Yet, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute somehow manages to be fair and encouraging. By focusing on black history in America, it challenges us to consider the tough questions like “what are Civil Rights?” I truly don’t think it’s possible to visit and not be changed.
Visiting the Civil Rights Museum
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is laid out chronologically with five permanent galleries. They are:
- The Barriers Gallery
- The Confrontations Gallery
- The Movements Gallery
- Office of the Mayor
- The Human Rights Gallery
These exhibits do an incredible job presenting the story of these difficult chapters in our nation’s history with respect to those who lived it. For context, the permanent exhibits are shared alongside a timeline that lays out important events in sequence. Above the timeline, national events are marked. Below the timeline, important moments and events in Alabama are marked.
I was deeply saddened by much of what I saw. But, in the end, the story of Birmingham, Alabama civil rights is one of hope, endurance and faith.
The story is incredibly well told.
Exhibits at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
Your Birmingham Civil Rights museum visits start with an introductory video that tells the history of Birmingham, Alabama.
You will learn that:
- Birmingham is a planned city, founded for the purposes of ore mining and steel production.
- Birmingham was founded in 1871, eight years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
- Most early residents of the city, regardless of race, lived in two-room company owned homes, shopped at the company store and lived in poverty. The owners of the steel factories controlled everything.
- As time went on, the city “divided.” Blacks lived in self-contained neighborhoods offering all the services, such as law, grocery, barbers, shops, churches and clubs, that white neighborhoods had. In essence, Birmingham was two cities in one: white and black.
As the movie ended, I was surprised by what came next. Other movie-goers were equally impressed. One of the kids there when I was exclaimed, “Whoa… that’s awesome!”
Well, you’ll have to visit yourself to find out what! I can say that this moment let me know that I was about to experience something special.
The Barriers Gallery
The first exhibits visitors encounter highlight what everyday life was like for blacks and whites in Birmingham. The stark contrast between a “white classroom” and a “black classroom” in 1952 is just one of the many installations to highlight how different life was for whites and blacks.
Separate but equal? You decide.
The Confrontations Gallery
In the Confrontations Gallery, you come face to face with hate.
I stood before a KKK robe and hood and could hardly breathe. I did not grow up in the south; I’m from Ohio. I had no personal knowledge of the KKK. My limited understanding came from a few words in history books. I pictured KKK members as dirty, evil people wearing hastily made, roughshod gowns made of burlap (or something similarly rough). Dark. Secretive. Ugly.
The robe on display at Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, donated anonymously, is displayed carefully in a glass cabinet. It is carefully made of silk and finely stitched. Had it been a wedding dress, it would have been stunning. But knowing its purpose, and seeing the careful, meticulous, quality of the work, I was left feeling like I had been punched in the gut.
I had to sit down. Blessedly, there was a chair nearby. Tears filled my eyes. I had to face my naivete.
Sure, it was uncomfortable. But, truth isn’t always easy.
Other elements in this gallery show that the hate endures, such as the cross and shovel used in a Huntsville hate crime. In the 1990s.
TIP FOR PARENTS: While carefully and respectfully presented, the exhibits in this gallery can be hard to understand. The lesson plan resources included on the website can help you explain things to your kids.
The Movements Gallery
The Movements Gallery highlights the quiet revolution of Rosa Parks to traumatic events like the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing.
Mrs. Rosa Parks boarded a bus, paid her fare, and sat in the back of a city bus behind the “white section” sign that designated where the white section ended and the black section began. She was a working lady going home after a long day.
As the bus filled, though, the driver kept moving the sign designating the “white section” of the bus further back. Mrs. Rosa Parks moved back. Eventually, Mrs. Parks refused to give up her seat and the driver had her arrested.
The visual display helped me understand that Mrs. Rosa Parks didn’t plan to start a revolution. She was a quiet, hard-working wife who just wanted to sit after a long day at work. Except for her skin color, she could have been my own grandmother.
Most of us know the basics of the Rosa Parks story — that she refused to give up her seat. Likewise, most of us were never taught the humiliation she faced, forced to move further and further back on the bus as it filled with white riders.
Besides the stories we all learn in school about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, you’ll learn about others, like Dr. Richard Arrington, Jr., a Birmingham city councilman who later became Birmingham, Alabama’s first black mayor.
You’ll learn the names of the young girls killed in the 16th Street Church Bombing (Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins and Carole Roberts) as well as the stories of their friends, the Rev. Carolyn McKinstry and Janice Kelsey. Shards of glass from the blown out windows remind us of the devastation.
You’ll meet Myrna Carter Jackson, Ricky Powell, Rev. Gwendolyn Webb, Miriam McLendon and many more who bravely stood up to the police in quiet protest as they withstood attacks from fire hoses and police dogs during the 1963 Children’s Crusade.
Museum displays explaining these events include windows that overlook both Kelly Ingram Park, where the Crusade took place, and the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Reading the history and looking out on the sites themselves makes the civil rights movement more tangible than any book ever could.
At that time, Birmingham was the most segregated city in the entire country. Separate for sure. Equal, definitely not.
Office of the Mayor
It’s hard to believe that only 16 years after the police attacked children with attack dogs, Richard Arrington, Jr., a black man, was elected mayor of Birmingham, a position he held for twenty years.
His office, and significant memorabilia from his time as mayor, is displayed, a testament to hope and reconciliation.
I remember standing before his desk sensing the hope it represents.
Side note: My oldest son moved to Birmingham in 2012. I knew little about the city, next to nothing, honestly before then. The Birmingham I know is vibrant, exciting and filled with opportunity. It’s got a great food scene, vibrant nightlife, an amazing downtown park that’s a hub for festivals and concerts. While still evolving, I know the post-Richard Arrington Birmingham, a legacy of the civil rights movement and his leadership.
As you move to the last gallery, you pass through what’s called the “Procession Gallery.”
In this area, a bright, open space, you can walk among replica statues that remind us we are all human. Read inspiring quotes and view photos to remind us we are all — people.
Human Rights Gallery
The museum’s last permanent gallery is the Human Rights Gallery. It reminds us that the civil rights movement here in the United States is not isolated. If anything, the American Civil Rights Movement has inspired people worldwide to fight for equality. It’s not easy. In fact, it’s very hard to break the generational chains of prejudice and discrimination.
But this exhibit’s question, “What’s Your Story?” asks us to remember who we are, how we fit in the story. It challenges us to consider the tough questions we still face today about issues like prejudice, judgment and bullying.
More, it inspires hope. We all have a story. We all share the same world.
This last exhibit is our hope for the future — and it helps bring all the emotions stirred up to a good place.
Some of these people quietly protested outside stores that would not allow blacks to enter. Others dedicated their lives as civil rights activists to fight for equality.
Each of their stories is told in context, so that visitors to the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama can better understand the importance of their sacrifice.
What should I know before visiting with my kids?
Black history and civil rights movement facts can be hard to digest. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute does an incredible job making this a museum that all ages can visit, but some topics are tough.
If visiting with young children, know that the museum is large. There’s a lot to take in, and much of it it will be hard for little ones to comprehend. They just don’t have the life experience to put it all in context.
But, that doesn’t mean don’t take them!
Use these tips for visiting with children based on age group:
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute has created many lesson plans for teachers, but they can be used by families as well — either before you go to educate kids about what they will see or after your visit to explore topics more deeply.
Talk to young kids (ages 4-8) on their level using phrases they can understand:
- Imagine if your friends didn’t like the color of your shirt and were mean to you. How would you feel?
- At side by side exhibits showing the parallel of black life and white life in Birmingham, ask kids which one they would prefer and why they like it better.
- Tell the story of Rosa Parks in a gentle way. This lady wanted to sit down after working all day long. The bus driver wouldn’t let her sit down because she had brown skin. She didn’t think that was very fair, so she sat down anyway. If you were tired after school and the bus driver told you that you have to stand up, would you be happy about it? Why not?
With kids in elementary school and middle school, use terms they have learned in school:
- They have learned about bullying in school programs, so talk in terms of that.
- Build on what they have learned in school. Let them take in the exhibits and then ask them to show you what they saw that they didn’t know before.
- Listen actively and allow them to process what they see. Respond to their questions.
- Encourage respect.
For all ages:
The Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama also has extensive archives, titled “Foot Soldiers,” to learn more about civil rights activists and leaders who played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
Those who live in the Birmingham area can also participate in activities throughout the year. Check the site to learn more or talk with museum staff when visiting.
Plan your visit to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
How long does it take to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute?
Plan a minimum of two hours to visit. To see it all, allow four hours to visit.
How much does it cost to visit the civil rights museum in Birmingham?
You have to purchase tickets online for the Civil Rights Institute. Though, if you plan to visit other civil rights sites in Birmingham, save money with a multi-attraction pass that includes the civil rights museum and 13 other sites in the area. It is only $36..
- Adult admission is $15,
- Seniors, college students, military and kids in grades fourth grade-high school admission is $13.
- Children below fourth grade are free.
When is the museum open?
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is open Tuesdays through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The last admission is at 4:00 p.m., but I recommend arriving no later than 3:00 p.m. if possible to have enough time to visit.
Know what to expect when visiting the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to avoid logistical frustrations!
Bag Policy: As an affiliate of the Smithsonian, their bag policy is used at the Civil Rights Institute.
- Only bags smaller than 9 ½ inches x 8 ½ inches can be carried into the galleries. Any item not meeting this requirement must be left in a locker.
- No backpacks (or sling bags) are allowed.
- All bags will be searched prior to entry, and once cleared, will be tagged by security.
- Lockers are available to rent to store bags that do not meet policy guidelines.
Photo Policy: Still photos for personal use may be taken in the museum. However, NO FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY is allowed as it can damage delicate items. Selfie sticks, tripods and monopods are not allowed in the museum.
Accessibility: The museum is fully accessible, with convenient designated parking spaces in the parking lot. A few wheelchairs are available for visitor use, but cannot be guaranteed. Strollers are allowed, though compact strollers are recommended.
Food and drink: Food and drink is not allowed in the museum. There are areas for people with special dietary needs to take a break to eat or to feed infants.
You might like to read these to learn more about Birmingham, Alabama history: