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Obama protects southern civil rights sites as national monuments

President Barack Obama named the first national monument related to the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War, and also expanded two existing national parks in California and Oregon.

By Stephen Feller
Obama protects southern civil rights sites as national monuments
This undated photo shows the view across Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama, including the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (right background) and the Civil Rights Institute (left background). On Thursday, President Obama designated the park as a national monument. Photo by Jett Low/Historic American Building Survey

WASHINGTON, Jan. 13 (UPI) -- Adding to the long list of sites he has protected in the last eight years, President Barack Obama on Thursday designated five more national monuments -- including the nation's first to recognize the struggles of reconstruction after the Civil War.

Obama on Thursday named three sites in the South as national monuments which are significant to the fight for civil rights for African Americans -- the Freedom Riders National Monument and Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument in Alabama, and Reconstruction Era National Monument in South Carolina -- and enlarged two already existing sites in the West, the California Coastal National Monument and Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.

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The three civil rights sites will now be protected by the National Park Service under the Antiquities Act of 1906. Obama has protected far more land and waterways, more than 553 million acres, than any other president.

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Obama named the Alabama and South Carolina sites national monuments ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday. Protection of the sites was supported by the states' Congressional delegations and was widely supported by the communities where they are located, he said.

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"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 press release. "These monuments preserve the vibrant history of the Reconstruction Era and its role in redefining freedom. They tell the important stories of the citizens who helped launch the civil rights movement in Birmingham and the Freedom Riders whose bravery raised national awareness of segregation and violence. These stories are part of our shared history."

The Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument includes the A.G. Gaston Motel where King planned part of the civil rights movement he lead in the early 1960s, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that was bombed in 1963 and Kelly Ingram Park, where hoses and dogs were turned on civil rights protesters.

The Reconstruction Era National Monument in South Carolina includes four sites in Beaufort County to tell the story of emancipated slaves forming a community -- built homes and set up churches, schools and businesses as free people -- after the Union Army took it over in 1861.

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The Freedom Riders National Monument in Annistaon, Ala., includes the Greyhound bus station where a group of black and white busriders who sought to test desegregation were attacked in 1961 -- and where the bus was firebombed minutes after it left the station.

"Thank you, Mr. President, for recognizing the role of the Freedom Riders, whose actions furthered the changing of America for all of her people," former Freedom Rider Hank Thomas told USA Today. "Especially for black Americans, there's no better time than right now for all to appreciate the importance of this new monument. This is our Gettysburg."

Obama also expanded two monuments created by President Bill Clinton, expanding the California Coastal National Monument by 6,230 acres and the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, which is located in northern California and southern Oregon, by 49,000 acres.

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"I am also expanding existing areas for some of our country's treasured and historic natural resources in Oregon and California today, including stretches of California's scenic coast and unique wildlife habitat in rugged mountain ranges and forests in Oregon and California," Obama said. "Over the last 8 years, I have sought to work with local communities, tribal governments, businesses, sportsmen, members of Congress and others to protect the most important public lands for the benefit of future generations."

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