Our fair city is home to an incredible amount of history, and I’ve visited our museums many times through the years (such as The Birmingham Museum of Art, Vulcan Park and Museum, and The Birmingham History Center. And does anyone remember the Red Mountain Museum with its walking trails parallel to Red Mountain Expressway? Anyone? Anyone?!) But I’m ashamed to say that after having spent the majority of my life here, I had never been to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) . . . until today.
Four Little Girls
My mind is still trying to wrap itself around the horrific images I saw and the stories I read. My breath was literally taken away as I tried to explain to my nearly four-year-old daughter about the tiny shoes and child-sized purse under the glass belonging to Denise McNair, one of the four little girls murdered in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963. Then you turn around and see a large window overlooking that very church. The church looked so peaceful and dignified on this crisp winter day. As a mother, I cannot even pretend to imagine the chaos, heartache, and desperation on that tragic September day 55 years ago.
While the BCRI features some heavy, heartbreaking experiences, many exhibits are child-friendly and interactive — it is a must-visit for locals and tourists alike. My daughter loved seeing the replicas of schoolrooms, churches, buses, and important historical figures. I was pleasantly surprised to see many other moms there pushing strollers and people of all ages, races, and backgrounds.
We love to read in our house. It isn’t often that we can go see in person the sites mentioned in our books, which made learning about the civil rights movement that much more meaningful to my preschooler and me. In preparation for our visit to the BCRI, we checked out several books from our local library. My heart exploded with joy as I watched my daughter understanding new concepts, asking questions, and expressing empathy in what we read.
I want to share with you the titles of preschool and school age-appropriate books we have read time and time again recently, sparking lots of conversations and questions. They have provided truly beautiful, teachable moments:
- Heroes for Civil Rights by David A. Adler features brief one-page biographies (and illustrations) of many well-known, and not-so-well-known participants in the civil rights movement. Each biography is the perfect length to keep your little one’s mind engaged. We especially enjoyed reading about Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a Birmingham pastor (for whom Birmingham International Airport is named), and researching further about his Birmingham house, where in Homewood he attended high school, as well as which local school he helped his children integrate.
- The Bus Ride That Changed History, The Story of Rosa Parks by Pamela Duncan Edwards is a fascinating picture book featuring two stories in one: modern-day children in a comic-strip format follow along on Rosa Parks’ journey and ask questions throughout her story.
- As Good As Anybody by Richard Michelson (my personal favorite) features gorgeous pointillism illustrations by Raul Colon and tells of the unlikely friendship between Baptist preacher Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Joshua Heschel (a Polish native whose family was killed after the Nazi invasion during World War II). These men came together and led the march in Selma. The language is so poetic: “God did not make a world with just one color flower . . . we are all made in God’s image.” And “The way things are is not the way they always have to be. In the next world [heaven], people of all colors will love together and respect each other.”
- Little People, Big Dreams: Rosa Parks by Lisbeth Kaiser (my daughter’s favorite) is written and illustrated with preschoolers in mind. The illustrations are simple and colorful, and the text on each page is brief, yet powerful and easy to understand.
- And finally, Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin is perfect for middle and high school students. Black Like Me contains Griffin’s first-hand account of going undercover disguised as a black man in the deep South during the civil rights era. Specifically, Griffin journeys through parts of Alabama, and he tells sobering stories of his experience. I remember reading it myself as a student. It sparked great curiosity in me, resulting in incredible conversations with my parents about their personal memories of this time period.
Just Like Rosa
After reading the above-mentioned books, my daughter’s new hero is Rosa Parks. She talks about her all the time now, wanting to read her stories, take books about her to bed at night, and couldn’t wait to see her statue at the BCRI. She even asked me, “Mama, am I brave like Rosa?” Yes, my love, you are brave . . . just like Rosa.”
I’m thankful for Rosa, and all the other heroes, who boldly fought for freedom and are still inspiring new generations to be brave and fight for what is right.
What are your plans to teach and engage your kids during Black History Month? We would love to hear your suggestions!