The official celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday here will center on the dedication of a statue in Kelly-Ingram Park. It stands across the way from the 16th Street Baptist Church, where King and the others came in the spring of 1963 to liberate what he was to call "a community in which human rights had been trampled for so long that fear and oppression were as thick in its atmosphere as the smog from its factories."
The legacy of those dramatic days can be found everywhere in today's "Magic City," but especially in the basement of the Linn-Henley Research Library and on the third floor of the nearby city hall.
In the basement office, a gentle, white-bearded white man, city archivist Charles Whiting, opens a file from a cardboard box containing the confidential reports that went to police chief Jamie Moore from the officers who monitored King's church meetings.
"It's a miracle we have these," Whiting told a visitor. "In 1979, my assistant, Bob Corley, and I were going through a mountain of recorder's court files that had been dumped on the second floor of an abandoned fire station. His foot slipped, and when he looked down, he had kicked over a transfer carton with the files of these surveillance reports."
In the cold prose of these hostile white officers' reports, one can recapture the power of the movement that transformed this city and America. On April 8, 1963, for example, officers B. A. Allison and R. A. Watkins went to the First Baptist Church and found it so jammed that they called the fire marshal, who forced some of the crowd to leave. Then, as they wrote:
"Rev. C. W. Woods got up and made an appeal saying that . . . last Wednesday when he was sitting in at the lunchters that some white men came up and stood behind him. He said, 'When I looked around one of them spit in my face.' He said, 'I looked at him and smiled. All of us should be willing to give something.'
"Then they took up a collection and while this was going on, the choir was singing, 'I Am Bound for the Freedom Land.'
"Martin Luther King made his grand entrance at approximately 8:15 to a standing ovation.
"After he entered Rev. Y. T. Walker got up and said that Sunday when they was in the park that he was just a few feet from this Negro that the police dogs got hold of, a nonviolent Negro. He said that five police dogs had to subdue this man and he said that it was a sin and a shame that the police had to sic dogs on these nonviolent Negroes. . . . He ranted and raved for sometime. . . .
"Martin Luther King was the next speaker. He said, 'The movement is really moving,' and he spoke over and over about the large number of cars and people at the meeting. He said that it was probably the largest meeting held since these demonstrations had started a week ago. He said that he came down here to go to jail for freedom and it's better to go to jail in dignity than to accept segregation. He appealed to the Negroes to stay out of downtown to shop. . . .
"He criticized the police on their brutality toward the Negroes. He said that churches and homes have been bombed and nothing has been done about it. He appealed to the Negroes to go to jail tomorrow. 'Don't worry about anything. We are going to fill all the jails in Birmingham. We are going to turn Birmingham up side down and right side up.'
The reports go on day after day, and the bafflement of the officers grows as they confront the irresistible force of nonviolent protest. By April 26, they were reporting that "Reverend Shuttlesworth told the people that Judge Jenkins was afraid to put them in jail this morning. . . . Martin Luther King . . . said that . . . people realize a jail can't stop a movement. . . . He said that people all over the United States were ready to mobilize a force if we were in jail and were going to march on Washington next Wednesday."
From the basement reading room, it is just a short walk to the bright third-floor office in city hall where a quiet black zoology professor, Richard Arrington, has sat as mayor since 1979.
"Everyone knows what King did to Birmingham," he said the other day. "He held up its practices to the world's examination and forced it to come to grips with its conscience.
"But only those of us in Birmingham know what he did for Birmingham. He allowed us, black and white, to communicate for the first time and to recognize our common goals."
It would be nice to end on that upbeat note -- but false. Arrington said "it pains me" that in 1986, the Jefferson County suburban schools -- predominantly white -- will not close to honor King's birthday, as the city schools do. "And it pains me too," he said, that Birmingham's effort to desegregate its police, fire and civil service departments is still being harassed by veteran white city employees -- some of whom served with the men who wrote those 1963 reports.
Encouraged by the Reagan administration, they are back in court seeking to block affirmative-action hiring and promotion of blacks. So far, they have failed. But their effort to roll back history continues, aided by what we choose to call, with unintended irony, the U.S. Department of Justice.