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A Birmingham Motel Is Part Of A Civil Rights National Monument


There's an old, abandoned motel here in Birmingham that tells a story. The A.G. Gaston Motel on the edge of downtown was built to be a place where blacks of note could stay when the South was segregated. The Gaston is where Martin Luther King and his lieutenants stayed, slept, ate, relaxed and held strategy sessions.

A young Birmingham Baptist pastor named Calvin Woods used to meet with Dr. King there. Today, the Gaston is waiting to be restored as part of the Civil Rights National Monument. And Bishop Calvin Woods is a sharp and dapper man of almost 84 who met us at the motel to talk about its history and his own.

CALVIN WOODS: In the '60s, this was considered about the best place that blacks had. We were simply not welcome to a lot of the white establishments. And it was a high-class place that - blacks could come. This was the A.G. Gaston Motel.

SIMON: Before we started recording, you were telling me a story about talking to Dr. King while he was shaving.

WOODS: Oh. Well, I've been in his room...

SIMON: Yeah.

WOODS: ...When he was shaving. I've been in Dr. Abernathy's room. Dr. Abernathy would put more lather on his face. And he didn't smell quite as mild as Dr. King (laughter), you know? I can just - I didn't have no reason to think I could be remembering that - anything like that. I was just a young fella just caught up in the movement. And it was just an honor to be able to just see Dr. King, as well as to go up to his room with somebody. It wasn't by myself during that time...

SIMON: Yeah.

WOODS: ...We first went up there. But he and I got to be very close friends.

SIMON: Bishop Woods remembers the friendship, the music and good food at the Gaston. But it also became a target for hate. On May 11, 1963, two bombs exploded near Dr. King's room.

WOODS: But he just happened to have gone home to visit his wife on that day. And the citizens were upset, thinking Dr. King had been killed. But he hadn't been killed.

SIMON: What happened to you that day?

WOODS: Well, I was among those helping to try to quiet the crowd down. People were down here by the thousands. This locality was a blazing inferno, things on fire over that way, back down the street. The movement people - leaders, for that matter - were trying to keep calm.

And we assisted the police all night long. We stayed after midnight down here until 4:30 in the morning. Cars were being turned over. Some folks were shot. You didn't read about it. And it was just an awful situation.

SIMON: Yeah.

WOODS: Uh-huh. And, of course, after the crowd thinned out, they turned on those of us who had helped them and began just beating us like dogs.

SIMON: The police.

WOODS: Yes - beat me with a rifle - butt of a rifle.

SIMON: Calvin Woods was also prosecuted for preaching against segregation. It was the law then.

WOODS: I was speaking out against segregated buses. I was guilty of that and told them that they pay their money to sit down where there's a seat. And you don't have to get up, give anybody your seat unless that's what you want to do. So I was arrested, sentenced to six months hard labor and fined $500.

SIMON: Calvin Woods and hundreds more in Birmingham were American heroes. But he says he'd like his children and his 60-some grandchildren to know it is always right to do right.

WOODS: It's always right to do right. And I basically was in it because I feel the Lord had me in it. It was a work of righteousness which was a work of God. And that's - I think that's why the movement can't be killed - 'cause it's the work of God.

SIMON: We asked Bishop Woods to take us upstairs at the A.G. Gaston Motel to the room where he recalls talking to Martin Luther King.

WOODS: We went upstairs to go to his room.

SIMON: The stairs of the Gaston are scuffed from rain and time. The windows are boarded. The rooms are bare and dark. It's a little like looking into the wreck of a great, old ship and trying to imagine the people who are now gone and the way they changed our lives.

Thank you. So we're up here on the second floor. Which was his room, do you think? Right over here?

WOODS: I think that one right there.

SIMON: Want to walk in, you and me?

Bishop Calvin Woods remembered one of the songs he sang with Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and other lines of the civil-rights movement. And they joined in prayer - the hands that would change America.

WOODS: (Singing) This little light of mine - I'm going to let it shine. Oh, this little light of mine - I'm going to let it shine. Oh, this little light of mine - I'm going to let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. Oh.

SIMON: The Rev. Bishop Calvin Woods at the A.G. Gaston Motel, soon to be restored here in Birmingham.

WOODS: (Singing) Oh, Jesus gave it to me. Well, I'm going to let it shine. Oh, Jesus gave it to me. Oh, I'm going to let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. Oh, all downtown, y'all... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.