The Motel and 16th Street Baptist Church were bombed in 1963.

photo by: City of Birmingham Archives

March 15, 2019

Uplifting Birmingham's Rich Civil Rights Legacy

Over four years, the National Trust helped save the A.G. Gaston Motel and other civil rights landmarks in Birmingham.

One of the most significant campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement was planned within the walls of Birmingham’s A.G. Gaston Motel. The resulting protests broke the back of segregation in the South and showcased how political activism can change the nation and the world.

In 1963, hotel owner and black entrepreneur A.G. Gaston hosted civil rights leaders and donated use of the motel for free to plan Project C, otherwise known as the Birmingham Campaign. It marked the first phase in a series of direct actions, including lunch counter sit-ins, marches on City Hall, and boycotts of segregated local businesses, from both local and national advocates.

Though the protests were met with violence from law enforcement—including attacks with fire hoses and police dogs—the campaign was a major turning point in the Civil Rights Movement that led to the end of legal segregation in the United States.

Gaston (like many unrecognized foot soldiers of the Civil Rights Movement) worked quietly behind the scenes as an advocate for justice throughout the campaign, paying for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s release from the jail where he penned his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail.

But the A.G. Gaston Motel also holds a story beyond civil rights—the story of black entrepreneurship through the life and legacy of Gaston himself.

Though he started from humble roots, Gaston became the most successful African American entrepreneur in the state of Alabama during the era of Jim Crow segregation. He constructed the A.G. Gaston Motel in 1954 as a place of luxury for black travelers in the state, and the motel was listed in Victor Hugo’s Green Book travel guide for six years.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute introduced the National Trust in 2015 to the threat of partial demolition facing the A.G. Gaston Motel. To recognize the motel’s significance, we added the site to that year’s 11 Most Endangered Places List and designated it a National Treasure.

Green Book: Learn More About the Green Book

The Smithsonian Channel created a 2019 documentary about the history of the Green Book travel guides, the places listed in them, and their creator, Victor Green.

After announcing the designation, we determined the site’s significance and condition through a Historic Structures Report, reuse study and business plan, and structural and environmental analysis. Then, we and our partners—the City of Birmingham, Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL), National Park Service, National Parks Conservation Association, and local property owners—started advocating for the designation of the motel and surrounding landmarks as the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.

Over the course of our campaign, we received over 13,500 signatures in support of the national monument and the motel, inspiring us to push even further and raise the national profile of this key place in American history.

March for Birmingham Marching Band

photo by: Mark Sandlin

Carver High School's marching band led the crowd during the March for Birmingham.

Bethel Baptist Church Exterior

photo by: Library of Congress, HABS ALA,37-BIRM,26--1

Bethel Baptist Church is among the places included in the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.

While we had already partnered with a large coalition of local advocates and organizations, we still needed to foster a large public event that would catch the attention of the Obama administration and ensure the Department of the Interior (DOI) and National Park Service that national monument designation had substantial local support. So, in 2016, we led the March for Birmingham, a mostly celebratory event that also contained powerful symbolism as it took place in the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement.

During the march, participants had many opportunities to learn about the people of Birmingham who are now recognized at a collection of places—including Bethel Baptist Church, 16th Street Baptist Church, Colored Masonic Temple, and A.G. Gaston Motel—for their participation in one of American history’s most significant social movements.

What’s more, it was because of the broad local support from Birmingham natives for a cause they deeply believed in that President Obama created the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument on January 12, 2017.

Our National Treasure campaign ended in October 2018 when we provided newly elected Mayor Randall Woodfin and his executive cabinet with the strategies for finalizing the motel’s restoration and continuing its reinterpretation.

From preservation and business planning, to community and Congressional meetings, to the March for Birmingham, local advocates and property owners created a strong coalition to organize around a shared vision for this National Treasure. Now, we can appreciate the civil rights legacy and rich African American history of the city and the A.G. Gaston Motel for years to come.

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Brent is the Executive Director of the National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund

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