September 15, 2016

Birmingham Marches for Civil Rights National Park

Banner at March for Birmingham

photo by: Mark Sandlin

Residents hold up a banner in support of Birmingham's Civil Rights National Park.

Imagine a boisterous crowd in bright orange T-shirts cheering as they parade through the streets of Birmingham’s Civil Rights District; a high school marching band energetically playing their instruments as they move in unison; a spirited gathering in support of a good cause.

Now, picture the same streets in the year of 1963. At the time, Birmingham, Alabama was at the center of the civil rights movement that brought both confrontation and peace-keeping leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., to its streets. Fifty-three years after that turbulent time, there is an effort from organizations and government officials to do more to honor Birmingham’s layered history and its national impact. The city of 212,000 is ready to recast its tumultuous history in a new mold that symbolizes the community’s vision for tolerance, liberty, diversity, and hope.

The city of Birmingham and the National Trust for Historic Preservation began an effort this year to transform part of the city into a Civil Rights National Park. Should it be successful, it will be the first in the country.

The proposed national park would incorporate the A.G. Gaston Motel, which was owned by the African-American businessman A.G. Gaston and hosted numerous civil rights activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, as well as celebrities like Duke Ellington and Aretha Franklin. In 2015, the Trust named the motel a National Treasure to bring national attention to the need for its preservation.

The national park would also include the 16th Street Baptist Church—where four African-American girls were killed in an infamous act of terrorism in 1963—and Kelly Ingram Park, site of the Children’s Crusade.

These places are integral to understanding and appreciating the story of Birmingham’s civil rights past.

The vision for the park is to more clearly identify historic sites and buildings that played a role in Birmingham’s civil rights history. In addition to increased tourism and employment, and the resulting revenue, the national park would illuminate Birmingham’s central role in the civil rights movement and encourage a holistic understanding of the larger civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s.

In order to publicize the effort and to draw support for the park’s creation before the end of President Obama’s final term, the National Trust, in partnership with the city of Birmingham, organized a march on Sunday, August 28, that coincided with the 53rd anniversary of the March on Washington.

A Group of Children at the March for Birmingham

photo by: AG

Children enjoy the festivities at the National Trust for Historic Preservation's March for Birmingham event.

The event included speeches from Birmingham Mayor William Bell, U.S. Congresswoman Terri Sewell (AL), and National Trust senior field officer Brent Leggs, who outlined their vision for the national park. Attendees then marched through the proposed park grounds. The event wrapped up with a concert by R&B artist Ledisi.

“People were really passionate,” Andy Grabel, associate director of public affairs for the National Trust, said. With nearly 700 people in attendance, the vision of the city and the National Trust seems to be on the right track.

The event mirrors what the park will hopefully achieve. A designated national park would enhance national awareness of the United States’ long struggle for racial equality while honoring Birmingham’s past and the many people who created a positive difference during a time in America’s history that, although bitter, was crucial to shaping social ideologies in the 20th and 21st centuries.

By creating a Civil Rights National Park, the National Trust and the city of Birmingham hope to clarify a complicated yet important story in America’s past and show how Birmingham’s living history continues to educate and inspire Americans.

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

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