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Civil Rights Landmarks Proposed For World Heritage Status

Media Advisory
April Odom
Mayor’s Office of Public Information

WHO: Mayor William Bell, Alabama State Department of Tourism Officials and others

WHAT: Announce Proposed Civil Rights Landmark List for UNESCO World Heritage Status

WHEN: Tuesday, July 5th at 1:30 p.m.

WHERE: Historic 16th Street Baptist Church


BIRMINGHAM, Ala.- Landmarks where African Americans struggled for racial equality a half-century ago should be considered for World Heritage status, Birmingham Mayor William Bell Jr. proposed today. He says churches, schools, museums, a bus station and an iconic bridge will be reviewed for inclusion.

The goal is to have the iconic civil rights battlegrounds reviewed for a group or “serial” nomination to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization (UNESCO), he said. Every state that is represented will participate in the application process.

The landmarks under consideration are Bethel Baptist Church, Birmingham, Ala.; Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, Topeka, Kan.; Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, Montgomery, Ala.; Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Ala.; Foster Auditorium, Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Frank M. Johnson Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse and Greyhound Bus Station, Montgomery, Ala.; the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.; International Civil Rights Center & Museum, Greensboro, N.C.; Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, Little Rock, Ark.; Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, Atlanta, Ga.; Medgar Evers House, Jackson, Miss.; National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tenn.; 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Ala.; and Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, Tuskegee, Ala.; and historic West Hunter Street Baptist Church, Atlanta, Ga. The multi-state partnership should insure a stronger nomination package.

The airfield in Tuskegee where black pilots broke the racial barrier during World War II is the earliest site proposed for consideration. Others include the North Carolina store where “sit-ins” integrated public accommodations, a Greyhound bus station where “Freedom Riders” were attacked for integrating transportation facilities, and the Mississippi home where black activist Medgar Evers was assassinated.

The Topeka elementary school that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 was unconstitutionally segregated and Central High School where three years later “the Little Rock Nine” tested enforcement of the court decision are on the list. A governor literally “stood in the schoolhouse door” in a futile attempt to prevent two blacks from enrolling in Alabama’s largest university.

Five legendary churches anchor the program, including the church where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. planned the Montgomery bus boycott, and his father’s Atlanta church where King is buried. A Birmingham church that racists bombed, killing four girls, and less well-known churches led by pastors Fred Shuttlesworth in Birmingham and Ralph Abernathy in Atlanta are under review.

King figured prominently in other episodes, including the March on Washington with his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, the Selma voting rights marches, and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where a stalker killed King in 1968 with a single rifle shot, essentially bringing the civil rights era to a tragic close.

Most sites have been previously certified as historic sites, historic landmarks, national parks, or a similar designation, with some sites more widely recognized than others, officials said. The mayor said that the list might change as researchers analyze the condition and sustainability of these and other sites.

The designation would provide no government funding or supervision over any of the sites.

Alabama tourism director Lee Sentell said gaining UNESCO recognition “is a multi-year process that will pay off with increased tourism” for successful sites. “Global tourists consider World Heritage status to be a ‘bucket list’ to visit,” he said.

Georgia State University professor Dr. Glenn Eskew, a Birmingham native, will host a workshop later this year or early 2017 to explain the nomination process and criteria to representatives of potential properties. “It will be open to all interested parties,” he said.

Eskew contributed to the proposal that led the Department of Interior to place three churches in Alabama on a “tentative list” for World Heritage Sites status in 2008.

In the U.S., property owners or their representatives prepare applications with guidance from the Department of the Interior’s National Park Service. The Department approves final nominations and forwards them to the World Heritage Committee.

The final decision will be made by the World Heritage Committee, composed of 21 countries elected from all those nations who have signed the World Heritage Convention, officials said.

Some 1,000 cultural and scenic places worldwide have the World Heritage designation, with 80 percent being “cultural” or man-made. These include Britain’s Stonehenge, the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, the Great Wall of China, Petra in Jordan, and Ephesus in Turkey.

Of the 1,000, fewer than 20 man-made sites are in the U.S. Among these are the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and his original campus of the University of Virginia. The Alamo and four other San Antonio missions received the designation last year.

The Interior department last year nominated a group of 10 homes and other structures designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The World Heritage Committee consider the nomination of the Wright group or “serial” nomination, along with 28 applications from other countries when the group meets in Istanbul, Turkey on July 10-20.

Most of the 15 man-made sites under consideration for UNESCO status this year from Greece, Turkey, China, India, Thailand, Serbia and Croatia are archaeological sites.

UNESCO has previously inscribed two sites in the Deep South. Poverty Point, a state-operated archaeological park west of Jackson, Miss., noted for monumental earthworks dating back 3,000 years, was added to the cultural list in 2014. The Everglades at the tip of Florida is the Deep South’s lone natural site. Park Service staff members are currently assisting in the application to nominate a group of ancient earthworks in Ohio.

The Birmingham mayor hosted delegates from 10 civil rights sites at an ICOMOS event in Washington, D.C. last December. At the Washington event that recognized volunteers in historic preservation, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell acknowledged that the nomination process is “lengthy and difficult, as it should be,” and wished groups promoting Frank Lloyd Wright structures and civil rights landmarks success in their efforts.

Some top international natural sites are the Galapagos Islands, Serengeti National Park, Kilimanjaro National Park, and Mount Etna. Twelve of the U.S. 22 natural designees are large national parks, including the Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, Mammoth Cave, Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite national parks, among others.