It’s official: Birmingham civil rights landmarks have been declared a national monument.
As one of his last acts in the Oval Office, President Barack Obama signed an executive order Thursday establishing the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, which will include the A.G. Gaston Motel, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Bethel Baptist Church, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Kelly Ingram Park, the Fourth Avenue business district, and Masonic Temple.
The order came four days before Martin Luther King Jr. Day observances and eight days before Obama completes his second term as president.
“These monuments preserve the vibrant history of the Reconstruction Era and its role in redefining freedom,” Obama said. “They tell the important stories of the citizens who helped launch the civil rights movement in Birmingham and the Freedom Riders whose bravery raised national awareness of segregation and violence. These stories are part of our shared history.”
Birmingham Mayor William Bell, surrounded by foot soldiers and other civil rights activists inside the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on Thursday, said he was in a “joyous mood.”
“I understand the struggles that had to occur for this day to get here and when I say struggles I’m going all the way back to the marches that took place in Kelly Ingram Park, and the streets of Birmingham and the fact that Dr. King came here,” the mayor said. “My heart is overflowing with joy and happiness that this day, this president, has given acknowledgement to the fact that so many people made sacrifices for all of us, including him, that this community should be recognized as part of the National Park Service monument program.”
U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, who spearheaded the legislation for a national park in March 2016, said the president’s executive order incorporating the sites into the National Park System is “ensuring its preservation for future generations.”
“It is such a tribute to the city of Birmingham and the brave men and women of Birmingham who really sacrificed to make this nation live up to its ideals of equality and freedom for all,” she said.
Her first thought when learning that the executive order had been signed, Sewell said, was the four little girls who paid the ultimate price in losing their lives in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. “While nothing can bring back those precious lives, I think this is true validation of the importance that Birmingham has played in America’s fight for civil rights,” she said.
Sewell said Birmingham now takes its rightful place as the epicenter of the fight for civil rights in America.
“From the special role that the A.G. Gaston Motel played in hosting the leaders of the movement, to the children’s march in Kelly Ingram Park, to the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four little girls, the legacy of the pivotal events that occurred in Birmingham has earned our city a special place in American history as the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement,” Sewell said.
Sewell and Bell spent hours working to establish the Civil Rights National Monument, which will add weight to downtown Birmingham’s attractions, including Regions Field, the BJCC Legacy Arena, the Uptown entertainment district, and the upcoming TopGolf entertainment venue.
“The national monument designation will also provide an economic boost in tourism and spur economic development in Birmingham and the state of Alabama,” Sewell said. “This effort has enjoyed strong support from local and national stakeholders, including Mayor Bell, the Birmingham City Council, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Parks Conservation Association, as well as supporters from across this nation. Today, we all share in this tremendous victory.”
Birmingham’s civil rights sites have been designated as a national monument instead of a national park through Obama’s use of authority from the Antiquities Act of 1906.
In 2014, the National Park System had over 292 million recreation visits, generating $15.7 billion in income for park gateway communities. The National Park System has also contributed to 227,000 jobs, $10.3 billion in labor income, $17.1 billion in value added, and $29.7 billion in output. Much of that contribution affected the lodging and restaurant/bar industries, creating 108,000 jobs and generating $8 billion income collectively.
The national monument designation came on the same day that the National Park Service (NPS) awarded grants to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and nearly 40 other historical and preservation projects in 20 states.
The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church will receive $500,000 for building preservation, repairs and restoration and the BCRI will receive $47,003 for its Preservation Leadership Training program at the A.G. Gaston Motel. Also in Alabama, the city of Anniston will receive $500,000 for the Anniston Freedom Riders Monument.
The funding is a part of the African American Civil Rights Grant Program, created in 2016 to document and preserve sites and stories pertaining to the African American experience in the 20th century. States, tribes, local governments and nonprofit organizations, and historically black colleges and universities, applied for grants from the program.
(Barnett Wright contributed to this report.)
This story originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.