Obama adds Alabama civil rights area to Park Service
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — President Barack Obama signed an order Thursday designating a historic civil rights district in Alabama as a national monument, placing several blocks of a city once rocked by racial violence on par with landmarks including the Grand Canyon.
The National Park Service now will have oversight of a downtown section of Birmingham, Ala. — a focal point of civil rights struggles in 1963 against harsh enforcement of laws mandating racial segregation.
Obama, who leaves office next week after serving eight years as the nation’s first African-American president, acted after Congress failed to approve legislation proposed to bring the several-block area into the federal park system.
“It is such a great tribute to the people of the city of Birmingham that President Obama would make this designation as one of his last actions before leaving the White House,” said Alabama Democratic U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, who sponsored the legislation.
Agency employees now will be based in the district, which also becomes eligible for federal funding. The Park Service separately announced grants totaling more than $500,000 to benefit the area, part of $7.5 million in funding for civil rights sites nationwide.
The Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument will include the now-abandoned A.G. Gaston Motel, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. planned weeks of demonstrations against segregation in the spring of 1963; the park where black protesters were met by police dogs and fire hoses; the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four black girls died in a Ku Klux Klan bombing that year; and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
It also includes a business district that was a hub of black commerce for generations.
Obama also designated two other new national monuments linked to equal rights.
The new Freedom Riders National Monument in the east Alabama city of Anniston will include the Greyhound bus station where a racially integrated bus of activists was attacked in 1961. The Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort County, S.C., will tell the story of a community built by freed slaves after the Civil War.
Stephanie K. Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said the proclamation means Birmingham’s civil rights district will “join the ranks of national monuments and parks across the country that reflect seminal turning points in our history.”
“These new national monuments provide a place for reflection on how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go to achieve true equality for all,” she said in a statement.
The city-owned Civil Rights Institute and park already draw thousands of visitors annually, and 16th Street Baptist is a civil rights landmark and home to an active congregation.
Local leaders and tourism officials hope even more visitors will show up once the site has National Park Service employees to greet visitors and explain the sites.
The most visible changes will occur at the now-ramshackle motel, where King met with aides in an upstairs suite called the “war room” during pivotal demonstrations in Birmingham.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd of some 3,000 people April 30, 1966, in Birmingham, Ala., in Kelly Ingram Park on the last day of his three-day whistle-stop tour of Alabama, encouraging black voters to vote as a bloc in the primary election.