Obama adds southern civil rights sites to national monuments legacy

On Thursday, President Obama created three new national monuments in Alabama and South Carolina and expanded two others. His goal: 'a more inclusive National Park Service.'

Jay Reeves/AP
This photo shows the upstairs suite once occupied by Martin Luther King Jr. at the abandoned A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Ala. The motel will be renovated as part of city's civil rights district joins the National Park Service under a proclamation signed by President Obama on Thursday.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day may not be until Monday, but the National Park Service is getting a head start on celebrating America’s progress in the civil rights arena.

On Thursday, President Obama proclaimed three new sites as national monuments. In Beaufort, S.C., the Reconstruction Era National Monument became the first monument to highlight the work of freed slaves to start schools and forge community. Two other monuments in Alabama focus on those who fought for inclusivity during the civil rights movement.

To Mr. Obama, the sites America chooses to preserve should be a snapshot of the country’s history and geography, in all its complexity and diversity. The monuments preserved on Thursday are the capstone on this effort, which has seen 34 national monuments created or expanded during Obama's time in office.

“There was a time when we only focused on men on horseback, with swords,” explained Alan Spears, the National Parks Conservation Association’s cultural resources director, according to The Washington Post. “That was a different time. We’ve expanded the definition of what’s important, and what’s nationally important.”

Under the American Antiquities Act of 1906, presidents have the power to create national monuments where there are “objects of historic or scientific interest.” Many are natural landmarks, while those from more recent history are often battlefields. Obama’s selections, by contrast, have included a monument to Latino farmworkers in California; a stop along the Underground Railroad in Maryland; and the Stonewall Inn in New York, an important site for the gay rights movement.

“I have sought to build a more inclusive National Park System and ensure that our national parks, monuments and public lands are fully reflective of our nation’s diverse history and culture,” Obama said in a statement issued Thursday. All three monuments designated on Thursday are part of that effort.

In Birmingham, Ala., a large section of the city’s downtown will become the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. It includes the city’s 16th Street Baptist Church, where a racially-motivated bombing killed four girls and injured dozens of other people in September 1963. 

It also features the A.G. Gaston Motel, where many wealthy black Americans, including Aretha Franklin, Harry Belafonte, and Nat "King" Cole, stayed during the segregation era. At one point, Martin Luther King Jr. and his team ran their civil rights campaign from a suite in the motel. Future visitors will be able to experience the suite as it was in King’s day, thanks to a $9 million renovation project being conducted by the city of Birmingham and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, The Washington Post reported.

In Anniston, Ala., the Freedom Riders National Monument recognizes the interracial group of men and women who were attacked in May 1961 as they were demonstrating against segregation on public transport. The Greyhound bus station, where a group of integrated Freedom Riders were attacked in 1961, will be part of the national monument.

Meanwhile, in South Carolina, a monument to Reconstruction celebrates the efforts of freed slaves to come to terms with – and move beyond – centuries of oppression, a struggle that was felt by the nation as a whole.

"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," Stephanie K. Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said in a statement.

That reflection is supported by legislators from both sides of the aisle. Before Obama created the national monument there, the entire Alabama Republican delegation backed legislation intended to create a national historical park in Birmingham.

Obama’s desire to protect and celebrate diversity extends to the environment, too. On Thursday, he also expanded two existing national monuments, Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon and the California Coastal National Monument. The expansions were controversial, The Washington Post reported, with some concerned about the impact on ranchers, loggers, and fishermen who rely on the lands. Environmental rights groups, however, applauded the expansions as a means to preserve these areas’ exceptional biodiversity.

What does becoming national monuments mean for the sites? They will now be overseen by the National Park Service, and become eligible for federal support. The Park Service separately announced $7.5 million for civil rights sites nationwide.

“Today’s actions will help ensure that more of our country’s history will be preserved and celebrated, and that more of our outdoors will be protected for all to experience and enjoy,” Obama concluded.

Material from the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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