6. December 2013 15:58
by Marie Sutton
On the eve of Mother’s Day 1963, Alabama’s Ku Klux Klan planted a bomb in the one place where civil rights activists, world-famous journalists and African-American celebrities regularly came for refuge; the only place they could stay overnight in segregated Birmingham: The A.G. Gaston Motel.
Located in the heart of downtown, the Gaston opened its doors in June 1954 and was where African Americans could go for first-class accommodations. The brain-child of Arthur George Gaston, one of the wealthiest African-American men in the country at the time, the motel quickly became more than a revenue stream, but a feather in the cap of the black community.
The Gaston was the backdrop for African-American culture and celebrations. It was a welcomed haven in a city being crippled by Jim Crow laws. It was where ladies, dressed to the nines, came for sorority meetings, where teens feasted on fine shrimp dinners before prom, where lovers hosted their glitzy wedding receptions and where men took their ladies on first dates to impress. Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife Alma spent their honeymoon night there. American novelist James Baldwin smoked cigarettes and chatted with colleagues there. Folk singer Joan Baez feasted on breakfast with famous photographer Bob Adelman. Civil rights icons Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Young and the like were regular patrons.
And, since Birmingham blacks weren’t allowed to eat in area restaurants during the ‘50s and early ‘60s, the Gaston featured a fine dining bistro as well as a New Orleans-style bar and lounge with a packed jukebox and a stage that was graced by some of the greatest performers of all time. The Gaston was a must-stop on the Chitlin Circuit with doors that revolved and featured Sam Cooke, Little Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and the list goes on.
In the wee hours of the night on that Mother’s Day in ‘63, the KKK’s bomb detonated in the two-story motel. It was planted beneath room 30 where Dr. King regularly stayed. His suite was dubbed the “War Room,” because it was there where he, along with a laundry list of civil rights activists, regularly met to strategize some of Birmingham’s most historic events.
King had checked out of the motel before the explosion, and the KKK’s plan to silence him and shut down the Gaston were unsuccessful. In the end, though, what would close the doors of the motel would be wrapped in irony. When integration began legal, and blacks had a choice of venues, many chose otherwise.
Author's Note: The Gaston was an oasis for a people bereft of justice, but its stories are little known. I’ve set out on a journey to find those stories and will tell them in a book slated to be released in October 2014. If you have stories of the Gaston, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Marie Sutton is a former journalist who works in higher education.