Obama adds Alabama civil rights area to Park Ser­vice

Hawaii Tribune Herald - - NEWS - By JAY REEVES

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.

As­so­ci­ated Press file photo

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.

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