During the pivotal year of 1963, the Birmingham Campaign of the Civil Rights Movement brought mass marches into the city streets, demanding an end to enforced segregation, and drawing the eyes of the world to what was then a hotbed of strife and discord. The campaign also brought Martin Luther King Jr. here to team up with Fred Shuttlesworth and thousands of rank and file foot soldiers against Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor and the forces working to prevent integration — leading up to a much larger march in the movement: the March on Washington later that year.
The March on Washington is remembered by many as a watershed moment in the history of Civil Rights as King pressed the case for jobs and freedom in the nation’s capital before thousands of demonstrators, and before many more thousands watching the history unfold.
On Sunday August 28, a new March for Birmingham will bring Birmingham’s historic significance back to the fore in the hopes of getting major Civil Rights sites some additional recognition: designation as a National Park. Birmingham Mayor William Bell took time out from a busy schedule to talk to Weld about how this upcoming march can have lasting impact on the city and its human rights legacy.
Weld: What does the March for Birmingham seek to achieve in terms of a national park?
William Bell: It’s to recognize the the important role that Birmingham and the A.G. Gaston Motel played in planning the National March on Washington that Dr. King and others worked so diligently on. It also gives us the opportunity share with the general public why this was so important.
Weld: Will the park just include the motel site itself?
Bell: The national historic park designation will encompass the park itself — Kelly Ingram Park — the A.G. Gaston Motel, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Bethel Baptist Church, which is not in the downtown area, but can be included in the designation and several other locations. So while it has a central location in downtown, it also reaches out into the neighborhoods of North Birmingham as well. They won’t be separate national parks but they will be included in the one national park.
Weld: Since you’ve tied all those locations together, what will the national park designation mean?
Bell: By pulling them all together it will become a stronger tourism site for people who are interested in the Civil Rights Movement and it would make Birmingham even more so of a destination point as recognized by the National Park Service.And the National Park Service will help us to a certain degree preserve the A.G. Gaston Motel as well as present to the nation and the world the entire site and recommend it for people to come and visit, which will have an economic impact for the city of Birmingham.
Weld: What are your plans right now for the A.G. Gaston Motel?
Bell: The facility itself has been in decline for some years now. This will give us the opportunity to save and refurbish the facility as well as create archival space to support the Civil Rights Institute. And it will give us the opportunity, again to tell the story of Birmingham and the movement that took place, to the rest of the world.
Weld: Is there a timeline involved in this possible designation?
Bell: We’re looking at between now and the end of the year for the designation to be made by Congress. There’s currently a bill pending before Congress that will in effect make that designation. And we’re also working with the presidential administration to also secure that designation.
Weld: Is Birmingham competing with other sites for this designation?
Bell: It stands alone, in and of itself. There’s not a competitive situation where we’re pitted against some other area. We’re standing on our own, we’re telling our own story and showing the significance of those facilities that are there.
Weld: What’s the next step after the march?
Bell: Well, the next step we will be meeting with Congressional representation from various committees which have oversight with the National Parks Service to solicit various Congressional support that we need to back up Congresswoman [Terri] Sewell’s request that this designation be made.
Weld: Is there anything else you want the citizens of Birmingham to know about this initiative?
Bell: We’re excited to make this presentation to the public and we want the public to come down and participate to show the solidarity of keeping our historical facilities and the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement Alive.
The March for Birmingham happens Sunday August 28 at 6 p.m. starting at the A.G. Gaston Motel, 2 20th St. N., and ends at Kelly Ingram Park with a special musical performance by Ledisi at 7 p.m. For more information, visit supportbirmingham.org