MLK ‘war room’ heart of a new national monument

Jay Reeves
Associated Press

Birmingham, Ala. –

A motel room once used by Martin Luther King Jr. to plan civil rights protests is the centerpiece of a new national monument in Alabama.

President Obama signed an order creating the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument in one of his final acts as the nation’s first black president. The announcement, made Thursday, coincides with the upcoming national holiday for King’s birthday.

Ed Hall, who served as tourism director for both the city and state, said discussions about restoring the motel go back decades. He is glad to see the site finally getting its due.

“This whole thing is so rewarding that we’re going to get this done,” Hall said Friday. “The National Park Service will do it the right way.”

In the spring of 1963, King stayed at the A.G. Gaston Motel while planning protests against legalized segregation in Birmingham, a bastion of racial hatred marred by years of bombings and other attacks on blacks.

King worked with aides in an upstairs, two-room suite known as the “war room.” Their discussions led to weeks of protests, including marches that ended with police dogs and fire hoses being unleashed on children on downtown streets.

The room was gutted and the motel was abandoned long ago, but restoration work already is underway. Laser guides recently used to measure the room’s dimensions hang inside; an interior wall has a big hole where workers checked the structure for environmental hazards.

Now owned by the city, the motel will be restored as part of a more than $10 million project. In the war room, workers will demolish a small kitchen that was added when the motel was converted to apartments in the 1980s. They’ll also restore it to its 1963 appearance, with period furnishings.

The Birmingham monument also includes the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a museum, and the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four black girls died in a Ku Klux Klan bombing in September 1963.

About 60 miles east of Birmingham, the Freedom Riders National Monument created by Obama will include a yet-to-be restored Greyhound bus station where a racially integrated bus of activists was attacked by whites in 1961.