Birmingham: Civil rights, moonshine, and soul food

Birmingham, Alabama is not the shack in the pines that I’d been envisioning. But, aside from having electricity and roads, it is the different place I’d anticipated, filled with mason jars and foot-stomping music and soul food. What truly underscored this for me was a moment I had at a bar one night. Judson and I were chatting about something – I can’t begin to remember what, probably which shot we wanted to take next – when Robert Johnson’s “Hell Hound on my Trail” came on over the bar radio. The south – Mississippi especially, but the south in general – has always stood out to me in addition to my previously mentioned stereotypes for being the birthplace of the delta blues, the vacant land where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads. And here I was, sitting in a bar, listening to the scratchy old recording of the man himself. I couldn’t have been happier.

Because I’m not sure how exactly to cram our three spectacular days in Birmingham into a blog entry, I’ve decided to arbitrarily list the wonderful things we did down in Alabama that you should attempt as well if you ever visit.

1. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

All kidding aside, the south is certainly the historical hotbed for civil rights activity. Many of the protests during the ’60s took place in Birmingham. I’m not going to get into too much fact here, but I will say that the museum is worth a visit. It’s one of the best museums I’ve been to, which says a lot. While I love reading and learning about history and culture, I’m not a huge fan of museums simply because many of them seem to halfheartedly throw their artifacts on display alongside verbose, uninteresting descriptions. But this museum was a breath of fresh air. It holds a plethora of information, including actual copies of Birmingham laws banning Black and White people from playing sports with each other. What’s especially startling here is that the law initially listed a few barroom games that were strictly off limits. Then, it goes on to list more amendments made later on prohibiting additional games and sports like football. I knew about the water fountains and the difficulty desegregating schools – just send in the National Guard – but I didn’t know how deep the Jim Crow laws actually went.

And of course, my admiration for Martin Luther King, Jr. increased tenfold just by being there. At 26 – 26!! – King was already actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement. I just turned 26 on Thursday and I went to a bar. You’ll learn lots about King in the museum, but one of my favorite elements was the video of his “I Have a Dream” speech. I’ve read it dozens of times, but that does not compare to hearing him deliver the speech and watching his enthusiasm and the crowd, some of whom perched far off in treetops just to watch him. It’s moving, to say the absolute least.

The museum is located across the street from the 16th Street Baptist church, where a bombing killed four young girls in 1963. The window overlooking the church provides information regarding the bombing, which is rendered even more profound with the church in the background.

16th Street Baptist Church

In addition to its interactive exhibits, the museum is great in that it extends its purpose beyond civil rights. At the end, it touches on the broader theme of social injustice and then presents several smaller exhibits highlighting contemporary movements for freedom and equal rights. There are computer stations where kids – or anyone really – can write questions or evaluate their experience at the museum, listening stations where you can play both older and more modern protest songs, and informative panels about people who have gotten involved in today’s struggle for equal rights. I was very impressed overall.

Definitely worth the visit if you’re in Birmingham.

Exterior of the museum.

2. Grits

We spent most of our nights in Birmingham within the confines of a bar, rolling into Judson’s kitchen at ungodly hours. Luckily, the aftereffects of a night on the town can easily be remedied by a good breakfast, and a good southern breakfast consists of one major food item: grits. Now, I’ve had grits up north and they’ve tasted how I imagine soggy newspaper might taste. But Judson’s mother’s grits were bangin’, for lack of a better word. Throw in some garlic, cheese, eggs, hot sauce, and who knows what else, and lord, you’ve got some filling, delicious grits. I could’ve subsisted on her grits alone the entire trip.

3. Ruffner

Entrance to Ruffner

Alabama is a hilly state in some places, boasting some scalable mountains. Judson’s friend Robby eagerly offered to lead us on an afternoon hike of Ruffner, a deceivingly cozy park area with wide, easy hiking paths. But Ruffner is unique in that many of the old mining shafts are still visible and open, and around any corner could be a large, out-of-use, rusted iron machine. Unlike Judson, who was diligently asking questions about each landmark, I was too busy trying not to fall into a bush and admiring the scenery, so I have no idea what half of these things were used for.

My favorite part of the hike was the steep ascent up to some abandoned shack that Robby affectionately labeled the Rape Shack. We’re not sure what actually goes on here, but Robby confesses to getting bad vibes and I swear I heard footsteps behind me.

An old structure.

4. Swimming Holes

We were trudging back down Ruffner’s easy path, covered in sweat – and in Judson’s case, a tick – when Robby mentioned a swimming hole. I literally stopped in my tracks.

“A swimming hole?? Does it have a rope swing??”

“Yes.”

“CAN WE GO!?”

“OK.”

They seemed happy enough to take us to the swimming hole, but a threatening storm intervened. I tried to console myself with the fact that there were probably leeches in the swimming hole, and that was gross.

5. Soul Food

I got soul

After the swimming hole fell through, we headed off to get soul food. I ate a fish sandwich, coleslaw, and greens. I think they were collard greens. It wasn’t the best meal ever, but the fried pickles and Judson’s pulled pork and grits were amazing. It was the closest I’ve come to a heart attack in a while.

6. Sweet Tea

If you’re in the south, you have to get a sweet tea. In fact, you ought to pair it with soul food because a heart attack partnered with diabetes is a dynamic duo. The eponymous “sweet” is caused by tons of sugar. Many of Judson’s friends speculated as to how much sugar went into a sweet tea, but no one could agree on a set amount, though they all agreed that “tons” would be an appropriate guess. On a website designed to share recipes, sweet tea brewers figure anywhere from a half a cup to a full cup of sugar per gallon. One lady reckons that McDonalds uses five pounds of sugar for five gallons of their sweet tea, to give you an idea.

Milo’s, a prominent southern fast food joint and manufacturer of sweet tea, estimates that there are about 18 grams of sugar in each serving of sweet tea. A 12 oz cup contains 1.5 servings of tea, meaning there are about 27 grams of sugar in a regular cup. That comes out to roughly a quarter of a cup of sugar per serving. (This is probably a very common word problem on southern math tests.)

Anyway, it was good.

7. BBQ

Southern barbecue is both tangy and tasty. Judson’s high school friends hosted a barbecue, where we took the opportunity to continue to eat like gluttons. Judson smoked a pork butt, which was actually very good. I gorged myself on pork and beans, quinoa, tomato and cheese pies, and watermelon.

8. The Bars

Birmingham boasts its fair share of bars. Alana and I both agree that we partied a little too hard in Birmingham, seeing the early sides of morning we hadn’t since college. What distinguishes Birmingham bars from their northern counterparts is mainly the music, though the fact that they’re open all night is pretty standout, too. Unlike New Jersey, southerners actually enjoy dancing. We spent many a night in a bar dancing to live music. And I mean dancing. This was not the type of floor-quaking music that inspires fist-pumping grind sessions. On the contrary, it was as far as you could get from that type of stuff; on a particularly hoppin’ Friday night, for example, one band member spent hours in the throes of ecstasy as he rocked out on a washboard.

Alana and I even requested to hear Leadbelly’s “In the Pines” and the band went ahead and played it, despite not knowing the lyrics. Will spent one evening shoving dollars in a jukebox so we could hear “Cotton Fields” by CCR. Find me a bar in New Jersey where the band will play Leadbelly and CCR. (Seriously.)

One morning, Judson, Will, and I exited a bar to find the sun coming up. This was something I hadn’t encountered since Argentina. I found myself sipping water in a disoriented state in Judson’s kitchen while we watched his father come downstairs for work.

9. The Ring Game

It’s a ringer

Exclusively southern – we don’t have it up here anyway -, the ring game requires precision and, in some cases, mastery in order to sling a ring on a string onto a hook on the wall. (The rules were written by Dr. Seuss.) Will warned us that we would probably encounter some Ring Game masters at Oasis, the bar where the game was located. (Probably the equipment was too expensive for other bars to afford.)

“These guys’ll be there and they’ll walk up and say, ‘Watch.’ Then they’ll spin it around and do all these tricks with it. You’ll see.”

And sure enough, after Alana and I had finished the game – Alana landing it on her third or fourth try, me on my thirtieth probably but with finesse -, a potbellied bar patron walked up to us, smirking, and said, “Watch.” Then, standing beside the hook, he nimbly took the ring between his fingers and sent the thing looping in all crazy directions only to clatter clumsily against the hook. Undeterred, he continued his trick for quite some time until he finally hooked the ring, after which dozens of bosomy women flocked to his side. (Just kidding about the women. Even southern gals have standards.)

10. Moonshine

We just found it there, on the stump.

By the time our last day in Alabama had come around, it was a well-established fact that I wanted to drink moonshine. I finally got the guts to ask if anyone knew of a tree stump nearby where we could sit and drink it.

“I have one in my backyard,” Robby offered.

Before heading out to Oasis, we excitedly left Judson’s house to head to Robby’s. I felt a little bad about making people go to Robby’s house, especially since we all wanted to go straight out, but Judson solved the problem.

“My dad said there might be some stumps here on the street,” he told us.

“What? You told your parents about this?”

“Of course! They think it’s hilarious.”

What he really meant to say was, “They think you’re out of your mind and they’re glad you’re leaving tomorrow.”

With quick luck, Judson located a stump amidst some dewy bushes on an island in the road. Excited, I asked Will to back his truck up to be in the background, and we took at least twenty pictures of Alana and I sitting on the stump drinking moonshine. By the time we were finished, Judson’s T-shirt was soaked from the leaves and we were all pretty buzzed.

It was then that I realized the extent of the hospitality I was receiving from Judson and his family. Judson later confessed that he and Will had discussed the moonshine photoshoot when it had finished.

“We wanted to help you out, but we realize we probably just perpetuated the stereotype even more.”

Was it worth it?

Oh yes.

With that all said, I have to really express my genuine gratitude toward Judson and his family for having us those few days. Our experience would not have been the same without such great hosts who made us feel totally at home and comfortable, despite our – my – eccentricities.

In the middle of nowhere, Alabama. Sippin’ on moonshine.

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