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Realizing Dr. King’s Dream at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

BCRI Marketing Manager Gina Mallisham, left, and Barry McNealy, BCRI Historical Content Expert. (Haley Wilson, For The Birmingham Times).

By Haley Wilson 

The Birmingham Times 

Belinda Hines was at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) on Monday, the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, for a special reason: to educate her 8-year-old great-niece and her 7-year-old grandson about Black History, she said. 

“I want them to know that Dr. King struggled for us and I want them to grow up to continue his legacy because so many of our Black kids are killing one another and I want them to do better,” said Hines, who grew up in Druid Hills and now lives in Pinson.   

Hines said it’s “awful” when she looks at the violence on the news in the city. “It’s Black on Black crime and no conflict resolution,” she said. 

James Bell, who lives in Roebuck, said he was at the BCRI to refresh his memory as to the “ugliness of the past.” 

The exhibits and videos and audios at the Institute put on full display the “intimidation factor that [segregationists] inflicted on my people,” said Bell, who grew up in Ensley during the Civil Rights Movement. 

The MLK Day holiday is one of the busiest of the year for the BCRI, which offers a full range of programs and activities that include self-guided tours of its historic galleries, performances by the Carlton Reese Memorial Choir, West African drumming with Sahi On Ko Djony and a collaborative reading of Dr. King’s “Letter from A Birmingham Jail.” 

“It’s important that we really celebrate and acknowledge this Martin Luther King Day now more than ever,” said Barry McNealy historical content expert for the BCRI. “King was so much more than what we know about him.” 

What King faced as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), an organization that he co-founded in 1957, is often overlooked, said McNealy. 

“He had a tremendous number of competing voices. When we think of Ella Baker, who was one of the founders of the SCLC…she challenged him to not let the Civil Rights Movement become a cult of personality around him,” McNealy said. “Then we think of [Bethel Baptist Church pastor] Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth here in Birmingham, who wanted Dr. King to be out front even more often than he actually was and would push him to take public stances that sometimes Dr. King was more deliberate in his approach to.  

“[Dr. King] had to be able to sit at the head of the table when we had Wyatt Tee Walker [chief of staff for King and early board member of the SCLC] and John Lewis, [who would go on to serve in the United States House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th congressional district from 1987 until his death in 2020] and you have all these different people with these different ideas,” McNealy said.  “We’re talking about a lot of type A personalities in one room, and Dr. King had to be the person that can blend all that together. He had the purpose that people were willing to follow, that charisma. I think that’s something that we miss with Dr. King, because there were few people who could have mastered the true art of that.” 

Another aspect of King’s legacy was “his age [26] at the time,” said Gina Mallisham, marketing manager for the Institute. 

“He was extremely young, not just as an advocate, but when he stepped into a place as scary as Birmingham, ruled with an iron stick by commissioner Bull Connor… fearlessly working with leaders,” Millishan said of Dr. King. “Of course, we’re very thankful to Reverend Ralph Abernathy [close friend and mentor of King] and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth for bringing him [Dr. Martin Luther King] here.” 

“Sometimes I just think about all the things Dr. King did at that age and I think, ‘What if that was me?’ . . . The fact that our lives and what the material conditions that we were being subjected to, was enough to make him come. That’s my favorite thing to remember about Dr. King that is less talked about and really should be acknowledged more.” 

The Birmingham Civil Right Institute is located at 520 16th St N, Birmingham, AL 35203 and for more information (205) 328-9696 or visit https://www.bcri.org