Photographs of police dogs don’t show the blooming flowers. Newspapers report that blasts from fire hoses ripped the bark off trees but don’t name the trees. Historical memory forgets that the 1963 confrontations between Jim Crow virulence and nonviolent protesters – many of them teenagers and children – took place during a lush, colorful Birmingham Spring.
Kelly Ingram Park, staging ground for civil rights demonstrations, lies a few blocks west of downtown, and diagonally across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, tragically bombed that year, killing four girls.
Ground zero looks like this: pink, red, white, fuchsia. Azalea, rose, magnolia, cedar, chestnut, oak, pine. Pea green, forest green, grass green, kelly green. A dash of baby’s breath.
Kelly Ingram Park today is part of a larger civil rights memorial complex that includes the church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. An oasis of quiet in a busy urban core, the park bills itself as “Place of Revolution and Reconciliation.” Multiple works of art carry visitors back into Birmingham’s difficult past.
One path leads to a sculpture of a police officer towering over a defiant boy. Another leads through a tunnel where bronze German Shepherds leap out at eye level, ready to bite. Still one more leads to a fire hose trained on concrete replicas of cowering children. At the main entrance stands a work called Four Spirits, dedicated to the four girls who lost their lives. The piece invites interaction – one girl beckons to visitors to a bench. Some bring flowers; others kneel to pray.
Kelly Ingram Park embodies the contradictions where people, place, and memory intersect. Visiting multitudes produce more litter than trashcans hold. Public art bears the scars of weather and school kids on field trips. Already the German Shepherds rust.
Because my hometown remains so important to history, I want to preserve the contradictions. Will people remember the beauty of Birmingham’s Spring after the public art is gone? Photographs capture police dogs and fire hoses but not azaleas, roses, and the perennial new to this growing zone. The kids in the park called this flower “Freedom.”