Restoring the past to look toward the future
Learn more about our city’s civil rights history by visiting the national park that’s in our own backyard.
by Jeana Durst, content director, JBMC Media
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We are not makers of history, we are made by history.” No matter how you interpret this quote, there’s no denying that history influences who we are today. That’s one reason why it’s important to understand it — even the hard chapters, or more accurately, especially the hard chapters. The Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument is a place where we can take our children and “travel back in time” to gain a better understanding of our collective past and, hopefully, use that insight to inform our future.
When you hear the word “national park,” perhaps it conjures images of Yellowstone or Yosemite. But did you know that a very important national monument run by the National Park Service (NPS) was established in downtown Birmingham only three years ago? In fact, the NPS manages more than 400 sites in the country, many of them in urban environments.
Former President Barack Obama established the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument by presidential proclamation on January 12, 2017 in recognition of the nationally significant events that took place in Birmingham in 1963 during the modern civil rights movement. That spring, police dogs were unleashed against non-violent protesters and children were sprayed with high-pressure hoses. These scenes, which were broadcasted across the world, highlighted aggression against civil rights protesters, providing vivid examples of segregation and racial injustice in America. Recently, I caught up with the monument’s superintendent Kris Butcher to learn more about what’s in the works for this historic site and to find out how families can access the monument sites to engage in important dialogue about the topic of racial injustice.
The national monument is actually managed through a unique partnership of many stakeholders, including the city of Birmingham, the National Park Service, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, 16th Street Baptist Church, Bethel Baptist Church, and St. Paul United Methodist Church. “All of these organizations were telling these stories long before the NPS showed up—the idea is that we can bring more resources and engage the public to teach those lessons to inspire future generations of leaders and civil rights advocates worldwide,” Butcher says.
The historical sites, which encompass roughly four square blocks downtown (with the exception of Bethel Baptist Church which is farther), includes all of the aforementioned stakeholders and the A.G. Gaston Motel. All of the sites manage their own tours independently right now; however, Butcher explains that the goal is to move toward a consolidated option to visit all the sites in the future. As the headquarters for this NPS site, the A. G. Gaston Motel is currently undergoing some important restorations. Its historical significance is rich: In April through May of 1963 leaders of the civil rights movement, including Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., took up residence at the motel where they strategized and made critical decisions about the non-violent campaign that targeted Birmingham’s segregation laws and practices.
Butcher explains that plans are underway to restore the motel to the way it looked during that era. “One half was built in 1954, and the other in 1968,” he says. Mr. Gaston built it as the premier place for African American acts for to stay while in Birmingham. In fact, the hotel is featured in The Negro Motorist Green Book, which was in publication from mid-’30s to mid-’60s to highlight businesses open to black people in the segregated South. If you’ve seen the 2018 film The Green Book, inspired by the true story of a tour of the deep South by African American classical and jazz pianist Don Shirley and Italian American bouncer Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, then you understand. “It’s really fascinating because the movie did a good job of bringing a lot more exposure to the book,” Butcher says. In later years, the motel would become an assisted living facility before falling into disrepair.
Now the A. G. Gaston Motel is finally receiving the attention it deserves. After renovations are complete, the hope is that visitors will have an experience to go back in time to a place that was so influential to where we are today. “Right now we are mainly doing cosmetic work, the bricks look better, we’ve installed a new roof, a lot of foundation work and drainage work things that are so important to the overall structure,” Butcher says. Plans are to restore Room 30, or the “war room,” where King and Shuttlesworth worked together. And because it’s being implemented by the NPS, visitors can eventually expect to have guided tours and other normal park features, such as display panels that tell the story.
Until then, families wishing to educate their children about the civil right movement in Birmingham can visit many sites to be informed. Butcher recommends checking out the book The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Paul Curtis in advance of a visit. This 1963 Newberry Award winning novel about a black family from Michigan that decides to spend the summer in Alabama during 1963 when racism and civil rights tensions are high is a great read for children ages 10 to 16. “My hope is that our National Monument is a place where you can have tough conversations and be rightly challenged to look in the mirror and assess yourself,” Butcher says. “I think all of us have biases that we may not be aware of so it’s important to be educated and challenge ourselves to be better citizens, better people and better leaders in our world.”
Know Before You Go
The Birmingham Civil Right Institute is closed because of COVID-19; however, they are offering a variety of virtual events in the meantime. We recommend that you call each site before you make plans to visit. (Even if you can’t go inside, you are still standing in a place where history was made.)
Must-See Sites on the Civil Rights Trail
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
520 16th Street North, Birmingham AL 35203
The A.G. Gaston Motel
1510 5th Ave N, Birmingham AL 35203
Kelly Ingram Park
5th Avenue N & 16th Street
16th Street Baptist Church
1530 6th Ave N, 35203
St. Paul United Methodist Church
1500 6th Ave N, Birmingham AL 35203
Bethel Baptist Church
3233 28th Avenue North, Birmingham AL 35207