SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (CN) – President Barack Obama added to both his environmental and civil rights legacies by establishing three new national monuments pertinent to the Civil Rights era and expanding two national monuments in California and Oregon.
With just a week left in office, the president said the civil rights monuments in particular were part of an effort to “build a more inclusive National Parks system.”
“Today, 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 statement. “These monuments preserve the vibrant history of the Reconstruction Era and its role in redefining freedom,” Obama said in a statement.
The creation of two national monuments in Alabama – the Freedom Riders National Monument and the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument – coincides with Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, according to the White House.
The Obama administration also announced the creation of the Construction Era National Monument in South Carolina on Thursday.
“These monuments preserve the vibrant history of the Reconstruction Era and its role in redefining freedom,” Obama said. “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.”
Freedom Riders refers to the black civil rights activists who rode buses into the segregated South starting in 1961, challenging state policies that ran contrary to Supreme Court rulings of the late 1950s and early 1960s finding segregation of buses to be unconstitutional.
Southern states such as Alabama flouted these decisions and the federal government did nothing to enforce them. So Freedom Riders began to enter these states, drawing national attention to the often violent means used by Southern states to enforce segregation.
Many credit the Freedom Riders with creating the initial momentum for the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. In places like Birmingham, Alabama, police collaborated with the Ku Klux Klan in permitting and fomenting attacks on the Freedom Riders.
The newly dedicated monument in Anniston, Alabama, will feature the charred remains of a Greyhound bus that was attacked in May 1961 and will also recognize the intersection of Highways 78 and 202 where the bus was firebombed.
The Birmingham monument will be located at the site of the A.G. Gaston Motel, which King used as a war room for the civil rights movement he spearheaded during the mid-1960s. It will also commemorate the nearby 16th Street Baptist Church, where four young black girls were killed by a firebomb in September 1963.
Turning to his environmental legacy, Obama added 6,230 acres, including six more coastal sites, to the already existing California Coastal National Monument. The acreage, just north of Santa Cruz, was long identified as land ripe for conservation by California’s congressional delegation.
The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, which straddles the Oregon-California border, will see an additional 42,000 acres of public land in Oregon and 5,000 acres in California. The monument was initially created by President Bill Clinton in 2000, in his last year of office, and was done for the sole purpose of preserving the unique biodiversity of the area.
Obama said protecting the forests, coastlines and mountains of Oregon and California is crucial to ensure such regions will be there for future generations to enjoy.
“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,” he said.
Obama has created approximately 30 national monuments during his time in office. In late 2016, he set aside a mountainous region of the North Maine Woods and expanded the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument near Hawaii to make it the largest marine sanctuary in the world.
Obama has set aside more land and water than any other U.S. president in history.