On Thursday evening, in the lead-up to the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., President Barack Obama announced the designation of three new national monuments to preserve important places in civil rights history. In the same move, the president also expanded two national monuments in California and Oregon, permanently protecting 47,000 additional acres of land.
“Today, I am designating new national monuments that preserve critical chapters of our country’s history, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement,” Obama said in a statement. “These stories are part of our shared history… 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.”
The Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, in Birmingham, Alabama preserves several sites in the city, including the 16th Street Baptist Church, which was bombed in 1963, and the A.G. Gaston Motel, which served as a critical organizing location. The Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Alabama commemorates the site of the firebombing of the Freedom Rider bus in 1961. And the Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort County, South Carolina includes four sites representative of the history of the reconstruction era, including Penn Center where African American teachers and Northern missionaries established one of the first schools for freed slaves and was later a retreat for Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Today is a proud moment not only for Penn Center, Penn School students and their descendants, this is a proud moment for all of St. Helena Island, Beaufort County, South Carolina and for our nation as a whole,” Dr. Rodell Lawrence, executive director of Penn Center, said in a statement.
“I say proud, because now the Reconstruction story, our story will be told and shared nationally and internationally; at a time when our nation and the entire world are about to honor and celebrate the great work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I believe, Dr. King would be very proud.”
Each of these monuments commemorates a pivotal moment in the American fight for civil rights. In his dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture last year, Obama noted that it is the “uncomfortable” moments, such as those represented by these monuments, which must be confronted if we are to “learn and grow and harness our collective power to make this nation more perfect.”
Obama also released a presidential memorandum on inclusive public lands and workforce diversity within the Department of the Interior. Land management agencies have largely not kept pace in reflecting America’s increasingly diverse population or in engaging new generations to visit and explore the historic, cultural, and environmental resources available through public lands.
The president’s memorandum reflects an ask from the Next 100 coalition to direct federal land management agencies to be more inclusive in the sites they protect, stories they tell, communities they engage, and people they hire. As the demographics of the nation continue to change, the effort to create greater inclusivity in the National Park System will be all the more vital.
In addition to the three civil rights monuments, President Obama also expanded the California Coastal and Cascade-Siskiyou national monuments. These two expansions along the California coast and boarder of California and Oregon help to further entrench Obama’s conservation legacy by preserving biological diversity, important wildlife habitat, and outdoor recreation opportunities. Both monuments had strong local support for expansion from city councils, community organizations, and tribal leaders.
The Antiquities Act, the piece of legislation used by both Republicans and Democrats to create national monuments, and used by Obama to create these sites, is facing rebuke from Republicans in congress. Within the first week of the new congress, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has already introduced legislation to limit use of the law. The Antiquities Act has been a used as a tool for creating inclusive monuments that help present a more complete picture of the history of the country. An analysis by the Center for American Progress found that far more presidential designations are inclusive, compared to those that come from Congress.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT), a vocal opponent of the Antiquities Act, is also reportedly working to convince President-elect Donald Trump to reverse several of Obama’s national monument designations. A move of this sort is unprecedented and legal experts say the new president won’t have the authority “de-designate” the monuments. Congress does have the power to revoke national monuments, but such moves are widely unpopular and given that none of the attempts to weaken the Antiquities Act thus far have been successful, unlikely to have the votes to happen.