Statue commemorating civil rights protestors in Birmingham's Kelly Ingram Park.
  • Statue commemorating civil rights protestors in Birmingham's Kelly Ingram Park.
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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.

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kenjackson March 28, 2012 @ 4:28 p.m.

Thanks for this article. It brought back many memories. I grew up in Birmingham in the 1960's. I entered the first integrated high school in the city as a freshman. We were lined up behind a state trooper (with shotgun) on the first day of school to be escorted to our classrooms, while adults of both races shouted at each other. I was 13 them I'm 62 now. I remember it like it was this morning. I also, of course, remember the church bombing. We were told about in in Sunday school the same day. This changed after that. Not immediately, but inevitably. On a different note I remember the Hot and Hot Fish Club. It was a beer joint named the PLAZA. If food was offered, I don't remember anyone eating it, but it probably had pickled eggs and pigs' feet because every beer joint back then did. It certainly had a bumper pool table and a bowling shuffle board where beer fortunes were wagered and even more historically important...it had a PONG game. Your are right to acknowledge the Civil Rights Institute. I have one minor comment on the Institute's resitation of the inequalities between the black and white school experience: We both ate the same Dept. of Agricultural surplus food. Years later I laughed with my black collegues about the hominy, collards, goey butter beans, purple hot dogs and yams,sticky and sweet from karo syrup (and everthing except the jello cooked in pork fat). Two other places that help put Birmingham's early days in context are a history of mininig exhibit in Vulcan statue and the Shloss Furnace. Shloss is a disused iron works where you can learn about race relations in the early steel industry. Black workers could nt be promoted into any job which would require them to supervise whites.

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