Statue in Kelly Ingram Park honors the memory of four girls killed in a 1963 church bombing. The park will be included in the new Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.
Credit: Shannon McGee, flickr.
President Obama has established the Birmingham Civil Rights and Freedom Riders National Monuments in Alabama, and the Reconstruction Era National Monument in South Carolina, using the Antiquities Act, a law that has been used by almost every president to preserve places of cultural, historic or natural importance.
“The designations of Birmingham Civil Rights, Freedom Riders and Reconstruction Era national monuments are further proof of President Obama’s proven commitment to bring Americans together by embracing our struggles and triumphs as a nation," said Wilderness Society President Jamie Williams in a statement. "We have his vision of inclusivity and equality to thank for shining the light on these powerful stories for all time.”
It is important that we help more people access and enjoy the public spaces and outdoor areas that belong to all Americans, and actions like President Obama's latest monument designations are part of that vision. A report released in 2014 showed that national parks and monuments were woefully behind-the-times in reflecting the diversity of our nation, with only 24 percent recognizing or dedicated to women, people of color, the LGBTQ community and other traditionally underrepresented groups.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visits the A.G. Gaston Motel, part of the new Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, in 2016. Credit: DOI, flickr.
Addressing this imbalance would likely help bring a broader cross-section of the U.S. to our public lands (in another survey, 77 percent of respondents said that the designation of monuments and other sites that recognize the historical contributions of underrepresented communities would make them "more likely" to visit).
The new monuments:
- Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument (Alabama) includes several sites with a deep connection to the civil rights struggle of the mid-20th century. A.G. Gaston Motel, named one of the U.S.' "most endangered" historic places in 2015, served as a refuge for minorities when Birmingham was otherwise deeply segregated, and also became planning headquarters for Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders during the 1960s. Also included are the famed 16th Street Baptist Church, site of a 1963 church bombing that killed four young girls and proved a galvanizing moment for the civil rights movement; the adjacent Kelly Ingram park, site of major civil rights demonstrations; and Bethel Baptist Church, headquarters of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and a target of racist violence.
- Freedom Riders National Monument (Alabama), in the town of Anniston, honors the namesake activists—including now-congressman John Lewis—who braved violence in often hostile southern communities to test whether states were obeying a 1960 Supreme Court decision that declared segregated bus terminals illegal. The monument is being established on the site of a mob attack on two buses full of Freedom Riders on Mother's Day 1961, a crime that helped to stoke national opposition to Jim Crow injustices.
- Reconstruction Era National Monument (South Carolina) will be the first national monument that recognizes the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, including the site of one of the first schools for freed slaves and the Brick Baptist Church, which was built by slaves and eventually adopted as their place of worship when the land was otherwise abandoned.
President Obama's conservation legacy includes making monuments more diverse
While we have a long way to go, President Obama has diversified our parks and public lands a great deal in just a few years. Just days prior to designating the Alabama and South Carolina monuments, the Obama administration formally established Harriet Tubman National Historical Park in New York, marking the former home and church of the Underground Railroad hero and suffrage advocate.
Kelly Ingram Park, part of the new Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, was the site of major demonstrations in the 1960s and now includes several statues and memorials to Martin Luther King Jr. and other icons of the Civil Rights movement. Credit: Ken Lund, flickr.
During the National Park Service's centennial year in 2016, President Obama designated Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, former headquarters of the 19th Amendment-boosting National Woman’s Party and now one of precious few national public land units that specifically commemorates women’s history, and Stonewall National Monument, the first monument saluting LGBTQ rights and history. In 2015, President Obama used the Antiquities Act to declare the Pullman and Honouliuli national monuments, commemorating key moments in African American and labor history and the site of Hawaii’s largest and longest-running World War II-era internment camp, respectively. He created César E. Chávez National Monument in 2012 to honor that site's namesake Latino labor leader.
In years to come, we will work to see the great and varied scope of American history honored, with all contributions recognized.