Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis journeyed to Anniston, Ala., and Birmingham on Thursday, providing the clearest indication yet that the administration may declare two civil rights sites as national monuments before President Obama leaves office.
Jewell and Jarvis are holding community meetings in both cities to solicit input on proposals that would commemorate two violent episodes in the 1960s struggle for racial equality in the United States.
On May 14, 1961, a mob attacked a bus in Anniston carrying an interracial group of young men and women seeking to challenge segregation on public buses in the South. Residents in that city are hoping to turn the former Greyhound bus station on Gurnee Avenue and the site of the firebombing of the Freedom Rider bus into a national park site.
The proposed Birmingham Civil Rights National Historical Park would include the site of the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the city’s 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed four girls and injured 22 other people, as well as sites such as the A.G. Gaston Motel, which served as an organizing location for segregation opponents.
On Wednesday, National Trust for Historic Preservation chief executive Stephanie Meeks sent a letter to Obama urging him to use his executive authority to make the site in Birmingham a national monument, saying the “designation will ensure the preservation and interpretation of the powerful role Birmingham played in the Civil Rights Movement, and will inspire Americans to think deeply and collaboratively about equality and injustice in our society today and in the future.”
In an interview, Nationals Park Conservation Association President Theresa Pierno said Birmingham deserves recognition because it “broke the back of segregation” in the South.
Both proposals have considerable support from local elected officials, as well as national groups.
Anniston Mayor Vaughn Stewart said in a statement that he believes administration officials back the idea of expanding the national park system to honor civil rights activists. Obama has already used his powers under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to honor abolitionist Harriet Tubman, farmworker and Latino activist Cesar Chavez and gay rights activists who launched the Stonewall riots.
The bus attack was “a most tragic event which inspired a nation to rally against the injustices of Jim Crow laws in the American South,” Stewart said. “The Anniston story is not only an integral part of the historic Freedom Rides and the greater Civil Rights Movement, but is also timely as President Obama pushes to ensure that the story of America’s history is as diverse as its people.”