When I pull out of Birmingham at first light, the land is misted over, glowing in pastel hues, and the local public radio station, WBHM, is recapping last night’s events at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Tonight, Barack Obama will be accepting the nomination for President of the United State of America, forty-five years ago to the day since Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. The radio announcer is talking with people who were there at the Mall in Washington that day, as they remember that DC whites battened down the city, preparing for a violent foreign invasion that never came. They’re reminding us of the details of the day, telling us that Mahalia Jackson was backstage, urging Martin on as he walked to the podium. “Tell ‘em about the Dream, Martin,” she called after him. “Tell ‘em about the Dream!”
The last time I was in Birmingham I was also passing through briefly. It was my last big cross-country trip, circa 1995, back when I had time to disappear for six months. It involved a VW bus, mustard yellow, and a young man, tall and handsome – both long gone. We reached Birmingham late afternoon, on our way to Atlanta, today’s trip in reverse, and we had one destination: the Civil Rights Museum. Built in 1993, the exhibits were embracing the use of new multimedia and interactive displays. We were led through time, from the capturing of slaves to Mammy salt and pepper shakers to a segregated bus, filling the room, and finally, to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
On that same trip, a month or so later, we were passing through DC and went to the newly-christened Holocaust Museum. My memory is of long lines and a lottery to get in, winning (if that’s the right word), and then entering the cold metal structure. If the architects were trying to create a mood, they did, but by the time I walked out, I felt like I had passed through a really miserable experience that had happened in an isolated moment of terrible time. Like I could pass through the exit and breath a sigh of relief in the Washington air that that was over. Let’s go get a latte!
In Birmingham, it was clear the work that still needed to be done, as well as all that had already been accomplished. The Human Rights Declaration was the document equivalent of I Have a Dream. It was the expression of hope and aspirations, a belief in possibility and change. I remember having chills as I left the Birmingham museum. They returned when the man on the radio recalled Mahalia’s words. “Tell ‘em about the Dream, Martin. Tell ‘em about the Dream!”
PS – thanks to A’s dad, the charming doctor, and his sweet dog Champ for hosting me in Birmingham!