Interview by Tonia Trotter
Photos by Graham Yelton
Birmingham has a sacred place in history as the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement and in 1992, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was opened to share the history of these events and the impact that they had on our country as the whole world watched. Led by CEO Andrea Taylor since 2015, BCRI is committed to promoting and preserving human rights through education, and its current exhibit Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow certainly furthers that mission. As a new decade approaches, Ms. Taylor shares with us the importance of using lessons from the past to change the future, her own personal history, and her vision for BCRI’s continued role in our city.
You built a career as a journalist, philanthropist, educator, and media and public affairs executive before joining the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute as CEO. How do you hope your mission at BCRI of preserving the past affects our future?
In 2015 I joined the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and it’s a privilege to work in Birmingham with a team of people who are so dedicated to the mission of sharing our history. We’re an integral part of the local educational system, and on any given day, you’ll see school buses lined up outside the building. Here, students have the opportunity to learn what happened in our city and to reflect on the lessons learned in the 1960s. They may also gain perspective on how these tactics can apply in a contemporary context — not just related to civil and human rights but current issues like climate change and gun control. Young people can see examples of nonviolent social change and realize that they have agency and can use their voices in constructive ways to highlight the shared challenges we have and make a difference by trying to influence legislation, policy, practice, and awareness.
The power of young people is often taken for granted. However, when you recall the Civil Rights Movement here in 1963 when Dr. King was determined to bring about change, it was the young people who marched. Each year in May we organize a re-enactment of The Children’s March and invite young people from all over the city and surrounding areas to come together.
Your passion for young people is personal. As a young woman, you experienced a profound moment that influenced your own direction and career. How did your participation in the historic March on Washington impact the woman you’ve become and the work you do?
I was at the March on Washington in 1963 as a teenager. I was fortunate to join the other 250,000 plus people from all over the country for what was a defining moment for me. In a lot of cases, young people were there standing in for our elders who couldn’t attend, and we had a sense of urgency and the energy to remove the barriers that were preventing us from having full citizenship. A younger generation was able to lead in that moment that changed the world and changed history.
That experience seems long ago and far away and yet as real in my mind as the day I was there. I grew up in Boston, but my parents were from West Virginia, and we happened to be there at that time. My family was active with the NAACP, and we took a bus from West Virginia to Washington to participate in the march. There was certainly an element of anxiety. We had no guarantee of safety en route to the march or at the march itself, and because of segregation we didn’t know if we’d be allowed to stop for lunch and be served anywhere on the way or stay in a hotel, so we packed our lunches and a change of clothes.
We had no idea about the what we’d encounter upon arrival in the nation’s capital, but I remember getting off the bus and having the most exhilarating feeling that we belonged there. Seeing over 250,000 people from every race, perspective, background, young and old gave everyone a sense of solidarity and instant community. All of us were on this pilgrimage to advocate for positive social change. Sitting on the lawn, listening to the now famous “I Have a Dream” speech, everyone knew that day was an extraordinary moment in history.
I felt fortunate to be an eyewitness to the March and in a way it became a touchstone for making future commitments geared toward finding ways that I could make a difference in my community. It put me on my path for all the work I’ve done in my career — as a journalist, in philanthropy, and here at the Institute — to help create opportunities for others. All people have something to contribute. The challenge is making sure the opportunity is there for them to make their contribution. That’s what propels us forward.
Your current exhibit Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow closes at the end of this month. This exhibition explores the struggle for racial equality from Reconstruction through the end of World War I, the “separate but equal” construct during that era, and the African Americans of the era who fought for social change. What has been the response to the exhibit? What do you hope people take away from it?
I originally saw this exhibit at the New-York Historical Society when it opened last year and immediately wanted to present it here. Our institution mostly focuses on Civil Rights issues during the late fifties through the seventies, but the story we are telling emerged from this era after the Civil War when the Fourteenth Amendment was passed and a culture of exclusion was put in place. We made a concerted effort to make this highly regarded exhibit a reality in Birmingham, the first venue for display in the South.
So far, the response to the exhibit has been phenomenal. People have gained new knowledge and though quite comprehensive, it tells the story in a way that is very accessible — regardless of your prior knowledge and understanding of this history or perspective. A lot of people don’t even know what Jim Crow is — that it was a response to post Civil War moments and attitudes. So, to see this kind of presentation and hear rave reviews from visitors of all ages, backgrounds, and life experiences is exactly what we wanted.
We hope that this exhibit will be enlightening to visitors and help to deepen the understanding of our history in a way that will move our city forward. We encourage everyone in the community to join our learning environment and become a member of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.