BIRMINGHAM, Ala.--Two water fountains stood side-by-side. One was a modern machine capable of delivering cool water. The other, nothing more than a sink with a water fountain attached to deliver tap water, its basin showing the stains of the hard water flowing through the plumbing.
The modern water fountain had a sign over it: "Whites"; the other "Colored." There they stood, symbols of the racial divide that gripped the South in the days leading up to the civil rights movement. Today they stand in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, reminding people of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.
About 35 Soldiers and civilians from the Army Contracting Command headquarters staff at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., visited the institute Feb.1. Mike Weitzel, ACC historian, used the trip to educate participants on the history of the U.S. Army as it dealt with segregation and desegregation, and the Army's influence on the civil rights movement.
"The Army's history, like the history presented at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, is not pretty," Weitzel said. "There were actions that we should rightfully be shocked about. The histories are also stories of positive change. Ultimately, I hope the experience leaves participants with both a feeling of pride in accomplishment on where the Army and the nation have come, and the resolve to stand up for American equality."
According to the institute's website, its mission is to "enlighten each generation about civil and human rights by exploring our common past and working together in the present to build a better future." Its photographs, artwork, video displays and statues remind visitors of the civil rights movement and "the nonviolent protest against racial discrimination and injustice that ultimately led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."
Maj. Gen. James Simpson, ACC commanding general, said it's important to understand the past in order to move forward.
"We have come a long way since the civil rights movement." Simpson said. "It's great to see that we're not living back there anymore. We are moving forward and are treating people the way people ought to be treated--with dignity and respect."
He said the visit was very emotional. He's not old enough to remember the civil rights movement but has read a lot about it. He said it's "difficult to understand people being mistreated just because of the color of their skin."
"As we walked across the street from the museum to the church," he said, referring to the 16th Street Baptist Church, "it was difficult to understand why you would bomb a church and four young ladies would be killed. It was emotional. It was all about treating people that way because of the color of their skin."
The Birmingham church was the target of a racially motivated bombing in 1963 that killed the four girls. It is still in operation.
Ray Carlson, ACC deputy chief information officer, was born in New Orleans in 1958.
"I remember much of those events from my childhood," he said, "but I remember them as individual events happening far away. To see them all collected into a single story (and) timeline was very powerful and gave me a new perspective. I'm still processing all of that."
A third-generation Italian immigrant, Carlson said he knows how poorly his grandparents were treated when they arrived in the United States.
"Eventually, we were woven into the culture," he added. "This drove home to me how different that experience was and is for African Americans then and today."
One of the displays played a recording of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech. Capt. Byron Young, part of the ACC G-4 staff, said hearing that speech never gets old.
"It reminds us of how far we have come as a nation and inspires us to continue to stand up for what is right," he said.
Today, the segregated water fountains and most other visible symbols of racism are gone. American society has changed and is closing in on the dream, but some divides remain.
"We are moving forward as one nation, treating people with dignity and respect," Simpson said. "Don't focus on our differences, whether that's the color of our skin, whatever. Move forward as one nation."