Birmingham Leaders Call For Civil Rights Sites To Be Declared National Park
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
This morning in Birmingham, Ala., people gathered at the 16th Street Baptist Church to remember four girls who died there 53 years ago today. They were killed by members of the KKK who planted a bomb that went off before Sunday morning services. It's one of several key moments in the civil rights movement that took place in Birmingham. As Andrew Yeager of member station WBHM reports, city leaders want the sites of these moments to be part of a new National Historical Park.
ANDREW YEAGER, BYLINE: Today's service at the 16th Street Baptist Church was part celebration, part reflection, part call to action. Then at 10:22, the exact time of the blast, those in the sanctuary stood, and the Reverend Arthur Price read the names.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ARTHUR PRICE: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair...
YEAGER: The names Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley are recognized around Birmingham but perhaps less so elsewhere. Birmingham Mayor William Bell says that's why city leaders began talking a few years ago on the 50th anniversary of many civil rights events about how to raise the profile of the historic sites not just through word of mouth.
WILLIAM BELL: But how do we formally get endorsed as a place that people should come and see?
YEAGER: A couple of things happened. First Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell introduced a bill to designate Birmingham's Civil Rights District a National Historical Park. At the same time city officials began to lobby President Barack Obama to designate the area a national monument through an executive order. They're different titles but both under the umbrella of the National Park Service.
BELL: It would mean long-term preservations of those facilities. It would mean increased tourism for the facilities.
YEAGER: Places such as the 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park, where kids marching in the Children's Crusade were met with police dogs and fire hoses - also the A.G. Gaston Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had his war room to plan the Birmingham campaign.
Andrea Taylor is president of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute which would be part of the park. She says beyond the economic benefits of tourism, a designation would say what happened to Birmingham matters.
ANDREA TAYLOR: We have a lot of history here. This is sacred ground.
YEAGER: A few blocks away from the Civil Rights Institute...
YEAGER: Ronald Williams walks into Magnolia BBQ and Fish for lunch. He's a regular here. Williams has heard about the idea for the national historical park.
RONALD WILLIAMS: I think it's long overdue.
YEAGER: It's long overdue.
WILLIAMS: Yes. It should have been done years and years ago.
YEAGER: The restaurant is part of the Fourth Avenue Historic District, an area that was the center of black business during segregation. It's also included in the national park plans. The president of the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association, Quincy Moore, says being part of the designation is a nod to black entrepreneurship and a side of the civil rights movement not always seen.
QUINCY MOORE: This is where a lot of the civil rights leaders got their hair cut. They bought food in this area. They shopped in this area. They partied in this area just to let their hair down.
YEAGER: A spokesman for the National Park Service says they have no position on nor involvement in the proposal. The White House spokesman declined to comment on any action the administration may take.
Birmingham Mayor William Bell, though, says he expects President Obama to issue an order creating a national monument before he leaves office in January. Bell says the action is worthy of any president, but there would be special significance having the first black president make the designation. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Yeager in Birmingham, Ala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.