Sites recognizing the Freedom Riders, a former school in South Carolina for freed slaves and the church where four little black girls died in an Alabama church bombing are among places that President Obama designated as national monuments on Thursday, just days before he is scheduled to leave office.
The president signed three proclamations designating the national monuments, saying in a statement released by the White House that they "preserve critical chapters of our country’s history, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement."
Among them is the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. It includes the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four little girls died in a bombing set by a white supremacist in 1963, and Kelly Ingram Park, where protesters were hosed down in famous showdowns during the civil rights movement.
The proclamations also created the Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Ala., which includes the site of a former Greyhound bus station where members of the Ku Klux Klan attacked protesters who demanded integration in interstate busing.
The other new site is the Reconstruction Era National Monument, made of a cluster of places in Beaufort County, S.C., where black Americans thrived and preserved their culture. Included in the South Carolina site is the Penn Center, formerly the Penn School, one of the first schools for freed slaves.
The designations mean the sites will receive permanent protection from Congress under the federal Antiquities Act. They will be managed by the National Park Service or another federal agency.
"These monuments preserve the vibrant history of the Reconstruction Era and its role in redefining freedom," Obama said. "They tell the important stories of the citizens who helped launch the civil rights movement in Birmingham and the Freedom Riders whose bravery raised national awareness of segregation and violence. 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. "
Members of the civil rights community expressed joy over the designations that came in just under the wire as the Obama presidency comes to a close.
"President Obama is completing his presidency with an act of compassion and inclusion, issuing a Presidential Memorandum and using the Antiquities Act to conserve our diverse history and celebrate our heroes," said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau. "These national monuments honor the civil rights story in Alabama and South Carolina, and bring local communities together around a sense of purpose and shared history.”
Those who were part of the moments in history recognized by the monuments, as well as community members, said it was gratifying to see recognition after many decades.
"Thank you, Mr. President. for recognizing the role of the Freedom Riders, whose actions furthered the changing of America for all of her people," said former Freedom Rider Hank Thomas, now a philanthropist living in Atlanta. "Especially for black Americans, there’s no better time than right now for all to appreciate the importance of this new monument. This is our Gettysburg."
Said Mayor Sam Murray of Port Royal, S.C.: "We are extremely pleased. The story of Reconstruction has not been completely told, and there is no other place that is as important to telling the story as Beaufort County.”