7 Historic Civil Rights Sites That Exemplify the Fight Against Racial Injustice
Racial injustice is a disease that continues to plague our country. For more than 400 years, Black people in America have been treated unjustly and the reign of white supremacy has inhibited Black Americans fight for equality in the United States. In 2020, activists and protesters are still taking a stand, in large part due to the killings of Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd. For many around the world, these fatalities are emblematic of the systemic racism Black people continue to face.
Activism and protests are not new to the history of the fight against racism. Leaders from the Civil Rights Movement paved the way for those who are amplifying their voices today, and significant sites across the country such as A.G. Gaston Motel and 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, continue to tell the narrative of why all Americans should continue to fight for equal treatment.
Brent Leggs, the executive director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, has long been working to protect places related to African American history and achievement, including places that tell the history of the fight for civil rights. These places represent not only the history of that struggle, but also establish a framework for the contemporary protest movement. He hopes that by working to protect these places, the National Trust can help people recognize the history of Black protest movements as one embodied with dignity, strategy, and community organizing.
“We are building on a legacy of activism that is rooted in the Black DNA, and through our activism we have a nation that continues to reach for justice,” Leggs said.
In order to honor this legacy of activism, the National Trust is exploring seven places across the country that are prominent in the history of the Civil Rights Movement. The story these places tell represent how far we have already come and how far we still have to go.
A.G. Gaston Motel and Kelly Ingram Park (Birmingham, Alabama)
The A.G. Gaston Motel played an important role in The Civil Rights Movement. In this luxury motel for African Americans during segregation, leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth developed strategies and planned events for the Birmingham campaign that would become known as “Project C,” creating a movement quite similar to the one we see today. The hotel, now part of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, also represented Black entrepreneurship during the period of racial segregation. The owner, A.G. Gaston sacrificed his business to support social justice.
In nearby Kelly Ingram Park, many Black residents protested on two occasions in 1963. The first event was two days after the city government obtained a state circuit court injunction against growing demonstrations. A group of 50 protesters, led by King and Ralph David Abernathy gathered on April 12 to defy the court order. The protesters were stopped and arrested by police.
Weeks later, in early May, police violently attacked young marchers. Nonviolent demonstrators were fire-hosed, arrested, and attacked by police dogs after they gathered in the park to protest segregation. Images of these attacks circulated across the country, shocking many. Although, many protesters were beaten and harassed by the police, Leggs believes their resistance symbolized a collective voice for change.
To preserve the legacy of these places,the National Trust worked in partnership with the city of Birmingham for almost a year and half to make the A.G. Gaston Motel the centerpiece of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, memorializing it as a part of our National Park system. The motel is currently undergoing phase one restoration.
Nina Simone Childhood Home (Tryon, North Carolina)
The home of Nina Simone is one physical manifestation of the activist and musician’s legacy. Simone used her voice during the Civil Rights Movement to address oppression and racial inequality. One of her prominent songs, “Mississippi Goddamn” was written after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1964 in Birmingham, Alabama. She performed at many historic events like the Selma to Montgomery March and at an event held after the assasination of Martin Luther King Jr.
“It takes someone with influence to speak on behalf of a movement, and she did that and she risked her career,” Leggs said. “And the bravery of a Black woman during that period to stand up for justice is being modeled in the Black women who lead Black Lives Matter. They are reincarnations of Nina Simone.”
Simone’s home was designated as a National Treasure in June 2018. In July 2019, the National Trust announced a crowdfunding campaign to support the restoration and preservation of the home through the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. While the National Trust is focusing on exterior rehabilitation, protection, and possible options for the use of the home, the owners will ultimately make the final decision of how it will be used.
Clayborn Temple (Memphis, Tennessee)
Clayborn Temple is central to the Civil Rights Movement as it relates to political activism and economic justice. Martin Luther King Jr. led a nearly 15,000-person protest march from this location right before his assassination and it’s where Coretta Scott King led a quiet protest march to continue the work of her husband after he was killed.
Civil rights and labor activists organized inside the temple during the Sanitation Workers’ Strike of 1968, The “I AM A MAN” signs that were created by congregation’s pastor remain relevant around the world today.
Clayborn closed in 1999 but has since reopened. The building is now home to an active congregation and serves as a place for special events and meetings. Designated as a National Treasure by the National Trust in October 2018, the National Park Service granted the National Trust $20,000 in 2019 to develop an exhibit, supplementary guidebook, and a website to tell the story behind the building’s role the Sanitation Workers’ Strike of 1968. The organization is also working with local leaders of Historic Clayborn Reborn to plan for church’s restoration and its future use.
Bethel Baptist Church, 16th Street Baptist Church, and St. Paul Church (Birmingham, Alabama)
Bethel Baptist Church, 16th Street Baptist Church, and St. Paul United Methodist Church each served as meeting places for the many protestors who advocated against segregation and fought for integration in Birmingham.
On September 15, 1963, a bomber targeted 16th Street Baptist Church and four Black girls were killed inside the building. The deaths of Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair sparked national outrage and represented the plague of racial violence in America.
In 2018, the National Trust awarded a $100,000 Action Fund grant to the city of Birmingham to help fund preservation efforts for all three churches. In 2019, the Action Fund added $22,500 to the original award, and the National Trust’s HOPE Crew worked on a project funded by the Fund ll Foundation at Bethel Baptist Church to educate Black youth about preservation trades tied to Black achievement and activism.
The stories these seven places tell remain powerful today. Leggs believes these sites remind us that we are the light bearers and the social innovators who have taken on the burdensome, but beautiful, role to shift national consciousness.
"I think it’s important to support these sites because we have lost so many African American historic places,” Leggs said. “Some have been erased intentionally. Others have been lost for other reasons. Our story and contributions are literally embodied in the walls and our culture is preserved inside of these places. All we have to do is to tour one of these civil rights landmarks to understand our social responsibility, to understand who we are as a community.”
“I think it’s critical that the public supports and make investments in these organizations and in these historic places to sustain them so that they stand in their fullest glory,” he added.
And while the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund is on one level a program designed to invest in the preservation of historic buildings and landscapes, it is also a social movement fighting to preserve Black history and culture through historic buildings and landscapes seeking to honor the Black American experience. It is important to ensure that the contributions of African Americans are recognized, celebrated, understood, and preserved. Leggs describes the work as a form social justice, emphasizing how critical it is for everyone to come together, to fight for equality, and to reconstruct our national identity, so that all Americans see Black history as American history.
“It’s not just the responsibility of the youth that are out in the streets demonstrating,” Leggs said. “But it takes every single Black Person and American to join together in the fight for social justice.”