On Thursday, with only eight days left in office, President Barack Obama declared several historically significant sites in Alabama — including portions of Birmingham’s Civil Rights District and the Anniston Greyhound bus station where a group of racially integrated Freedom Riders were firebombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan, an action to some extent facilitated by local law enforcement officials — as national monuments.
The designation will protect and provide $47,003 in federal funding to the A.G. Gaston Motel, where foot soldiers and organizers would meet during the height of Birmingham’s civil rights struggle in the 1950s and ‘60s. The structure has fallen into disrepair over the years. Kelly Ingram Park and the Bethel Baptist Church, where Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, a prominent civil rights figure, was the pastor, are also included in the footprint of the Birmingham monument.
An additional $500,000 was granted toward the preservation of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where three members of the KKK lined the basement with dynamite that would explode around 10:22 a.m. on September 15, 1963, taking the lives of four young girls.
In a separate designation, the Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma will also receive $500,000 for structural maintenance and preservation purposes.
While it remains unclear exactly how much of an economic impact the designation will have on the district, Birmingham could see a sizable increase in tourism-related revenue, representatives of the mayor’s office said.
“In 2014, the National Park System received over 292 million [recreational] visits. National Park visitors spent $15.7 billion in local gateway regions (defined as communities within 60 miles of a park). The contribution of this spending to the national economy was 277,000 jobs, $10.3 billion in labor income, $17.1 billion in value added, and $29.7 billion in output,” April Odom, the mayor’s communications director, explained in an email. “The lodging sector saw the highest direct contributions with 48,000 jobs and $4.8 billion in output directly contributed to local gateway economies nationally. The sector with the next greatest direct contributions was restaurants and bars, with 60,000 jobs and $3.2 billion in output directly contributed to local gateway economies nationally.”
But the potential economic benefits were not all Birmingham residents considered.
“For me, personally, it means more than I can really express,” Janice Kelsey, who lived through the movement, said of the news of the designation. One of the girls killed in the church bombing was one of Kelsey’s friends. “To be a part of that movement and that time, to now see it’s being recognized like this is truly incredible,” she said.
“I was an 11th grader at Ullman High School when I started attending meetings and getting involved with demonstrations. I was inspired by a speech and interactions I had with Dr. James Bevel. He met with the young people and basically he shared some information about some things, some provisions that were in white schools and compared that to the black schools,” Kelsey said.
Bevel, who organized the Children’s Crusade in which Kelsey and her classmates participated, would often meet with other civil rights leaders at the A.G. Gaston Motel, one of the makeshift headquarters used by opponents of segregation.
Kelsey explained that, while inequalities in the classroom were perhaps the most troubling aspect of segregation for her, the fact that children were being killed by bombs and beaten in the streets was another major factor that led her to become more involved with the demonstrations. Kelsey was one of hundreds of students arrested on April 10, 1963, for unlawful demonstrations. One month later, a bomb intended to kill Dr. Martin Luther King was detonated outside the A.G. Gaston Motel, leaving nearly the entire facade in ruins.
Odessa Woolfolk, who taught Kelsey in a U.S. government class at Ullman High, is the founding president and chair emerita of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which is connected to the old motel.
“I think not only is this a great opportunity for the district to be remembered as a battlefield for the movement, but it’s an important opportunity for us to add something to the conversation about human and civil equality in an a world that is seeing such divisive discourse,” Woolfolk said a day after the official designation. While she had been privy to the information about the designation months beforehand, she said Thursday’s announcement was met with elation and a sense of reverence.
Woolfolk has been involved with efforts to designate the district as a historical monument for years. “We have something to say, Birmingham that is, about the fractured discourse and the ways in which division, socially and racially, is dominating the news, good or bad,” Woolfolk said. She hopes the lessons learned during the movement in Birmingham can resonate in 2017.
“It’s important for us as a society to not only remember these events, but have a conversation about how these events moved us forward,” Woolfolk said. “There are lessons to be learned here that hopefully more people will consider with this designation.”
Doug Jones, the current BCRI board chair, said he was thrilled Obama was able to designate portions of the district as the national monument before he leaves office next week.
“It’s historic in a number of ways,” Jones said. “Not only will it recognize and preserve the role Birmingham played in advancing human rights, but [it] also allows us to become a larger voice in a country that seems to be becoming increasingly divided over these issues. This is ground zero for that. We’re hoping people can see these lessons and apply them to where we are today as a country.”
By way of the Antiquities Act of 1906, which allows the president to declare sites as national monuments without first having to get congressional approval, Obama set a record this week for the number of national monument designations during his time in office with 34, a record previously held by Franklin D. Roosevelt.