With just a week left before President Barack Obama leaves office, local officials on Wednesday were waiting to learn whether he will create a national monument from two Anniston-area sites tied to the Freedom Rides.
Pete Conroy, co-chairman of the Freedom Riders Park committee, said by phone Wednesday that he’s a bit “superstitious” and would rather not guess whether Obama will use the Antiquities Act of 1906 to declare the two sites a national monument, but said he’s optimistic.
“We remain hopeful, and we continue to count down the days,” Conroy said.
Kent Davis, city manager, said by phone Wednesday that city officials have spent months answering questions from the National Park Service and preparing the documents needed in the event the designation comes through.
“We’re standing by for the next request from the federal government,” Davis said.
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, in October toured the former Greyhound bus station on Gurnee Avenue and the site where a mob burned a bus on Alabama 202 west of Anniston.
On Mother’s Day 55 years ago a crowd of white men awaited a bus carrying black and white activists at the former Anniston bus station, slashed the bus’s tires then followed it to where it broke down on Alabama 202 west of town. A firebomb was thrown into a window and the aftermath recorded in images that have been replayed on television and in print since that day.
Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch will give her final speech as attorney general at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham on Sunday, in commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is Monday.
The 16th Street Baptist Church is where on Sept. 15, 1963, four black girls were killed when Klu Klux Klansmen and white separatists bombed the church. It’s also on a list with two other Birmingham sites tied to the civil rights struggle — the A.G. Gaston Motel and Kelly Ingram Park — being considered by Obama for declaration as a national monument.
In a message to The Star on Wednesday a member of the White House staff confirmed that she had received The Star’s questions about the possibility of the president taking action before he leaves office, but The Star had not received a reply as of Wednesday.
If Obama uses the Antiquities Act to establish monuments in Anniston and Birmingham it will be the first time since 1961 that a president has done so in Alabama.
Just three days before a white mob firebombed the bus outside of Annison on Mother’s Day in 1961, President John. F. Kennedy used the Antiquities Act of 1906 to declare Russell Cave near Bridgeport as a national monument. The cave was for more than 10,000 years home to prehistoric peoples, according to the National Park Service.
Kennedy’s 1961 declaration is the only such use of the Antiquities Act to establish a national monument in Alabama, according to Park Service records online.
On Dec. 8 Calhoun County commissioners agreed to give the previously county-owned 4 acres on Alabama 202 west of Anniston to the Conservation Fund, a national nonprofit that accepts land for conservation projects. By law, the federal government cannot accept land from local municipalities. If the president chooses not to act, the land would revert back to the county.
The Anniston City Council, which owns the former bus station, in December did similarly, and voted to declare the property surplus, a needed legal step in transferring the property to the National Park Service.
Mayor Jack Draper said by phone Wednesday that it’s not just about how Anniston could benefit from the national monument designation, but more importantly, it’s about sacrifices made years ago by the men and women who risked their lives on those many buses.
“It’s important that the bravery of the Freedom Riders and their contribution to civil rights be recognized and honored,” Draper said. “And it’s important that the National Park Service tell the story. It’s part of the American story.”