At a news conference earlier today at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell and Birmingham Mayor William Bell announced plans to submit legislation (H.R. 4817) designating Birmingham’s Historic Civil Rights District as a National Park. If passed, the legislation would create a groundbreaking Civil Rights-themed National Historic Park, and along with plans for a $10 million Freedom Center, located near the site of a restored A.G. Gaston Motel, serve as an engine for neighborhood revitalization and economic development.
"It is our hope to link with other civil rights locations so that people can come here, not only to see what happened 50 years ago, but see the change that occurred," Mayor Bell previously told The Birmingham News.
The historic Birmingham Civil Rights District, a six-block area designated by the city in 1992, contains a number of sites iconic to the struggle for equality, including the 16th Street Baptist Church, scene of the infamous terrorist bombing in 1963 that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described as "one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity" and the A.G. Gaston Motel, a frequent gathering spot for Civil Rights leaders and an important example of African-American entrepreneurship during an era of segregation.
Motel owner Arthur George Gaston (1892-1996) was a prolific business owner, who at one time controlled a bank, radio stations, insurance company (Booker T. Washington Insurance Company), funeral home, and construction firm. He was also a staunch supporter of civil rights. In the 1950s, Gaston forced the First National Bank to remove its "whites only" sign by threatening to close his accounts, and provided space for civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his motel to plan protests in defiance of Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor. Room 30 earned the nickname "the war room" during the pivotal 1963 Birmingham Campaign. Gaston even bailed King out of jail in April, 1963, after he was arrested during boycotts of local businesses.
The city, along with many sites in the South, have promoted their role in the Civil Rights struggle for years, building up a themed tourism business. Birmingham had introduced markers for its own Civil Rights Heritage Trail in 2009, and commemorated the 50th anniversary of the important events of 1963.
Proponents believe this designation would also provide an economic benefit to the city. In addition to jobs and funding from the National Park Service, the creation of such a park would require infrastructure and technology investments, as well as open up the possibility of grant money for future development.
"Birmingham was one of the most heavily segregated cities in the United States in the 1960s," said Theresa Pierno, President and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association, in a statement. "The non-violent protest marches in Birmingham in the spring of 1963 and the violent response they evoked from police and state and local officials drew national attention and helped to break the back of segregation in that city. We commend Representative Sewell for working to ensure these pivotal moments in the long struggle to bring equality and justice to all Americans will never be forgotten. The addition of a Birmingham Civil Rights National Historical Park would allow this important Civil Rights story to be told for generations to come."