How U.S. Civil Rights Movement Sites and World Heritage Relate to Today’s Protests

June 2020

By Glenn T. Eskew, Director, Georgia State University World Heritage Initiative
Professor of History, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA

Recent protests across the United States over continued white supremacist violence and police brutality recall the demonstrations of the civil rights era a half-century ago that are memorialized at such sites as the Three Alabama Churches on the Tentative List for World Heritage. While racism persists, much has changed over the years following the removal of legal racial segregation symbolized by black political empowerment through the election of African Americans to local and national offices. Although today “the fires of discord are burning in every city,” (President John F. Kennedy, 1963) now the calls for reform by such groups as Black Lives Matter are echoed by millions of people—multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-generational—nonviolently marching in the streets.

Damage to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in the September 1963 bombing that took the lives of four girls preparing for the Sunday service. Credit Alabama Archives.

During the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights activists challenged the structural problem of white supremacy evident in the very built environment with “white” and “colored” entrances to public buildings, racially separate and unequal accommodations, segregated schools, parks, neighborhoods, and churches. Jim Crow architectural design and town planning reinforced the racist attitudes of white segregationists.

The Serial Nomination of U.S. Civil Rights Movement Sites finds its statement of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) in the interchange of ideas surrounding nonviolent protest that removed racial proscriptions from structures and landscapes so that these places became accessible to all regardless of the social construct of race—or as applied through the 1964 Civil Rights Act—ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. The events of global significance that occurred at these U.S. Civil Rights Movement Sites inspired similar nonviolent protests the world over that altered the built environment elsewhere and affirmed the universal values of equality, democracy, and human rights.

In 2008 the National Park Service Office of International Affairs (NPS-OIA) approved the addition of Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist and Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street and Bethel Baptist Churches to the Tentative List with the understanding that additional historic properties would be added to comprise a comprehensive Serial Nomination of U.S. Civil Rights Movement Sites for potential inscription on the World Heritage List. Eager to see that happen, the State of Alabama promoted the idea and in 2016 contracted with the Georgia State University (GSU) World Heritage Initiative to prepare the nomination materials. Advised by Stephen Morris of the NPS-OIA, the GSU Initiative reviewed NPS thematic studies, consulted with scholars and state preservation offices, and identified more than 200 historic properties associated with the civil rights movement, then held a symposium in 2017 to begin the process of determining which sites to include, as well as how to set the parameters of the Serial Nomination and express its OUV. Gap studies by NPS and ICOMOS identified particular sites such as Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta; Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas; and the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Based on further consultations with experts, additional site visits, and the framing of the OUV by committees of scholars and preservationists, the GSU Initiative concentrated on about a dozen properties including the Three Alabama Churches as a comprehensive Serial Nomination.

Dr. King preaching from the pulpit of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery. Credit Alabama Archives

The draft OUV argues World Heritage Criteria ii and vi, that at these exemplary U.S. Civil Rights Movement Sites an important interchange of human values regarding nonviolent protest arising out of an African American living tradition of resistance to racial segregation in the public sphere culminated in extraordinary events of global significance that altered the built environment by opening the American system to all its citizens regardless of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, representing to the world the universal principles of freedom, democracy, equality, and the rule of law.

By 2019, the GSU Initiative had prepared materials for the NPS-OIA to submit to the World Heritage Centre as part of the recommended Upstream Evaluation Process by an Advisory Body. Currently the Initiative is awaiting an Upstream Review from ICOMOS. The objective is to get an independent evaluation early in the process to determine if the Serial Nomination expresses OUV and warrants potential inscription on the World Heritage List. Also in 2019 the NPS-OIA requested that Robert Wallace, the newly appointed U.S. Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, U.S. Department of the Interior, call a meeting of the Federal Interagency Panel for World Heritage so that it can review the materials prepared by the GSU Initiative and determine what properties might appropriately join the Three Alabama Churches as a comprehensive U.S. Civil Rights Movement Sites Serial Nomination for the Tentative List. Currently the GSU Initiative awaits the action of Assistant Secretary Wallace.

The Abernathy Family talking with Congressman John Lewis at the head of the march as it prepares to conclude the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. Credit Alabama Archives

In the interim, local task forces associated with each of the potential Serial Nomination properties have been working on site management plans, determining appropriate legal preservation protection mechanisms, and defining buffer zones. Of the potential properties being evaluated, all but two are NHLs or National Monuments, and the ones that lack the designation—the Woolworth Department Store in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee—are in the process of determining eligibility. Both sites—the drugstore lunch counter where the sit-in movement began in 1960 and the balcony on which King stood when murdered by an assassin in 1968 having returned to demonstrate the efficacy of nonviolence in anticipation of the Poor People’s Campaign—retain authenticity and integrity and are also now parts of larger interpretative facilities and shrines to the nonviolent struggle that have attracted millions of civil rights pilgrims.

The Serial Nomination properties are all the more important today as venues of racial reconciliation. When the Mayor of Atlanta–an African American woman named Keisha Lance Bottoms–spoke out against the violence that erupted at the CNN Center during the recent protests, she recalled the city’s native son, Dr. Martin Luther King, and his advocacy for nonviolence as the appropriate way to protest grievances. These historic places connected to the earlier struggle for racial equality teach the power of nonviolent social change, hence too their global significance as potential World Heritage Sites.

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