Blog Post Jun 3, 2020

The Power of Protest

These 7 sites honor the long history of Americans fighting for their civil rights.

Birmingham National Monument, Alabama

In the 1960s, Birmingham, Alabama, was one of the most segregated places in the United States. In 1963, civil rights leaders Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. organized nonviolent protests in the city to take a stand against race-based injustice. Day after day, marchers took to the streets, including hundreds of school-aged youth. These nonviolent protesters suffered brutal mistreatment at the hands of police and other city officials, gaining national attention and eventually winning major concessions in the fight for equal rights.


Stonewall National Monument, New York

This monument represents a watershed moment in the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement, when a 1969 uprising sparked sustained determination among LGBTQ Americans to fight for full equality and civil and human rights. The Stonewall uprising was a protracted struggle in which the LGBTQ community in New York City fought back against what had become regular, city-sanctioned harassment by police. The spontaneous six-night conflict gained national attention and inspired a new movement for full equality and acceptance. Stonewall National Monument is the first U.S. national park site dedicated to LGBTQ history


Pullman National Monument, Illinois

Industrialist George Pullman launched the Pullman Palace Car Company on Chicago’s South Side in the 1880s to manufacture rail cars, creating a company town with shops, schools and a church, and in the early 20th century, the Pullman Company was the nation’s largest employer of African Americans. After decades of unfair and abusive labor practices, A. Philip Randolph organized the first African American labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, at the Pullman Company. In 1894, after George Pullman cut wages without reducing rent, employees launched the now-famous Pullman Strike that spread across the railroad industry, interrupting national rail and mail service and inspiring a nationwide dialogue on workers’ rights and conditions. Later that year, Congress unanimously created Labor Day as a national holiday. Pullman porters were instrumental in the rise of the black middle class in America.


Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, California

The worst homeland disaster of World War II happened on a dock not far from San Francisco. Thousands of African American sailors served at Port Chicago in segregated units during the war with limited job roles; one of these roles was loading weapons and ammunition into ships. The work was extremely tedious and dangerous, and the sailors received little training. One July evening in 1944, more than 5,000 tons of munitions exploded, killing 320 men and injuring hundreds of others. Two weeks later, when sailors were ordered to return to the same dangerous conditions, 258 men refused and 50 were court-martialed and found guilty of mutiny. This terrible tragedy ultimately led to the desegregation of the U.S. Navy and, subsequently, all U.S. armed forces, inspiring many people to become part of the Civil Rights movement.


Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park

Harriet Tubman escaped from brutal slave owners in 1849 and risked her life to help bring many more enslaved Americans to freedom via the Underground Railroad. In her role as a conductor for the Underground Railroad, she liberated about 70 people on more than a dozen dangerous missions to slave-holding states in the decade prior to the Civil War, and she assisted many others with her knowledge of safe spaces and escape routes. Her bravery and activism did not end there, however. She was active in the abolitionist movement and served the Union Army in various capacities during the Civil War. After the war, she fought for women’s suffrage, raised money to build schools for newly freed people (known as freedmen’s schools) during the Reconstruction Era, and donated her home for the care of the ill and elderly.


César E. Chávez National Monument, California

César Chávez was one of the most important U.S. labor and human rights leaders of the 20th century. He co-founded the United Farm Workers of America with activist Dolores Huerta in 1962, the first agricultural labor union in the nation. He steered the union through a series of unprecedented victories, including contracts that covered more than 100,000 farm workers, raised wages and funded health care and pension plans, mandated the provision of drinking water and restroom facilities in the fields, regulated the use of pesticides in the fields, and established a fund for community service projects. Chávez’s nonviolent advocacy helped secure the passage of the first law in the United States that specifically recognized farm workers’ rights to organize unions and engage in collective bargaining. This monument is the first national park site devoted to a contemporary Latino American.


Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, Alabama

This trail traces the 54-mile route of a series of three civil rights marches in 1965, where hundreds of protesters risked their lives demonstrating for their right to vote. Participants in the first march only made it six blocks to the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge before armed policemen and white vigilante groups brutally attacked them with tear gas and nightsticks in an event now known as Bloody Sunday. Despite violent assaults, marchers continued to demonstrate, ultimately reaching their final destination under the protection of National Guard troops. Civil rights activist John Lewis, who would later represent Georgia in Congress, was badly beaten and sustained severe injuries during the attack on the Pettus Bridge, becoming an icon in the fight for equality. The march demonstrated the need and raised support for the Voting Rights Act, which passed Congress later that year.


This is not a comprehensive list, but a selection of a few of the many places where people can find inspiration in our national parks as we use the civil rights struggles of the past to inform the civil rights struggles of today.