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Birmingham’s civil rights district could get federal designation in 2017

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The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is part of a proposed National Historical Park consisting of Birmingham civil rights landmarks. (Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress)

By Erin Harney

Alabama NewsCenter

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is part of a proposed National Historical Park consisting of Birmingham civil rights landmarks. (Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress)
The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is part of a proposed National Historical Park consisting of Birmingham civil rights landmarks. (Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress)

As the National Park Service begins its second century in 2017, there’s hope in Birmingham that the city’s important role in the civil rights movement could gain even greater recognition – as a national park or national monument.

Last May, U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, of the state’s 7th Congressional District, introduced legislation to designate the city’s civil rights district as the Birmingham Civil Rights National Historical Park. The legislation is supported by the state’s entire congressional delegation.

The proposed park would include the 16th Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, the A.G. Gaston Motel, Bethel Baptist Church and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

In recent weeks the city, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and other supporters have been urging President Barack Obama to proclaim Birmingham’s civil rights district a national monument, which can be done by executive order. Some news reports have predicted the president will make the proclamation before he leaves office in late January.

The designation would bring federal resources to the district, since NPS sites are managed and staffed by the park service and receive federal funding.

“With this designation, historic preservation efforts will be enhanced for these historic sites, greater economic revitalization will occur, and it will forever cement the pivotal role Birmingham played in the civil rights movement,” Sewell said.

16th Street Baptist Church, one of the nation’s foremost civil rights landmarks, could soon be part of a National Historical Park. (Carol Highsmith/Library of Congress)
16th Street Baptist Church, one of the nation’s foremost civil rights landmarks, could soon be part of a National Historical Park. (Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress)

In October, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis joined Sewell for a tour of the district. They also heard from scores of people who expressed their support for federal designation during a community meeting that packed the 16th Street Baptist Church.

In addition to the influx of government dollars, federal recognition could boost tourism and economic activity in the city and the region. According to a recent NPS survey, every dollar invested in the NPS “effectively returns $10” to the economy through visitor spending.

More than 12,000 people have signed an online petition in support of federal designation for the civil rights district. You can find the petition at www.supportbirmingham.org.

If Birmingham’s civil rights district gains federal designation, NPS officials are expected to hold more public meetings to gather input about how the area should be further developed and how the story of Birmingham’s civil rights should be told for the benefit of generations to come.