Poking through history and remembering the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Jenice3
Columnist Jenice Armstrong at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.

I FOUND MYSELF reflecting last week on the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

My husband and I were driving home from Florida and we had made a detour to Birmingham, Ala., a place neither of us knew much about. We were fresh off a relaxing 11-day Caribbean cruise and not at all looking for a history lesson but found ourselves immersed in one as we climbed the steps to the 16th Street Baptist Church, known worldwide for the heinous bombing by the Ku Klux Klan that killed four little black girls back in 1963. The church wasn't open for tours the day that we happened by but it was sobering just to be there and reflect with the other tourists braving the chilly winds.

Next, we walked over to Kelly Ingram Park, an inner-city park made famous by 1963 civil-rights demonstrations known as the Children's Crusade. This was where then-Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor ordered high-powered fire hoses and German Shepherd police dogs on school children protesting racial discrimination and segregation. Police beat the children with nightsticks as whites stood on the sidelines jeering. More than a thousand were arrested over the next couple of days.

Today, the park is a peaceful place, with scattered statues from the Civil Rights era, one depicting the four girls killed at 16th Street Baptist Church and another of attacking police dogs. At one point, I found myself staring up, wide eyed at a statue of King, whose birthday we celebrate Monday. King, who the city of Birmingham had treated worse than a common street thug, had been memorialized for the ages. The way the statue is positioned in the park, it's almost as if he's welcoming visitors into what had once been a pretty awful place to be if you were African American.

Birmingham, I understand, would like to move on from all of that. Move on, that is, from its past as a nexus of the struggle for black equality. This view is sometimes expressed by locals who feel burdened by that ugly chapter during which the city was known as Bombingham because of the number of black homes and businesses that were torched.

I hear similar things every time I write columns about anything dealing with race and African Americans. Readers tell me, "Move on." Or "you're holding the race card." And then there's, "Why does everything come down to race?" It's a touchy subject. Talking about race is like sticking your big toe on the proverbial third rail. We've come a long way but a whole lot of Americans don't appreciate being reminded of how far race relations still have to go. I get that. Some of us would prefer to think that what King and the other demonstrators fought so hard for during the 1960s has all been resolved and legislation such as the 1965 Voting Rights Act is no longer necessary.

But the struggle for equality continues, which is why I'm hoping that people everywhere will stop at least for a bit and reflect on what this day, the national King holiday means and what it's supposed to represent. It's not supposed to be just a day off from school or a day to shop but a day of service as well as of inspiration.

Had he lived, King would have been all about the anti-police brutality Black Lives Matter movement but he also would be concerned about inner-city murder rates. He would have been supportive of President Obama's efforts on gun control and utterly appalled by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric. He would have rejoiced at the noting of a black man's being in the White House but dismayed by the nation's growing wealth gap and all the nasty rancor in Washington.

And he would have been dumbfounded by Republican Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks' stupid remarks that Obama was "the most racially divisive president since slavery."

But that statue in Birmingham? He would have liked that.

We drove away from Bham -as they call it - with a takeout container of bbq coated in that white sauce they make down there and a good feeling.

armstrj@phillynews.com

215-854-2223

On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen