As he approached his last week as the US President, Barack Obama designated three national monuments that represent post-Civil War Reconstruction and Civil Rights heritage. Announced yesterday, just ahead of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the new monuments include 19th-century architecture in Beaufort County, South Carolina; pivotal Civil Rights movement locales in Birmingham, Alabama; and places associated with the 1961 attack on the Freedom Riders in Anniston, Alabama.
National monuments can be designated by the president through the Antiquities Act of 1906. In a statement shared by the White House, Obama noted the significance of these sites that “preserve critical chapters of our country’s history, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement.” He added:
These stories are part of our shared history. From designating Stonewall National Monument, our country’s first national monument honoring the LGBT movement, to recognizing the movement for women’s equality through the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, I have sought to build a more inclusive National Park System and ensure that our national parks, monuments and public lands are fully reflective of our nation’s diverse history and culture.
Indeed, according to the Washington Post, Obama utilized this executive authority to designate national monuments more than any previous presidents, often emphasizing a diverse American heritage. Coinciding with the three national monuments in the South, this week’s decision expanded two natural landscapes: the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in Oregon, and the California Coastal National Monument.
The new national monuments, which will be overseen by the National Park Service, followed Wednesday’s designation of 24 new National Historic Landmarks by US Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. Jewell stated in response to the added monuments, “Now the National Park Service, America’s Storyteller, will forever be responsible for safeguarding the narrative of not only the sparks that ignited the Civil Rights movement but also the hope of the Reconstruction Era, which for far too long, has been neglected from our national conscience. ”
The Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort County, South Carolina, concerns the period during and after the Civil War when enslaved African Americans were able to live freely in the United States, although Jim Crow laws would curtail that liberty. The monument area includes locations related to the Lincoln Administration’s Port Royal Experiment, such as one of the country’s first schools for emancipated people. The Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Alabama, concentrates on the Greyhound Bus Station where a Freedom Riders bus was attacked in 1961, and the site six miles out of town where it was firebombed by a mob including members of the Ku Klux Klan. Finally, the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument encompasses multiple sites in the Alabama city that denote its role as an epicenter of the Civil Rights movement, like the 16th Street Baptist Church, which was bombed in 1963 by the KKK, an act of terrorism that killed four girls.
The political tone of the incoming presidential administration — see, Trump’s choice for attorney general Senator Jeff Sessions, with his alarming history of prosecuting Civil Rights activists for voter fraud — is a reminder that the issues of 1960s Birmingham and Anniston remain broiling. As the country celebrates a holiday commemorating Dr. King’s legacy, it’s important to remember it took until 1999 for it to be enacted in all 50 states — and in three Southern states it’s honored alongside Robert E. Lee Day. Attention to these sites with the national monuments program will hopefully keep them widely visible, as the racism and violence in these lands sadly still seeps through the American experience.
Read more about the new national monuments at the US Department of the Interior.