By Tania Smith
Today we left Nashville, Tennessee and headed towards Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham has a very important history in the civil rights movement. It was dubbed “Bombingham” due to the violence perpetrated against its black citizens. The city of Birmingham also had a racist and violent police commissioner by the name of Eugene “Bull” Conner. Conner ran Birmingham as a racist and bigoted police state. Fifty years later, as I entered the city on the 2011 Student Freedom Ride bus, the moment felt surreal.
We visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the 16th Street Baptist Church. Klan members bombed the church in 1963, killing four innocent little girls. Despite its tumultuous past, the 16th Street Baptist Church is a symbol of the past and the hope for the future. I say this because in the evening, we listened to the church’s Carl Reese Memorial Unity Choir sing old songs from the movement, songs that inspired a generation to mobilize, and as a choir member put it, “get out of our seats and into the streets.” It was an inspiring moment— student freedom riders, original Freedom Riders, and people of all races locked arms across the sanctuary and sang “We Shall Overcome.” Tears were flowing; emotions ran high. Despite this progress, the reality is that there is still much work to be done. I hope that one day, maybe 30, 35, or 45 years from now, I’ll be able to look at the future generation, my grandchildren and their grandchildren and say the words “We Have Overcome.”