Birmingham officials and residents were passionate in their desire for a National Historical Park during a public meeting held Thursday at the 16th St. Baptist Church.
Mayor William Bell, U.S. Congresswoman Terri Sewell, and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis presided over the meeting where several dozen people spoke in behalf of a national park designation for Birmingham’s civil rights landmarks, such as Bethel Baptist Church, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and the A.G. Gaston Motel.
“The story of Birmingham is the story of America,” Bell said. “It’s the story of struggle, it’s the story of survival. It’s the story of resolution.”
Lisa McNair, sister of Denise McNair, one of the four girls killed during the 1963 bombing, spoke on behalf of national park designation.
“When I learned about the opportunity for this to be a national park, I was thrilled and so were my parents, who are the only parents still alive from that fateful day,” McNair said. “The stories of the people in this area and the sacrifices they made need to be told so that young people and all people will know. There are stories of people who fought bravely, honestly and peacefully for American rights as American citizens. I’m praying that this will happen and happen very soon.”
Sewell said Birmingham’s sacrifices have helped America become more just. “It’s because of the sacrifices of this community, those known and unknown, that we have an African-American President,” she said. “It’s because of the sacrifices of this community that America has had to live up to its ideals of justice and democracy and equality for all.”
The federal officials were impressed by what they saw and heard.
“We do believe that there’s a story here that needs to be told, not just here, not just nationally, but internationally as well,” Jewell said.
Jarvis said that the A.G. Gaston Motel should be nationally recognized because of its pivotal role as a meeting house for leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and Rev. Ralph Abernathy.
“This is a great piece of the story that is not well told,” he said about the motel and Gaston who an iconic businessman during his era.
Others who spoke on behalf of the park designation included Odessa Woolfolk, Chair Emerita of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute who said visitors from around the world see Birmingham as an important link to the world’s broader human rights movement.
“The value of being a tourist in Birmingham is that you can meet and interact with the very people who made the history we commemorate,” she said.
Several area faith leaders also weighed in support of the park designation.
Rev. Arthur Price, Jr. pastor of the 16th St. Baptist Church, said the story of Birmingham’s civil rights movement isn’t just a local or national one; it’s a holy one. “…[I]t’s…the story of Jesus Christ,” he said. “It’s the story of suffering, sacrifice, and service.”
Rev. Dr. Thomas L. Wilder, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, said, “Bethel as well as 16th Street and some of the other churches were pivotal points” in the civil rights movement. “This is a place where people came to meet…and get things done. Bethel was one of the first places that was bombed. It has been bombed three times” during the movement.
Rev. Calvin Woods, President of the Birmingham Metropolitan Chapter of SCLC said, he was elated about the park designation and called what happened in in Birmingham during the 1960s “a move of Almighty God. …Many of them died so that we might be free.”
Former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, who convicted two of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombers, said the creation of a national park in Birmingham would help all citizens grapple with the turbulence occurring in America.
“I truly believe we live in a connect-the-dots moment in time where we have to connect the dots of history to what we see happening in this country today, not just in this city, but from one end of this country to another,” he said. “Unless we tell the story…on a national scale, that is the only way that we as a country can connect the dots of history to our present, and more importantly, to our future.”
“Birmingham has led the way for so many years,” he said. “We want to continue to lead the way for that dialogue for the country and the world.”