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Welcome to the Jewish Birmingham and Civil Rights historical walking tour, sponsored by Temple Beth El and the Alabama Humanities Alliance. This tour is part of the Beth El Civil Rights Experience; a multimedia project exploring this very history. We hope you’ll visit our website and learn about other ways you can continue to engage, and sign up for the Beth El Civil Rights Experience email list to hear exciting updates about our upcoming visitor’s site, ongoing programming, and developments to this audio tour. You can also make a donation on our website -- your contributions help us to continue developing these accessible and educational materials.
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In the early 20th century four large buildings -- the Woodward, the Brown-Marx, the John Hand and the Empire -- were developed on the intersection of 20th Street and 1st Avenue North, earning it the slightly exaggerated title of "the heaviest corner on Earth." You can still see this nickname engraved on the sidewalk in front of the 16-foot, revival style Empire Building today. Walk over to the Northwest corner of this intersection to check it out! Built on the footprint of an old saloon, the Empire has housed offices, and a bank, and, in 1917 Harry Gardiner, "the human fly," in a fantastic scaled the building's exterior with no ropes! By the mid-1960's the building also contained the offices of local lawyer Abe Berkowitz, who advocated for the change in Birmingham's city governance that effectively ousted its infamous public safety commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor in 1962. J. Mason Davis: Birmingham was operated by three men, three white men Bull Connor, Art Haynes and Jabo Waggoner Senior, and that's Art Haynes Senior too. And Bull had built up a terrible reputation because he was a head of the police department and the fire department. And the policeman would act and they were like a vigilante Ku Klux Klan. The Birmingham Bar Association tasked a committee of lawyers, including Berkowitz, with recommending a new form of city governance. He and his colleagues collected enough signatures to authorize a referendum that successfully transitioned Birmingham to a mayor-council format. J. Mason Davis: And so that got rid of Bull Connor. But that was even tough because Bull was working against the forces that we had. And and he would once once the decision was handed down, changing the form of government, he appealed against that. And once the new city council was elected, he appealed against that. Connor was voted out of office in November 1962, but because of his lengthy appeals process, he did not truly leave until April 1963, right before the famed "children's crusades," where schoolchildren marched downtown to protest segregation.