BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Since its inception in 1992, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute has been concerned about more than Birmingham, and more than "civil" rights.
In its charter document, a lengthy statement that has been condensed to a single sentence, the institute states its broad mission: "to promote civil and human rights worldwide through education."
A tour through its galleries and exhibits, while substantially focused on Alabama and the South, also reveals the impact the institute has had worldwide, where it has drawn inspiration and where it continues to make its mark.
In the international area, which was completed in 2009, monolithic displays tell the stories of human rights struggles. Parallels with the American South are striking. They document, with the help of video monitors, Tiananmen Square protests, Darfur, South Africa, Gdansk, Buenos Aires and Nigeria.
Images of Mahatma Gandhi, Anne Frank, Mother Teresa and others encircle the room in a mural. Most striking is the front end of Bull Connor's Birmingham Police Department tank displayed next to a photograph of a protester and tank in Tiananmen Square.
"We're trying to draw parallels about what happened in those other places, where people organized on a grass-roots level and changed things," said BCRI Archivist Laura Anderson. "Examples are from South Africa, Argentina, Tiananmen Square; in Nigeria, the women in the oil fields who chained themselves to fences; Poland, because the Birmingham story is related to the labor movement."
Ahmad Ward, BCRI's head of education and exhibitions, has taken the institute's message to the Center for Civic Education in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He said the institute has drawn visitors from six continents.
"Every continent except Antarctica," he said. "They're coming to us because they know about the story, so they can learn from what happened here. They're trying to apply it to situations that are happening in their own districts and cities. They take back the message to regular folks -- lay people -- who can make a difference."
Anderson, who has worked with Huntsville-based International Services Council of Alabama to bring individuals and delegations to the state, said the institute has been a global destination from the start.
"I looked at lots of fliers and program booklets from the early days of the institute," she said. "For about 10 years, Martin Luther King Day was Martin Luther King International Day. People from around the world would come here on a pilgrimage. In their minds, they already thought of Dr. King as an international figure."
President and CEO Lawrence Pijeaux has become an ambassador, representing the institute in Senegal, South Africa, Czech Republic, Israel and Italy.
"In 2008, I was invited to speak in Rome as part of a celebration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.," he said. "Who would have thought they would be celebrating the life of Dr. King in Rome? I also had an opportunity to visit Gorie Island. That was really touching to set foot on the island and visit the dungeons where some of my forefathers were shackled. It left a mark on my memory base."
BCRI has established its closest international alliances with Israel and South Africa. Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the last Apartheid-era president F.W. de Klerk, both Nobel Peace Prize winners, came to Birmingham in 2002. Close collaborations with the Mandela House in Soweto township and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg led to visits to South Africa in 2011.
"I joined a group of our staff members as part of that exchange program," said Pijeaux. "We sent 10 of our youngsters from the Birmingham metro area to spend 10 days in Johannesburg, and 10 South African high school students spent 10 days here in Birmingham."
Anderson headed up that project, called the International Legacy Youth Leadership Project.
"The goal was to study the leadership in both movements, from Shuttlesworth to Mandela," she said. "We looked at civil rights movements here, and the anti-apartheid movement there, and found that the kids there knew less about the about the anti-apartheid struggle than our kids knew about civil rights," she said. "Our kids had a leg up because we had already worked with them in our leadership program."
The program culminated in a Youth Day Celebration in Johannesburg and Mandela Day Celebration in Birmingham, held in June and July, 2011.
A recent photography exhibition, titled "Living in Limbo" addressed the issues of gay rights.
"It's another human rights initiative," said Pijeaux. "We have developed a relationship with the gay and lesbian community, and one of our sister institutions in Dallas has asked to exhibit it."
Memberships in the American Alliance of Museums and International Coalition of Sites of Conscience have also expanded the institute's reach. Associations with the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum sparked visits and exchanges with the Washington, D.C., facility on a variety of projects.
"The Jewish community relates so closely with what the African-American community has gone through," said Joel Rotenstreich, a Birmingham businessman and former BCRI board member. "Lawrence and the board have gone out of their way to be supportive, not just to me, but to many other members of the Jewish community who have been involved with human rights."
Rotenstreich, who has participated in sister city projects between Birmingham and Al Karak, Jordan, and with Rosh Ha'Ayin, Israel, has seen first-hand what international diplomacy can accomplish.
"Rosh Ha'Ayin was just a poor Yemenite village," he said. "Many of them walked to Israel from Yemen. Through a program called Project Renewal, we adopted Rosh Ha'Ayin, and it is now a thriving city of about 20,000. It's a puzzle that has been put together, and BCRI had a lot to do with it."
In 2010, Rotenstreich left a permanent legacy in Birmingham by spearheading a drive to plant an Anne Frank tree in Kelly Ingram Park, across the street from BCRI.
"If you read the plaque, it applies to anyone who has been a victim of hate and prejudice," he said.
Pijeaux is more optimistic than ever about BCRI's mission.
"Our work exceeds the expectations I had when I can here 18 years ago," he said. "Some of the things we envisioned are beginning to happen. We now have a global footprint and people recognize our name worldwide."
Anderson would like to see the local community better understand the institute in their back yard.
"We're not about the past, "she said. "You have to learn the story to learn the lessons from the story. We're about the lessons. We're about the present and the future."