Could Trump's attacks on monuments threaten black history and civil rights landmarks?

A statue in Kelly Ingram Park, part of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument (Alabama).

Credit: Alan Spears (NPCA), flickr.

A look back at historic civil rights sites protected by President Obama and others under the Antiquities Act shows how much we stand to lose if that and other conservation laws are weakened.

Near the end of his term in office, President Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate national monuments in Alabama and South Carolina that recognize sites integral to both America's mid-20th century civil rights movement and post-Civil War Reconstruction. Earlier, he established Pullman National Monument in Illinois, commemorating key moments in African American and labor history.

13 parks and monuments that honor black history

President Trump has not yet moved to de-designate or shrink any of these monuments, but he is part of the broad political cohort that has sought to arbitrarily limit use of the law that gave Obama the authority to recognize them in the first place: the Antiquities Act.

Indeed, Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s rollback of huge portions of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments was only the most visible salvo in a wider war on the institution of national monument lands. For years, extreme lawmakers like Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) have been advocating proposals not only to reduce protections for places like the two Utah landscapes, but to erode the foundational law used to establish them in 2016 and 1996, respectively.

While the Antiquities Act has been in the news lately by dint of its application to classic red-rock vistas of the American Southwest, it is also a crucial tool for recognizing historical and cultural sites, often on a smaller scale or in a more urban setting.

Aside from the significant stakes for public lands and architectural sites, the anti-monument push may hamper our ability to properly and inclusively tell the story of our nation's history. If the Antiquities Act falls out of use, people of color, the LGBTQ community and other underrepresented groups will bear the brunt in the form of shared narratives that exclude or alienate them.

Antiquities Act a valuable tool for preserving a more inclusive history

Passed in 1906, the Antiquities Act authorized all future presidents to protect historic landmarks or objects of “scientific interest” on federal public lands as national monuments. The bill grew out of a movement to preserve deteriorating archaeological resources, some of which were targets of vandalism and looting. It has become an especially important tool for when a community wants a landmark protected in its backyard, but Congress is unwilling or unable to get it done.

Members of the Beaufort Mass Choir at the first anniversary celebration of Reconstruction Era National Monument (South Carolina). Credit: J. Cadoff (NPS). 

Unfortunately, among the more than 150 natural and cultural landmarks protected under the Antiquities Act, sites devoted to African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American and LGBTQ history have been few and far between. A report released by the Center for American Progress (CAP) in 2014 showed that only 24 percent of national parks and monuments honored women, people of color, the LGBTQ community and other traditionally underrepresented groups. President Obama's additions to the monument pantheon helped—and a later update to the CAP report found that presidents have a stronger record than Congress in terms of establishing "inclusive" monuments--but we still have a lot of catching up to do.  If Rep. Bishop and Trump are successful in eliminating or gutting the Antiquities Act, we might not get the chance.

In addition to telling a more complete story about the U.S., addressing this imbalance would likely help bring a broader cross-section of the U.S. to our public lands. In one survey of minorities, 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.

Trump's Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante rollbacks are being challenged in court by Native American tribal interests, The Wilderness Society and other groups, but no matter the legal outcome, politicians on the fringes will likely continue their efforts to undermine the Antiquities Act. As we build coalitions and work to defend this important law, we must keep in mind that we're also championing people and communities who have not yet had their story told in full.