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Obama Declares Site Of 1963 Church Bombing A National Monument


The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., was etched into American history when Ku Klux Klansmen bombed that building in 1963, killing four girls. Visitors come to the church from around the world, and now they'll be visiting the newest national monument. President Barack Obama designated three national monuments on Thursday, all related to civil rights. From WBHM in Birmingham, Andrew Yeager reports.

ANDREW YEAGER, BYLINE: It's been more than 50 years, but the songs still flow from Myrna Jackson's lips.

MYRNA JACKSON: (Singing) Oh, freedom. Oh, freedom. Oh, freedom over me...

YEAGER: Jackson explained she learned those songs here at the 16th Street Baptist Church in the basement. She marched against segregation and in 1963 was arrested.

JACKSON: And in jail - oh, my God. Those officers would get on the intercom and say, (singing) oh, I wish I was in Dixie. You know, they would just aggravate us like.

YEAGER: She says some things in life are given to you. But this designation was earned - earned through the struggles of foot soldiers like her. The newly created Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument includes the church and a number of other sites - Kelly Ingram Park, where children marching for equal treatment were met with police dogs and fire hoses; the A.G. Gaston Hotel (ph), where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had his war room to plan the Birmingham campaign.

People around Birmingham were anticipating this announcement as President Obama approached the end of his term. Birmingham Mayor William Bell says there's special significance in the fact the first black president created the monument.

MAYOR WILLIAM BELL: Were it not for the struggles here in the city of Birmingham, none of us would be where we are this day, including the president of the United States of America.


YEAGER: In addition to the Birmingham designation, Obama established two other monuments that will be part of the National Park Service. There's the Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Ala. That's where a Greyhound bus was firebombed in 1961 as Freedom Riders tried to integrate interstate buses. There's also the Reconstruction Era National Monument in South Carolina, which includes sites related to freed slaves in the years after the Civil War.


YEAGER: Several people are getting their hair cut at the Magic City Barber Shop. It's part of the Fourth Avenue Historic District in Birmingham. It was a hub of black business during segregation, and the area's part of a national monument, too. A.J. Johnson (ph) echoes the sentiment of many that this action should have happened long ago. When he thinks of the visitors the monument could attract, he hopes they'll see the Birmingham of today.

A J JOHNSON: It'll bring people here so they can actually see that we're not a country city. We're not kicking cans down here. We're not hanging people anymore.

YEAGER: These new civil rights monuments may represent that painful past. Johnson mentions how his mother couldn't walk into a popular hamburger restaurant because she was black. But he says if you walk into one of those restaurants today, there's a good chance someone black is running the place.

For NPR News, I'm Andrew Yeager in Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Yeager