Against the dilapidated backdrop of the A.G. Gaston Motel, Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, explained what a national park designation would mean for the areas made famous for some of America’s most tragic historic events.
“The reality is the National Park Service is America’s story teller, and there are big parts of our nation’s history that are not yet being told,” said Jewell.
A big push is underway to designate several Alabama civil rights locations as national parks. National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, Congresswoman Terri Sewell and Mayor William Bell joined Jewell for a tour of Birmingham’s civil rights district. They strolled almost sadly through Kelly Ingram Park, stopping every few feet to discuss the statues that help tell the park’s story.
The tour ended at the 16th Street Baptist Church. Sitting outside was Charles Person, one of the original Freedom Riders. Earlier in the day Person and the group visited the site of the 1961 bus burning in Anniston, which is also under consideration. Person reflected on the positive racial changes he’s seen in the U.S. since that horrifying day, and compared it to the country’s current racial climate.
“Instead of talking to each other, we’re talking about each other, at each other. We need to change that around, where we can sit down and discuss because most of the Freedom Riders have no animosity toward those who attacked us,” Person said. “So it’s a matter of their willingness to sit with us and just to find out what were we thinking then and what are we thinking today.”
Inside the church, the group heard from members of the public. Dozens were in attendance and all strongly agreed that Alabama’s civil rights monuments are important markers that help tell America’s story, even the bad parts. Lisa McNair’s sister, Denice, was one of the four black girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
“The stories of the people in this area and the sacrifices they made need to be told so that young people and old people will know them in history, because they were stories of people that fought bravely, honestly and peacefully for American rights, as American citizens,” McNair said.
A bill was introduced in Congress earlier this year that would make Birmingham’s civil rights district and other Alabama civil rights monuments into national parks, but the bill has been stalled in committee since late March. Mayor William Bell and Congresswoman Terri Sewell expect President Obama to designate the areas through executive order before he leaves office in January. The president has the authority to do this through the Antiquities Act, said National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis.
“[The Antiquities Act] was established under Teddy Roosevelt and has been used literally hundreds of times by all but three presidents since Teddy Roosevelt,” Jarvis said. “Our current president, Barak Obama, has used it more than any president in history.”
However, if President Obama does use his executive power, it could still be another two to three years before the areas actually become national parks.