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New National Monuments Highlight Reconstruction and Civil Rights History

President Obama designated three Southern sites critical to sharing that story

Civil Rights-era freedom riders are just one of the groups whose history is honored in three new national monuments. (Burke Library)
smithsonian.com

The fraught history of race relations in the United States is preserved in buildings—physical sites where some of America’s civil rights struggles played out in person. Now, report The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis, President Obama has designated three sites critical to that story as national monuments.

The first monument, established as the Reconstruction National Monument, pays tribute to the Reconstruction Era that followed America’s Civil War. The proclamation came as a surprise, Eilperin and Dennis report, and the site will be the first within the national park system to commemorate Reconstruction. Located in Beaufort, South Carolina, it comprises several sites that tell the story of how post-Civil War America attempted to secure rights for newly freed African-Americans.

The monument includes one of the country’s first schools for freed slaves, a fort where freedmen joined the U.S. Army and where the Emancipation Proclamation was celebrated, and dozens of other properties from the era. As Jennifer Schuessler of The New York Times reports, the monument has sustained opposition from organizations like Sons of the Confederate Veterans, but has been celebrated by historians as a much-needed addition to America’s national parks.

The second monument will be called the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. Birmingham, Alabama, was the site of some of the Civil Rights Movement’s bloodiest and bravest moments, from protests during which police used snarling dogs and high-pressure hoses to attack African-Americans to the day-to-day indignities of segregation. The site will celebrate “Project C”—the C was for confrontation—a 38-day-long direct action campaign planned on bringing attention to Birmingham’s racial policies. The project’s headquarters was the Gaston Motel, and there movement leaders like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth met to plan a campaign of resistance.

Despite arrests, attacks and police brutality, the Birmingham campaign worked and desegregation was forced through.

But not without a cost. The site will also include the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four African-American girls were killed in an act of terrorism by a Ku Klux Klan bombing. The horrifying act mobilized many Americans in support of the Civil Rights Movement, but lingers as one of the era’s most shocking stands on behalf of discrimination.

The third monument, the Freedom Riders National Monument, pays homage to another one of the movement’s indelibly bloody moments. It includes the Greyhound bus station in Anniston, Alabama, where a group of KKK members and segregationists began a violent attack of a bus that carried black and white “freedom riders” who had attempted to segregate a bus. The bus tires were slashed and its windows were broken. About six miles away, the bus was pulled over. Police allowed the violence to continue, and the bus burned. The local hospital refused to admit the freedom riders, who were then taken to Birmingham by a convoy formed by a black minister and others.

That was just one ordeal sustained by the freedom riders, who were regularly beaten, humiliated and intimidated by local segregationists, often with police help. Their bravery became a symbol of the movement and helped mobilize both national support and the eventual integration of buses—one terrifying ride at a time.

With the designation of these memorials and two others on Thursday, President Obama continues his legacy as history’s most park-establishing president. Eilperin and Dennis report that he has now protected over 553 million acres of space as national monuments. Notably, the fact that so many sites once fraught with racial division and struggle among them have been turned into national monuments means that Americans now will have more places in which to come to grips with the racial divisions of the past—and present day.

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