Birmingham, Alabama, was founded in 1871 – after the Civil War – but quickly caught up with other Southern cities’ cruel segregation and Jim Crow practices. Some say it bested them. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” here.
For this reason, Birmingham became the epicenter of the civil rights movement that continues to inspire other equal rights movements in the U.S. and throughout the world. The city draws a wealth of creative souls in the areas of art, music and, believe it or not, fine cuisine. And it doesn’t shy away from its sobering past.
The Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame highlights some of the most famous jazz musicians and songs of all time. A treasure of the museum – available as your personal guide to the museum by appointment – is Dr. Frank Adams, one of the stars of the Jazz Era. He’s in his mid-80s and remembers all the stories of how things were. He walks you through the museum with his clarinet, playing tunes to go with the exhibits!
Two blocks away is the Eddie Kendrick Memorial Park, honoring the late member of the Temptations. This park has a life-sized statue of the singer that people love to pose and sing along with; there’s a PA system playing his hits 24/7.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute exhibits the stark differences between the lives of whites and blacks in Alabama, going back to the 1800s. They also have exhibits examining today’s civil rights issues.
Across the street is the historic 16th Street Baptist Church. In 1963, four young African American girls were killed in the basement kitchen when the KKK bombed the church. It’s an active church, still holding services. You can ask a guide to take you to the basement.
Also across the street is Kelly Ingram Park. The walking path winds in between emotionally charged metal sculptures such as police attack dogs and a jail cell. The park served as the staging area for demonstrations lead by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and other movement leaders.
The Birmingham Museum of Art hosts world-class collections of everything from paintings to local folk art. The city’s art isn’t limited to the bricks and mortar of the museum, though. Local artists like Ben South create hand-printed cards, prints and artisan candles with a special Birmingham sense of place and time.
A hidden treasure in outlying Bessemer is Gip’s Place, a Saturday night BYOB party in a man’s backyard since 1952. Gip’s is seriously hidden; ask for directions from the convention and visitor’s bureau. It’s one of the last remaining juke joints in America. Live blues and Southern rock bands play until around 3 a.m. Mick Jagger’s musician brother Chris has been known to jam there. It may be the best $10 cover charge you ever paid.
Highlands Bar and Grill is owned by Frank Stitt, considered one of the daddies of the gourmet, localvore Southern cuisine movement. He combines Alabama products and French cooking techniques for classic dining in a chic environment.
Hot and Hot Fish Club has Chef Chris Hastings at the helm – he just won Iron Chef, beating Bobby Flay. His food is cutting-edge, locally sourced (including house-made charcuterie), imaginative and very popular.