Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Birmingham in 1963, to the place he called the most racially segregated city in the United States.
“To dramatize this blatant injustice,” he said. “And to demand that the federal government not put a cent in this city unless it decides to face the realities of desegregation.”
King and other civil rights leaders launched a campaign pressing the city to abolish laws that kept blacks and whites separated in schools, restaurants and other public places.
Some of the protests turned violent, and hundreds of demonstrators were arrested.
To escape the chaos and have a place to work, King sought refuge inside a Birmingham safe house. Jeff Drew, a civil rights activist whose parents were friends of King, now owns the home.
“He could do what he wanted, when he wanted and how he wanted, without fear of any reprisal inside these walls. It gave him the sanctuary to pray, to think and write,” he said.
But this neighborhood was anything but quiet 50 years ago, as there were numerous racially motivated bombings at homes, giving this community the nickname Dynamite Hill.
Bomb’s exploded nearby and the house came under fire from white segregationists.
“This room was protected by that big wall out there to stop the bullets from coming in here,” said Drew. He said King stayed at the house 20 times during the Birmingham campaign. He slept in this bedroom and during the day met with civil rights leaders to map out strategy and negotiate a settlement with white business owners.
“Right here was where the end of the Birmingham business boycott was negotiated. Business leaders agreed to hire blacks as sales people and to remove the colored and white signs at the bathrooms and water fountains,” he said.
Drew also remembers listening to a tense telephone conversation between King and President John Kennedy when King demand that the federal government stop the violence.
“His side of the conversation went like this, ‘We want the entire country to know that your administration supports racial inequality here in Birmingham, and brutality as well. And so we are going to continue the demonstration,’ and he hung the phone up, slammed the phone down.”
The next morning Drew said federal troops dispatched by the president set up a command post outside the home, and tensions eased.
Lawrence Pijeaux, president of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute said King’s success in the city had an impact nationwide. “In legislation that provided an opportunity for our people to have access to important things: education, housing, healthcare, voting rights. Those things came about primarily because of what happened in Birmingham, Alabama,” he said
Drew wants to preserve the house to remind people of the sacrifices made by King and thousands of African Americans.
In 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act outlawing racial segregation in public places. The following year, the Voting Rights Act banned practices that were used to keep blacks from participating in elections.
King’s final campaign came in 1968 in Memphis, Tenn. While supporting striking sanitation workers, he was assassinated at a local hotel. King was 39 years old when he died.
Today, Martin Luther King Day, is a U.S. national holiday commemorating his Jan.15 birthday. The U.S. Embassy here is closed.