Monuments, not just markers: Saving Birmingham’s civil rights landmarksAugust 10, 2021 | By Vicki Hyman
The bars behind which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963 are on display at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Across the street, visitors can tour the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little Black girls died in a bomb blast by the KKK that same year.
A short walk from both is a lesser-known historic site that will soon gain greater prominence. In Room 30 of the A.G. Gaston Motel, civil rights leaders, including King and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, planned and directed the 1963 Birmingham Campaign to end racial segregation. Later abandoned, boarded up and considered for demolition, the motel is now partially restored. It’s expected to open to the public next year, becoming the center of the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, established by President Obama in 2017.
Tourism centered on African American culture and civil rights dates to the very start of the civil rights movement — the first independent nonprofit museum of Black history opened in Cleveland in 1955 — but interest is growing, with attendance figures at major sites climbing. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016, quickly gained prominence as a place to honor Black cultural expression and identity.
Though COVID-19 shuttered some sites and limited attendance at others, the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis last year and the protests that followed have focused more attention on Black heritage and the unfinished business of civil rights.
“With the protests of the summer, it really gave us and Birmingham a real opportunity to help make the connection with the 1963 campaign,” says Denise Gilmore, the senior director for the Division of Social Justice & Racial Equity for the city of Birmingham.
“A lot of the progress that was made in the 1963 campaign is on the line today,” she adds. “We know in Birmingham the struggle and fight for freedom is fragile. They’re not set in stone. We believe that 2020 only helped remind people that we still have work to do.”
In 1954, local businessman A.G. Gaston spent $300,000 of his own money to build the two-story motel, with 32 air-conditioned rooms; it was featured in the Green Book, the annual guidebook for Black travelers looking for friendly stop for food and lodging during the Jim Crow era.
The Birmingham Campaign began in March 1963 with boycotts and lunch counter sit-ins and grew to marches, the first of which began in the Gaston Motel courtyard. The following month, the city won an injunction to stop the protests, but King and fellow civil rights leader Ralph David Abernathy led a march that ended with their arrest. That’s when King wrote “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which he later refined while staying at the motel.
The nonviolent protests and marches planned in Room 30 turned the eyes of the world toward Birmingham, propelling the cause of civil rights in America — and concentrating the furor of segregationists and white supremacists, who responded with a bombing campaign, including at the Gaston Motel.
Gaston later expanded and modernized the hotel in 1968, but business declined, and it became housing for the elderly until 1996, when it was left vacant and boarded up. Though the city had been talking about turning the site into a civil rights monument for years, it wasn't until the upset victory of Randall Woodfin, a young Black political newcomer, who became mayor in 2017, that the initiative gained momentum.
Woodfin hired Gilmore, who is leading the restoration and historic interpretations of the Gaston Motel on behalf of the city. Plans also include restoring the coffee shop and dining room, renovating the 1968 addition and creating a full exhibit devoted to Gaston and the significance of the hotel to the tourism industry.
“We have got a document on paper,” she says. “How do we turn it into an actual living, breathing monument?”
As part of Mastercard’s ongoing work to help tackle the racial and opportunity gap and empower Black entrepreneurs in cities across America, the company’s Data & Services team will work with Birmingham leaders to create a tourism strategy to cement the city as a premier civil rights destination. Mastercard is providing data analytics, digital tech and payments know-how as part of its support.
The blueprint will guide the city as it prepares for the World Games in Birmingham in July 2022, when the first phase of the Gaston Motel renovation is expected to be opened to the public, and beyond.
Linda Kirkpatrick, president of North America for Mastercard, toured the grounds with Gilmore and other local leaders and Mastercard officials last week. "The historical significance of Birmingham serves as inspiration for our partnership with the city,” she says. “Using our data, insights, and technology, we can help drive tourism and support the Black business community, building towards a recovery that will be felt by all.”
The Gaston Motel, jointly owned by the city and the National Park Service, is the heart of the monument, which encompasses about four city blocks. The site includes the 16th Street Baptist Church, Shuttlesworth’s Bethel Baptist Church, St. Paul United Methodist Church, the Colored Masonic Temple, and Kelly Ingram Park, where photographers captured indelible images of police dogs attacking young protesters in 1963.
The boarded-up motel might have met the same fate as other sites of significance to the Black community had the city not intervened. “We can go to every city and I promise you, there is an historic site, a cultural site, that has been sitting in disrepair for years because there’s no will to actually preserve them,” Gilmore says. “For Black people, these places have always been valued.”
Banner photograph, top: Martin Luther King, Jr., second from right in foreground, stands outside Gaston Motel in 1963 in a surveillance photo taken by the Birmingham, Ala., Police Department. The motel was the epicenter for the direct action campaign to desegregate Birmingham, which civil rights organizations believed would have national repercussions. (Courtesy of Birmingham, Ala. Public Library Archives)