Located at 520 16th St N in Birmingham, Alabama, the Birmingham Civil Right Institute (BCRI) is an interpretive museum and research institution centered upon the trials and triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s. Its mission, as per the institute’s website, is “to enlighten each generation about civil and human rights by exploring our common past and working together in the present to build a better future”.
It is situated in the Civil Rights District, which contains the Kelly Ingram Park, Fourth Avenue Business District, the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame located in the Carver Theatre and the 16th Street Baptist Church. Its location is aligned with the vision of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which is to “stand strong as THE CORNERSTONE of the civil rights story, a living memorial with an ongoing mission.” In supporting its vision, the following are values that the BCRI is “committed to:
- preserving and telling the Birmingham story
- being a good steward of archival and financial resources
- creating programs that encourage cultural awareness
- championing civil and human rights by facilitating an atmosphere of dialogue and understanding
Founded in 1990, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute opened to the public in November 1992; more than twenty-five thousand guests visited the institute during its first week. As part of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, the BCRI became an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution in 2007. As a cultural, educational and political center and research institution, the BCRI, as stated on the entry of the Smithsonian Affiliations website, “ … seeks to promote a comprehensive understanding of and appreciation for the significance of civil rights developments in the South, with particular emphasis on the national struggle of African-American citizens and minority participation in the democratic process and free enterprise system.”
The BCRI contains approximately six thousand artifacts, including photographs, primary documents and personal items of civil rights leaders including Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. Dr. Fred Shuttlesworth. Its archives, an essential repository in documenting the struggle and attainment of civil and human rights, and accompanying archival information system may be accessed via link to the Birmingham Public Library.
At the Institute, visitors are engaged in various ways. Guests may take a self-guided tour of what the BCRI calls a “walking journey through the ‘living institution’, which displays the lessons of the past as a positive way to chart new directions for the future”. Group tours are also available.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute houses permanent and temporary exhibits whose themes illustrate the contributions of Birmingham to the Civil Rights Movement and for human rights. It contains permanent exhibits, such as the Human Rights Gallery, including one of the restored armored personnel tanks of Eugene “Bull” Connor, Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Birmingham. His brutality, cruelty and promotion of violence towards Blacks encouraged White terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan in their vicious and deadly attacks. Connor became an icon of institutional racism and abuse when his lethal tactics of using fire hoses and police attack dogs on nonviolent civil rights activists were captured by the media and broadcast around the world. The horror and outrage prompted significant social and legal change in the American South and aided in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by Congress.
At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, there are also temporary exhibitions, such as A.G. Gaston: The Man and His Legacy and Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow. The former exhibition highlights the life and contributions of A.G. Gaston, a highly successful, African-American businessman and multi-millionaire. He founded many businesses, including his own funeral and insurance companies; the A.G. Gaston Motel, next to Kelly Ingram Park; the Booker T. Washington Business School and Citizens Federal Savings and Loan Association, the first Black-owned, financial institution in Birmingham in more than four decades.
The latter exhibition was organized by the New York Historical Society and examines the battle of Blacks for full citizenship and racial equality during Reconstruction until the end of World War I. In its details about Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow, the BCRI website states, “When slavery ended in 1865, a period of Reconstruction began, leading to such achievements as the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. By 1868, all persons born in the United States were citizens and equal before the law. But efforts to create an interracial democracy were contested from the start. A harsh backlash ensued, ushering in a half century of the ‘separate but equal’ age of Jim Crow. Opening to mark the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, the exhibition is organized chronologically from the end of the Civil War to the end of World War I and highlights the central role played by African Americans in advocating for their rights.”
Guests at the Institute may experience multi-media exhibitions, significantly The Oral History Project. In this exhibition, visitors may listen to primary accounts discussing the role of Birmingham in the Civil Rights Movement from the voices of those who participated. This information may be helpful personally or professionally, significantly from a research stance. Additionally, because the BCRI is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, diverse materials may be acquired from the Smithsonian in order to greater meet the mission and vision of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. The institute is also a member of the North American Reciprocal Museums program.
In May, 2013, the Congressional Gold Medal was awarded, posthumously, to Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley to honor their lives which had been snatched away fifty years prior in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The gold medal was given because of the Pub.L. 113-11 law, which was signed by President Barack H. Obama and approved by the 113th United States Congress. The medal is housed at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and is available for loan to other institutions.
In January 2017, a President Obama designated, by executive order, a portion of the Birmingham Civil Rights District as the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. Having celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2017, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute impacts, through its acclaimed programming and services, more than 150,000 individuals annually.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is community-oriented and has spaces that can host meetings, seminars and workshops for professional and educational development. The Institute also presents a number of events, including for MLK Day, Black History Month, Milestones Walking Tour, Women’s History Month and Juneteenth.
It also holds the Annual Fred L. Shuttleworth Human Rights Award as well as the Annual FBI & BCRI Conference. The Annual Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award, according to the BCRI, “serves as a tribute to the leadership and courage of the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth throughout the course of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. This annual award is an opportunity for the Institute to recognize individuals for their service to civil and human rights causes around the world. It is the highest honor bestowed on an individual by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.”
The BCRI and Federal Bureau of Investigation, Birmingham Division, united in 2006 to create training models for law enforcement officials and the community. It also is used to build a honest and respectful collaborative in examining and applying themes of the Civil Rights Movement and human rights, especially in the administration of law.
To commemorate your visit, the gift store contains various items, from art and books to mugs, totes and apparel.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is open, Tuesday through Saturday, 10am to 5pm and Sunday, 1pm to 5pm. Mobility-accessible, the BCRI honors AAA, Smithsonian and U.S. military discounts. The Institute is a member of Blue Star Museums program, which offers free admission to the nation’s active duty military personnel, including National Guard and Reserve, and their families from Memorial Day through Labor Day annually.