Birmingham, Ala. ----- In one of his final acts as president, Barack Obama signed a proclamation naming the Birmingham Civil Rights District a national monument.
Birmingham was Ground Zero for the civil rights campaign in 1963, an era marked by attacks and jail cells on one side and non-violence and the resolute certainty of a better tomorrow on the other. The national monument designation is tribute to the struggles and sacrifices that made Birmingham matter in the course of American history.
The national monument encompasses historic sites in the downtown district that were significant to the revolution that took place in the streets of Birmingham in the 1960s. One of those sites is the city’s most famous civil rights landmark, the 16th Street Baptist Church. In the basement of the church on a September Sunday morning in 1963, a dynamite bomb set by Ku Klux Klansmen ripped through the side of the church killing four African-American schoolgirls. Killed in the bombing were 11-year-old Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Addie Mae Collins, all 14 years old.
The bombing horrified the nation and the world and was a turning point in race relations in the country.
Included in the national monument district is Birmingham’s Bethel Baptist Church, credited with shaping the Civil Rights Movement here. Civil rights legend, the Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth, was pastor of Bethel Baptist Church from 1953 through 1961. The church often served as a gathering place for discussions of civil rights among Blacks, gatherings that angered white supremacists. In 1958, Bethel Baptist was bombed though the church was empty at the time. The bombing cemented Shuttlesworth’s fiery determination to bring Birmingham to the center of the Civil Rights Movement.
The national monument includes historic Kelly Ingram Park. The park served as a congregating area for demonstrations in the early 1960s, including the ones in which police dogs and fire hoses were turned on marchers by Birmingham police. Images of those attacks haunted Birmingham in the decades that followed, but they were the same images that were instrumental in overturning legal segregation.
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the Colored Masonic Temple, St. Paul Lutheran Church, and portions of the 4th Avenue Business District, which arose from Blacks being banned by white merchants, are included in the national monument. The designation also includes the A.G. Gaston Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., met and collaborated with allies during the Birmingham campaign. The motel, long left vacant, is being restored to its original condition.