Pitt football team visits civil rights museum

Pitt's Brendon Felder looks at an exhibit while visiting the Civil Rights Museum on Wednesday in Birmingham, Ala. (Pitt Athletics)
Pitt's Brendon Felder looks at an exhibit while visiting the Civil Rights Museum on Wednesday in Birmingham, Ala. (Pitt Athletics)
Photo by Pete Madia
Jerry DiPaola
| Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, 1:11 a.m.

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Across the street from where Pitt's caravan of buses were parked Wednesday, the grass is a deep green, and carefree children can now go there to play.

Fifty years ago, however, 16th Street North in the heart of Birmingham was no place for small children. Before the Pitt football players and even some of their parents were born, schoolchildren peacefully protesting 1960s segregation were threatened by attack dogs, water hoses and jail.

That was the sobering history lesson about 70 Pitt players, coaches, staff and family absorbed after practice during a visit to the museum at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

“It teaches you a lot of lessons,” redshirt freshman cornerback Lafayette Pitts said. “It gives you a vision of what was going on before our time.”

The trip to the museum has become an annual event for the Panthers, who will make their third consecutive appearance Saturday in the BBVA Compass Bowl in nearby Legion Field. Bowl officials invited Pitt to tour the museum that chronicles in sometimes graphic detail the fight against desegregation in the South. Ole Miss players, Pitt's opponents in the game, visit Thursday.

The museum sits across the street from a black Baptist church where four schoolgirls died and 20 worshippers were injured in a 1963 bomb blast. Inside Wednesday, the Pitt group watched a video that showed how Birmingham was born not long after the end of slavery in 1872 and grew into the largest segregated city in the south in a half-century's time.

The players knew about segregation before their visit, but the museum brings it to a harsh light, displaying white and colored restroom sinks, streetcars, buses, clubs and even hearses. Before desegregation, blacks could see first-run movies, but they were forced to enter the theaters through a side entrance.

A sign that used to hang in a Birmingham restaurant, “Coloreds served take-out only,” is a sad reminder of how the city once was.

“It's hard to believe when you actually see some of things and read the stuff in there,” said Pitts, a Woodland Hills graduate. “It's hard to believe what was going on.”

Near the end of the tour, many players and defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield and his family were captivated by a video of speed artist Denny Dent painting a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. Dent finished the painting in less than 10 minutes with his bare hands while a recording of Ray Charles singing “America The Beautiful” played around him.

For the past three Januarys, Birmingham, whose population is about three-fourths black, has been a warm and hospitable host to the Panthers football team, which is likely making its final trip to Birmingham. The Compass Bowl has no contractual tie to the ACC, where Pitt will reside next season after leaving the Big East.

But in three years, the trip to the Civil Rights museum never failed to give the Pitt players something to think about other than football.

“For me, it just seems like the second time reading a book,” said redshirt freshman defensive end Devin Cook of Beaver Falls. “You catch things that you didn't see the first time.”

Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can reached at jdipaola@tribweb.com or 412-320-7997.

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