Two New Civil Rights Additions to the National Park System

One of two new civil rights-related national monuments commemorates the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in Birmingham, Alabama. Photo of the MLK Memorial in Washington, DC from 2011.

Just one week before leaving office, on January 12, 2017, President Barack Obama proclaimed three new National Monuments under the Antiquities Act, and added those monuments to the National Park System.  Two of those National Monuments, Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument and Freedom Riders National Monument, both in central Alabama, will preserve locations associated with the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1960’s.

Prior to these designations, there were already a handful of National Park Service Units dedicated to the story of the modern Civil Rights Movement in the post-World War II era.  Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas preserves the story of the pivotal 1954 Supreme Court case that led to nationwide desegregation of the schools.  Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site  in Arkansas preserves the story of the contentious desegregation effort at that school three years later in 1957.

Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia preserves the home where the civil rights leader lived from his birth in 1929 until 1941, as well as the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he would jointly serve as pastor with his father into the 1950’s and 60’s.  There is also the relatively new Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, DC.   In addition, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC interprets the story of several civil rights moments from history, including the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech.

Most notable of the National Park Service sites from this time period, however, is one place that that doesn’t actually count among the 417 units of the National Park System, the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in Alabama.    Despite having two Visitor Centers and being staffed by uniformed National Park Service Rangers, National Historic Trails are not given full national park status.   Nonetheless, visitors to the Trail can follow the route of the famous Voting Rights March of March 1965, which were led in part by Martin Luther King, Jr.

National Park Service map of the new Freedom Riders National Monument in and around Anniston, Alabama.The two new sites fill in more of the civil rights timeline between the two school desegregation sites from the 1950’s, and the Voting Rights March in 1965.   Freedom Riders National Monument preserves two sites associated with a particular 1961 effort by activists to exercise their right to desegregated facilities in intercity bus service, and the violent effort by desegregation opponents to oppose them.    The plan for this “Freedom Ride” was to send a mixed-race group of civil rights activists to ride together on two intercity buses from Washington, DC to New Orleans, Louisiana.  The route for that trip would take the riders through much of the Deep South where they knew that tactics of intimidation, sometimes violent intimidation, were used to prevent racial minorities from making use of desegregated facilities.

The first bus was a Greyhound Bus, and when that bus pulled into the town of Anniston in eastern Alabama it was attached by a violent mob that slashed the bus’ tires and broke its windows with rocks.  The old Greyhound bus station in Anniston is now one of the two sites that comprise this new national monument.

Eventually, police officers arrived, and they provided an escort for the bus to leave the station – along with an “escort” of protesters from the mob.   Two cars from the rioters pulled in front of the bus and slowed down in order to slow the bus’s progress.  The bus made it six miles west down Highway 202 towards Birmingham before the slashed tires finally gave out.  The bus driver pulled to the side of the road, and the mob descended again, throwing fire bombs into the broken windows of the bus.  The Freedom Riders struggled to escape from the burning bus, even as the mob acted to try and prevent them from escaping.   Eventually they did break free, and were given some treatment at the Anniston hospital before civil rights leaders from Birmingham were able to arrange their transfer to the Birmingham hospital.   A site of nearly 6 acres where the bus burning took place is now the other site comprising this National Monument.

National Park Service map of the new Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, showing the location of the Galston Motel and Kelly Ingram Park, among other locations.

Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument includes a four-and-a-half block area in downtown Birmingham.  The only site within the Monument boundaries that will be Federally-owned is the former A. G. Gaston Motel.   The Gaston Motel was itself owned by an African-American businessman, and was the best hotel in Birmingham at which the African-American civil rights activists could find accommodations.   In the spring of 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other leaders from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference arrived in Birmingham to plan a series of marches and sit-ins to protest segregation in the city.

On April 6, 1963, the first attempt to march on Birmingham City Hall began at the Galston Motel, but ended with the protestors being arrested within three blocks.  The next day, a march began at the nearby St. Paul United Methodist Church, but was stopped after just one block in Kelly Ingram Park.  Both of those sites are located within the authorized boundaries for the new National Monument.

A few days later, the City of Birmingham obtained an injunction against King and other civil rights leaders prohibiting future marches.  Nonetheless, April 12th dawned as Good Friday that year, and the leaders went ahead with a planned march anyways – an act for which they were promptly arrested.  It was after this arrest that King wrote his seminal essay, Letter from Birmingham Jail, laying out the philosophical and moral justification for his campaign of nonviolent protest against segregation.

It was in this letter that King wrote the memorable words “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny, whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”   These words are now inscribed on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Particularly striking to me, however, is another passage of the Letter in which King addresses his justification for defiantly breaking laws, and thus have led him to the circumstances of writing from within a Birmingham Jail.  He starts by reflecting on the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and then invoking principles of moral philosophy and theology.

Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may want to ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all”

For Dr. King, the laws of segregation are unjust because they, quote, “degrade human personality.”   The laws of Alabama, and King presumably has in mind here particularly the laws governing protest and assembly,  are also unjust because they are not equally applied to the majority and the minority alike, but instead are only applied to the minority.  Moreover,  King argues that all of these laws were also unjust because they were only enacted as a result of so many blacks having been denied the right to vote.   As King writes in his letter, “who can say that the legislature of Alabama, which set up the state’s segregation laws, was democratically elected?”

Words from King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, inscribed on the MLK Memorial in Washington, DC. Photo from 2016.

Having laid out his case for the fundamental injustice of the laws of Alabama, King then turns his attention to one of the great philosophical questions: “what is the role of a just man in an unjust world?”   Here King lays out his radical justification for his program of non-violent protest, and for working within the American system rather than to overthrow it.  He writes:

In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

King loved the law, and so he willingly accepted the penalty.    This was despite the fact that his fourth child, daughter Bernice, had been born just two weeks earlier.  King would ultimately spend nine days in jail, finally being released on April 20th.

After King’s release from prison, the civil rights campaign in Birmingham would continue to escalate.  A key turning point was the decision of organizers to use children in the protests to reinvigorate the campaign and advance the goal of drawing national attention to the injustice in Birmingham.  Beginning May 2nd, thousands of high school and even elementary students began leaving school to participate in marches.  A great many of them would be peacefully arrested.  In other cases, the city of Birmingham authorities would escalate the situation by using police dogs and extremely powerful fire hoses to disrupt the marches.   By May 5th, some of the African-American crowds that had gathered in Kelly Ingram Park themselves began to turn violent, responding to police violence by throwing rocks and other debris – despite the efforts of civil rights leaders to maintain non-violence.  As the crisis continued to escalate, normal business in downtown Birmingham ground to a halt.  By May 8, business leaders began calling for desegregation, and by May 10 a political deal was reached to end the crisis, release most of the protesters from jail, and to repeal Birmingham’s segregation ordinances.

As the crisis came to an end, a bomb blast would heavily damage the Galston Motel on the night of May 11, only a few hours after King himself had left.   King would then go on to lead the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington in August of that year. His efforts would lead to passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 in July of that year, and he would receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his advocacy of non-violent protest in October of 1964.

Sunset on the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, DC. Photo from 2012.
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