Birmingham native explores history of neglected landmark

30 Things I Didn’t Know about Birmingham

I am sharing interesting tidbits I’ve recently learned about Birmingham and some of her people. These items may be new to you as well or just a reminder. 

Number ELEVEN

On Mother’s Day in 1963, around midnight, the A.G. Gaston Motel was bombed. The motel’s guests were understandably shaken. And word soon reached the hotel that the house of A.D. King, Martin Luther King’s brother, was also bombed that night.

Destruction at the hotel following the May 11, 1963 bombing

Destruction at the hotel following the May 11, 1963 bombing

I knew about the bombs, but I’ve just learned that despite the movement’s commitment to nonviolence, many people who were gathered at the hotel began to throw bricks at the police, and some even knifed the tires of police cars, among other things.  “Blacks were tired and mad…the police and National Guard had to rope off blocks surrounding the motel. Folks were not let in or out. According to a New York Times article, the thunk of Billy clubs hitting skulls inside the motel could be heard from across the street,” says Marie Sutton, a local journalist, via email.

Sutton is also the author of “A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham: A Civil Rights Landmark,” a new book that explores the history and cultural significance of the motel.

The motel was named for Arthur George Gaston, whose rags-to-riches story has inspired many people in and outside of Birmingham.  Read on for more of my conversation with Sutton.

Why did you decide to write about the Gaston Motel? Although I grew up in Birmingham, I had never, ever heard of the motel. In 2004, I started working at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and learned about the Gaston, its revolving doors of celebrities and its history of having been the headquarters of the movement. The storyteller inside of me said, “That’s a book!”

What’s the most surprising thing you found during your research? Since I didn’t know about the motel, it was surprising that it existed and was part of our community for so long; for more than 30 years. And, even more surprising than that is that the city has allowed it to sit and collect dust when it meant so much to the community and was the site for many important meetings and strategies.

Marie Sutton

Marie Sutton

It’s no secret that Gaston was pretty conservative in his thoughts on how blacks should address Jim Crow in Birmingham; although he would rather the community take a slower approach, he still provided support for the movement. Did your research unearth any insight into this dichotomy? Truthfully, it was not his intent to make the motel the headquarters for the movement. Gaston was certainly against segregation but felt there was a more diplomatic way to do so rather than the seemingly radical approaches of King and his group. Keep in mind, he was much older than the young King and his group. [Gaston] also had established relationships with business owners.

What do you want the reader to take away after they’ve read the last sentence? I want them to take away that this motel has significance and should not be allowed to waste away. It served as the backdrop for the memories of many blacks in Birmingham and should be cherished like your grandmother’s antique strand of pearls.

Marie Sutton will be signing “A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham: A Civil Rights Landmark” at Brookwood Village’s Books-a-Million this Saturday, November 15, at 2 p.m.

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