Preserving History: Birmingham Pushes to Have National Park Honoring Civil Rights Contributions

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Over 10,000 people have signed a petition calling for Congress and President Barack Obama to pass legislation that would approve the creation of a National Civil Rights Park in Birmingham, Alabama.

U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell (D) of Alabama introduced legislation earlier this year that would preserve pivotal landmarks in Birmingham that are directly tied to the Civil Rights Movement. The landmarks to be included in the park, according to the petition, are “16th Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, Bethel Baptist Church, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and the A. G. Gaston Motel.”

The 16th Street Baptist Church is home to one of the tragic Birmingham Church Bombings that occurred in 1963. The bombing, which was the work of the Ku Klux Klan, killed four young Black girls.

Kelly Ingram Park is where police sicced dogs and sprayed fire hoses at children and protesters in 1963.

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From 1956 to 1961, Bethel Baptist Church served as headquarters for the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) and was very active during the Civil Rights Movement. Much like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the ACMHR focused on legal and nonviolent direct action against segregated public spaces, including transportation and schools. They also played a critical role in the Freedom Ride of 1961.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which opened in 1992, is a museum that depicts the struggles of Black people in the 1950s and 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement.

The last landmark on the petition, the A.G. Gaston Motel, was owned by a prominent Black businessman and was a meeting place for such leaders and key players in the movement as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Dr. King. Additionally, “the National Trust for Historic Preservation named [the motel] a National Treasure in 2015,” according to the petition.

“Now, more than 50 years later, as our country continues to wrestle with racial inequality, this critical chapter in America’s civil rights history is as important as ever,” reads the petition. “Creation of this park while [President Obama] is still in office would be a fitting tribute to his presidential legacy and to our understanding of our nation’s struggle and progress toward racial equality,” it reads.

Supporters behind Sewell’s proposition — as well as the petition — speak of the importance to memorialize Birmingham’s role in the Civil Rights Era, especially given the ongoing struggle of race relations in today’s society, which have thrust racial civil rights back into the national spotlight.

Also supporting the legislation is Birmingham’s Mayor, William Bell, who said the park will remember the past in historical context as well as serve as inspiration in the continuing fight for racial equality.

“We’re experiencing events today that make it clear America is not past the racial wounds that played out so vividly in our country’s narrative 50 years ago,” he said in a press release. “I believe that by continuing to share Birmingham’s story and securing this national park in our city, Birmingham will shine brightly as a beacon providing lessons and inspiration in moving forward through our troubled racial climate today.”

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