Since I arrived well before the Faculty Institute was to begin, I was able to visit the Birmingham Museum of Art. For me, a city's worth as a destination is determined in part by its cultural scene. I was pleasantly surprised by the size of the museum and by the size and scope of its collection. The museum was three stories, had galleries dedicated to its permanent collections of European, American, Asian, African, Pre-Columbian, and Native American arts. Additionally, the museum had devoted an entire floor to an exhibition entitled, Third Space / Shifting Conversations about Contemporary Art.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) served as the host of the Faculty Institute. According to its mission statement, "BCRI is a cultural and educational research center that promotes a comprehensive understanding and appreciation for the significance of civil rights developments in Birmingham with an increasing emphasis on the international struggle for universal human rights. BCRI is a 'living institution' that views the lessons of the past as crucial to understanding our heritage and defining our future." (http://www.bcri.org/information/aboutbcri.html)
BCRI is centrally located in the city's "Civil Rights District," specifically adjacent to two key historic sites: the 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park. During the 1960s, the church served as an organizational headquarters, site of mass meetings, and a gathering point for marchers and protesters. On September 15, 1963, the church was bombed, killing four young black girls preparing for Sunday school. Kelly Ingram Park (known historically as West Park) was also a staging site of Civil Rights rallies, demonstrations and confrontations. In Spring 1963, Birmingham sheriff Eugene "Bull" Connor ordered marchers and protesters, some as young as six, sprayed with high pressure fire hoses and attacked by police dogs.
The BCRI's conception of itself as a "living institution" that applies the lessons of the past to the realities of our present, became increasingly significant as the Faculty Institute progressed. We discovered as a group the problems of treating working institutions as historic sites. We also discovered how history through public memorialization becomes in Dawoud Bey's words, "abstracted in a fuzzy and mythic kind of way."
The 16th Street Baptist Church was founded in 1873 as the First Colored Baptist Church of Birmingham and moved to its current location and name in 1880. The church standing today is the second building, completed in 1911 and repaired following the 1963 bombing. The Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church of Montgomery was established in 1877; the lot on which the church sits was purchased in 1879; and the building was constructed between 1883 and 1889. Both churches hosted Martin Luther King, Jr., the former in 1963 during the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Birmingham Campaign, the latter from 1954 to 1960 as its pastor. Both churches were headquarters for Civil Rights protests in the city. The Birmingham Campaign sought desegregation of Birmingham's downtown stores, fair hiring practices in shops and city employment, reopening of public parks, and the creation of a bi-racial committee to oversee the desegregation of Birmingham's public schools. From his office in the Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, King provided leadership for the Montgomery Improvement Associations and for the 1955-56 boycott of the city's bus system.
Public history presentations of the Civil Rights movement focus almost exclusively on the past. The effect is commemoration, apology for past wrongs, reconciliation of aggrieved parties, and forgiveness and cleansing of society's collective soul. The implicit message is where the problem lies. The monuments and memorials proclaim a progress narrative, one in which we as a culture and society have experienced but ultimately moved past and beyond these horrible events. The suggestion is that these social inequities no longer exist, which while maybe true in scale is not true in the absolute. In her critique of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Victoria Gallagher notes "what is hidden by this 'tradition of progress' theme are current demographics showing that Birmingham like so many other American cities, continues to be segregated...[T]here is no clear assessment of the current state of affairs in Birmingham within any of the galleries. History is therefore fractured from current reality on a day-to-day level." Gallagher continues, "The Institute helps people to vividly experience, remember, and interpret events and accomplishments removed from them in time and space but is less useful in assisting one to interpret the comments of a rental-car spokesperson about the good and bad sections of the city." (Gallaher, Victoria. "Memory and Reconciliation in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute." Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Vol 2, No. 2, 1999. p. 315.)
I use Robert Hughes' American Visions series in my American Humanities class to help teach the art history. About two-thirds of way through Episode 1, he opines, "Monuments live by use and die by neglect. The world is studded with dead monuments." He goes on to demonstrate how Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement refreshed and transformed the relevance and meaning of the Lincoln Memorial.
We can know about the events and the sites of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham and Montgomery, but unless we apply their lessons our current realities, they become no better than fetish objects. Prime examples of historical fetish-ism that I experienced during the Faculty Institute are the First White House of the Confederacy in Montgomery and Sloss Furnace in Birmingham.
The First White House of the Confederacy is a beautifully preserved 1835 Italianate style house, completely furnished with original period pieces from the 1850s and 1860s. Many personal items belonging to Jefferson Davis and his wife are included in the displays. While the site succeeds in presenting an authentic architectural and design experience, it fails in its presentation of the historical context. Other than the brief historical marker placed in front of the house, there is no interpretation of the events leading up to the South's succession and the need for a Confederate capitol and presidential residence. The house participates in the South's "Lost Cause" mythology, as a shrine honoring the president and leader of traditional southern society and values.