On the “A” w/Souleo: Saving the site of MLK’s ‘War Room’

Souleo - | 6/25/2015, 9:43 p.m.
Site of strategic planning for MLK and civil rights leaders joins list of American places in dire need of preservation.
Gaston Motel Photo Courtesy of the City of Birmingham

This year’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, compiled by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, includes a popular disco in the LGBT community, Miami’s Little Havana, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “war room,” housed inside of the A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, AL. Each site is vulnerable to destruction, severe damage, or culturally insensitive development changes. But spotlighting the motel holds an arguable special significance during today’s climate of racial unrest from the killing of nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, SC to viral videos of police brutality.

In room 30 of the two-story motel is where Dr. King strategized with fellow civil rights leaders during the height of the movement in the early to mid-1960s to challenge racial and social injustice. The Gaston Motel, which was built in 1954 by Arthur George (A.G.) Gaston has faced the possibility of annihilation in the past. In 1963 the motel was bombed in what many believed to be a targeted attack aimed at Dr. King’s room. In 1986 the structure closed, after being converted into a senior apartment building. Presently it is vacant and displays noticeable signs of neglect and disrepair.

The city of Birmingham, which owns the building, appears to finally be on a path of restoration. To do so they’ve partnered with the National Trust for a two-year plan to improve the site. The Birmingham City Council has earmarked $1 million for restoration. Construction and rehabilitation is slated to begin later this year with discussions already being held around how to reuse the building to maximize its economic and social impact.

Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust and William A. Bell, the mayor of Birmingham answered a few questions via email about their vision for the motel, the commitment level of the city to the project, and the significance of the “war room” for today’s generation.

How will your plans to build the Freedom Center impact the restoration and role of the Gaston Motel in the Civil Rights District of Birmingham?

Mayor William A. Bell: The A.G. Gaston Motel is located adjacent to property that will be the site of the new Freedom Center, a center for change and public policy, where students, scholars, historians, and opinion leaders can come to collaborate on human rights issues locally, nationally and internationally. The properties are also adjacent to the historic 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and Kelly Ingram Park, where many peaceful protests took place. When visiting the district, there is a street level view of the struggle and what it meant. Four little girls lost their lives less than a block away. You can sense the pain and injustice and loss. Our hope is that a visit to the A. G. Gaston and the Freedom Center will allow citizens today to see the global landscape is changing and motivate each visitor to do their part to make a difference.

The city has been accused of prolonging the process. How have attitudes and policies shifted today to ensure there is action in restoring the motel?