President Obama Designates Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument
On Thursday, Jan. 12, President Obama announced the creation of Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument in Alabama. The monument honors the activists who struggled for social justice throughout the civil rights era and will help inspire hope and tolerance in generations of Americans to come.
The designation—which includes eight of Birmingham’s most significant civil rights sites—will also help recognize the city’s pivotal role in the larger civil rights movement and will bring increased heritage tourism to the city.
Along with Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, President Obama also announced the creation of Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Alabama, which honors the legacy of activists who boarded buses at the site in a challenge to segregation, and Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort, South Carolina, which originally functioned as an educational institution for formerly enslaved people following emancipation.
President Obama’s designations were made possible by the Antiquities Act, which Congress passed in 1906 to help safeguard cultural and natural resources across the country. Please consider taking a moment to thank President Obama for his decision to protect these important places.
The effort to designate Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, which was led by the National Trust and included a historic structures report for the A.G. Gaston Motel and other preservation expertise, would not have been possible without the help of our partners, including the city of Birmingham and its mayor William Bell, the National Parks Conservation Association, and U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell.
Below, we explore the history and significance of the eight sites that were designated.
A.G. Gaston Motel
The A.G. Gaston Motel, a National Treasure of the National Trust, was built in 1954 by local African-American businessman Arthur George Gaston (1892-1996). Gaston’s motel offered sanctuary to those who were turned away by segregated motels, and became a center for African-Americans to socialize and discuss current events in Birmingham. Amid the streamlined couches and carpeted floor of Room 30, or the “War Room,” civil rights luminaries like the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. organized protests and devised strategy for the civil rights movement in the early 1960s.
Though the motel had fallen into disrepair after sitting vacant for more than 20 years, the future looks bright. The site will be rehabilitated and then annexed by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, located nearby, with funds from the city of Birmingham and the National Park Service. The motel and institute will become the new Freedom Center, an educational hub that will focus on the civil rights movement and other cultural topics.
16th Street Baptist Church
On September 15, 1963, a bomber targeted Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, killing Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair—young girls who were attending Sunday school. This was Birmingham’s fourth bombing incident in four weeks. Civil rights leaders, including King and Shuttlesworth, had frequented the church for meetings concerning the rising tensions in Birmingham, making it a target for those who opposed their intervention. Occurring less than a month after King delivered his I Have a Dream speech, the attack marked the zenith of racial violence in Birmingham during the civil rights movement.
Kelly Ingram Park
Kelly Ingram Park is located just across from the 16th Street Baptist Church and around the corner from the A.G. Gaston Motel, placing it at the geographic center of the national monument. In May 1963, following weeks of protests, boycotts, and arrests, many of Birmingham's African-American schoolchildren gathered on the lawn of the park to protest segregation. Between May 2 and 3, 1,000 child protesters were arrested, and in the days that followed, firehouses and brutal violence and police dog tactics were used against the peaceful protesters. News coverage spread images of the events nationwide and sparked public outcry. The eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is attributed, in part, to the events that took place in Kelly Ingram Park in May of 1963.
Bethel Baptist Church
Though Bethel Baptist Church is located almost two miles from the geographic center of the monument, the church served as a central meeting place for many protesting segregation in Birmingham. The church was home to the congregation of the Shuttlesworth, one of the civil rights movement's most active leaders. In 1956, the parsonage adjacent to the church, which was the home of Shuttlesworth and his family, was destroyed by a bomb. Fortunately, the family escaped unharmed and the attack only served to strengthen the resolve of Birmingham’s civil rights leaders. Under Shuttlesworth’s guidance, the church served as the headquarters for the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) from 1956 to 1961, which organized freedom rides and demonstrations across the state.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
Since 1992, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute has explored civil rights issues from its location on 16th Street, across from Kelly Ingram Park. A cultural and educational research center, the institute also focuses on social justice issues and efforts beyond the American civil rights movement of the 20th century. Though it is the youngest of the eight civil rights landmarks in the monument, its mission to explore morality and responsible citizenship, and especially the events that occurred in Birmingham in the 1960s, make the institute essential to the monument. Once it is incorporated with the A.G. Gaston Motel to create the new Freedom Center, the institute will be able to better illuminate the events that took place in the city that helped alter the country’s views on racial justice.
St. Paul United Methodist Church
Founded by newly freed slaves in 1869, St. Paul United Methodist Church was at the forefront of the effort to integrate those who had been released from bondage into free American society following the Civil War. Nearly a century later, the church became the first place to host meetings of the ACMHR and other civil rights gatherings that helped spark the movement in the city that Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument recognizes today. Throughout the movement, the church also served as the starting point for many significant marches and hosted non-violent civil disobedience training sessions for citizens and activists.
Colored Masonic TempleDesigned by architects Robert Robinson Taylor and Louis H. Persley, and completed in 1922, the Colored Masonic Temple in downtown Birmingham is significant as a state-of-the-art community facility designed, constructed, and financed by people of color during the time of segregation. The National Register-listed building served the social, political, and cultural needs of the African-American community and provided shelter to activists, politicians, and common citizens alike throughout its history. The building now stands as a symbol of triumph and continued hope to the Birmingham and Alabama communities.
4th Avenue Business District
The 4th Avenue Business District was the heart of African-American social and commercial activity in the city of Birmingham from 1908-1941, and includes structures that supported services central to the everyday life of the black community at that time. Extent buildings from that period include the Renaissance Revival Colored Masonic Temple, the 1928 Famous Theatre, the 1941 Carver Cinema, and the 1913 Alabama Penny Savings Bank Building, which also housed the offices of the Birmingham Reporter, the leading African-American newspaper of the time. The three-block stretch of 4th Avenue, adjacent to the city's central business district, represents the African-American community's efforts to fulfill social, professional, and cultural needs during the time of racial segregation.