Brent Leggs: How Can Seeing Black History As American History Begin To Make Amends? How can we make amends for the atrocities of slavery and segregation? Historian and preservationist Brent Leggs discusses one step in confronting the past: preserving African American historic sites.

Brent Leggs: How Can Seeing Black History As American History Begin To Make Amends?

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And a few months ago, I visited Birmingham, Ala.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You are standing at ground zero of the 1963 civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Ala.

ZOMORODI: In the heart of downtown, spread over just a few small blocks, is the Civil Rights Historic District. There's Kelly Ingram Park.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It was a struggle marked by attack dogs, police batons, high-pressure water cannons...

ZOMORODI: Just across the way from there is the 16th Street Baptist Church.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: September 15, 1963 - bundles of dynamite set by Ku Klux Klansmen ripped through the side of the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four little girls.

ZOMORODI: And one block away from that is the A.G. Gaston Motel, the first Black-owned motel in Alabama.

BRENT LEGGS: Most individuals could pass a building like this and have no idea the history that is embodied in these walls and this brick and this wood. And they look at a vacant motel that's in a condition like this and couldn't imagine that Jim Crow ended because of a sacrifice and the community organizing in Birmingham.

ZOMORODI: This is Brent Leggs. He heads the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

LEGGS: At the National Trust for Historic Preservation. And my work is to elevate the significance of African American history in American history.

ZOMORODI: And he does that by preserving historic places and buildings, like the A.G. Gaston. Right now the motel is boarded up and rundown, but it wasn't always that way.

It really looks like your quintessential, stereotypical American motel, like a Howard Johnson's, that split-level motel and people, I can imagine, in the '50s and '60s, hanging out on their balcony...

LEGGS: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...Maybe having a smoke. But was it, like, a fancy - like, motel is a drive-in.

LEGGS: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: Was it nice? Do you know?

LEGGS: It was. So Jet magazine said that it was one of the most luxurious Black motels in all of America.

ZOMORODI: It was also where Martin Luther King Jr. stayed when he was in Birmingham. And from his motel room, he helped organize sit-ins, boycotts and marches that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

LEGGS: Right here was Room 30.

ZOMORODI: Right here in the corner?

LEGGS: Right there in the corner, on the second floor, is where all...

ZOMORODI: That's where Dr. King was?

LEGGS: It was. Dr. King, that was his room. It was the largest room in the motel. And it's where...

ZOMORODI: Can I just say, like - and I can't explain it, but there are shivers. Like, I just got goose bumps.

LEGGS: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: There's something really weird about thinking, like, oh, right here, where my feet are walking, Dr. King was walking up these stairs to the second level on the corner, where his room was. And he made a plan to change the - to change America, like, right there.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Dr. Martin Luther King.

(CHEERING)

LEGGS: It happened right there.

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MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: Thank you very kindly, my very dear friends.

LEGGS: And some of the protest marches literally started from right here...

ZOMORODI: Coming out of the motel?

LEGGS: Coming out of the motel, yeah.

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KING: As long as we keep moving like we are moving, the power structure of Birmingham will have to give in.

(CROSSTALK)

LEGGS: Right here on the side of the building, near King's room, is where a bomb exploded.

ZOMORODI: Oh.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And on May 11, a bomb was detonated at the Black A.G. Gaston Motel.

LEGGS: It was an assassination attempt on King's life.

ZOMORODI: Oh, my Lord.

That bombing was one of over 40 bombings targeting the Black community in Birmingham from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. They were scare tactics to keep Black people from organizing or moving into white neighborhoods.

So what did they do? Like, how did they even function? There's bombs going off around here. Like, how did they keep this motel in business?

LEGGS: I know. It's hard to imagine living in a community where bombs were going off at nighttime, in the daytime, that you had no idea whether or not you would be able to go back home to your family because you were involved in activities that, in your opinion, was helping to make society better.

ZOMORODI: I mean, the resilience of this neighborhood...

LEGGS: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...Like, just walking around here, it's so calm. The madness that was happening on a daily basis in terms of people being arrested and bombs going off and hostile interactions with police, like, there must have been such a steeliness to - and they're meeting in motels where who knows what could happen? They could be assassinated at any moment.

LEGGS: Yeah. That's what I think is beautiful about this story, is the fearlessness of the activists here.

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KING: In spite of the difficulties - and we're going to have a few more difficulties - keep climbing.

LEGGS: Through violence and fear, the Black community had a resolve, and they moved through that fear to shape the consciousness of our nation.

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KING: Keep moving. If you can't fly, run. If you can't run, walk. If you can't walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving.

(CHEERING)

ZOMORODI: Over the past several weeks, I've been thinking a lot about my trip to Birmingham, the A.G. Gaston Motel, my conversations with Brent, and I just keep thinking history is repeating itself.

LEGGS: I think some of the cultural conflicts that we see that's rooted in race and that's rooted in a legacy of slavery has yet to be fully acknowledged. So when we preserve a place, like the A.G. Gaston Motel, that tells a civil rights story, we are reminded that we still have a long way to go to be inclusive as a country and to respect all of our citizens and their contributions.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Hands up.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Don't shoot.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Hands up.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Don't shoot.

It is our duty to fight for our freedom.

No justice, no peace. Prosecute the police.

...To protect one another.

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KING: Never in the history of this nation have so many people been arrested for the cause of freedom and human dignity.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You are tired of being second-class citizens.

ZOMORODI: The Birmingham campaign, the march from Selma, the Montgomery Bus Boycott - the same issues that brought people into the streets then are bringing people into the streets now. It's because this country has not faced its past.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: As long as you stay second-class citizens, you will never get the things that you should have.

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KING: The thing that we are challenged to do is to keep this movement moving. There is power in unity, and there is power in numbers.

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UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Gloria...

ZOMORODI: So today on the show, what does it mean to make amends? As a country, how do we begin to make amends for our past atrocities? As a society, how can we learn to forgive in our schools, our libraries and prisons? And in our own lives, how do we take responsibility and apologize to the people we have wronged or repair the damage done to us?

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ZOMORODI: Protesters are already removing Confederate statues, calling to abolish police and demanding reparations. But for Brent Leggs, a good first step in making amends as a nation is to recognize and preserve Black historical sites.

LEGGS: Making amends means that Black Americans are appreciated, that our community is recognized for a 400-plus-year contribution, that our history and the physical places where that history is held are preserved. Making amends means that our nation is making new investments to address years of disinvestment and inequity. I believe that making amends is to understand that the Black experience is an American experience.

ZOMORODI: There was a statistic that I read that, really, I found kind of shocking - that there are nearly 100,000 entries in the National Register of Historic Places, but only 2% of those focus on African American history. Can you just help us understand how that possibly came to be?

LEGGS: I think in many ways that our National Register of Historic Places, which is the nation's inventory of historic sites that tell an American story, it really is a mirror. It mirrors social issues. The National Park Service, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and a whole coalition of advocates are working to rectify this inequity and to list more diverse historic places in our national inventory. So the big vision of the Action Fund is to reconstruct our national identity. And our tagline is, tell the full history. And we do that by preserving sites of enslavement, but with a deeper focus on helping to preserve sites of activism, achievement and community.

ZOMORODI: I mean, that's a humungous goal - reconstructing our national identity. Do you feel like most Americans are basing what they think it means to be American on an incomplete story? Like, what are they missing?

LEGGS: That's exactly it. When I travel around the country and I meet with citizens or organizations and I bring up individuals like Madam C.J. Walker, America's first self-made female millionaire - in 1918, she constructed an elegant historic residence that stands in Irvington, N.Y. as a symbol of American entrepreneurship. And many Americans have no idea that a Black woman was the first self-made millionaire. So it's...

ZOMORODI: No (laughter). I did not know that.

LEGGS: Yeah. Yeah. So it's important that Americans know this history because all Americans should be able to see themselves in their history and their potential in the African American historic places that surround them.

ZOMORODI: And so where do you stand in terms of removing Confederate memorials? Do you think that's a way of making amends?

LEGGS: Our position is that we should not erase our history. At the same time, we don't have to revere it.

ZOMORODI: When we come back, we'll hear more from Brent Leggs on tearing down Confederate monuments or keeping them. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.

ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, making amends. And we were just talking to preservationist Brent Leggs about whether removing Confederate statues can indeed rectify our past.

LEGGS: Our position is that we should not erase our history. At the same time, we don't have to revere it. And I think what's exciting is many communities are bringing together their citizens to say, how can we tell a fuller story about our city and about the citizens that have contributed so much to it?

ZOMORODI: Yeah. It almost - I'm starting to picture it in my mind as almost like a manuscript being edited. And, like, some of the people are going in and crossing things out and removing entire passages, and then other people are going and saying, like, actually, we should keep that sentence and maybe massage that one - and that we're in this sort of iterative process, a creative process of recognizing the way that we have told the story of our nation in addition to this new recognition that we have to find a new way to explain how we've gotten to this moment where we - racism still is alive and well in this country.

LEGGS: That is so true, and there is power in truth. And even for the Confederate memorials that stand, if we are brave enough to tell the truth for why they exist, that is empowering to communities. And it begins to help to reconcile our racist past. And I think in many ways, it begins to help diverse citizens relate to one another better.

ZOMORODI: If you do preserve and maintain all of these sites, how far does that actually go in terms of healing this country?

LEGGS: I think it goes a long way. I think it's an opportunity for all Americans to be educated, to reflect on their understanding of history, on the injustices faced by Black people in our country and, most importantly, honor all of the contributions that African Americans have made to this amazing democracy that we call America. We are talking about moments where Americans will, when they're walking down the street and they see a historic marker or they take a moment to walk inside a historic space and learn and interact with that history - we can create millions of cultural moments for Americans to learn something new about our own history and to walk away more empowered than they were before they were connected with that history.

ZOMORODI: What do you think all those millions of moments can add up to be?

LEGGS: Yeah. I would say all these moments add up to healing and amends, education, respect, acknowledgement. And I think all of those words equal reconciliation.

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ZOMORODI: Brent Leggs is the executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. He has helped raise over $23 million to put towards preservation of places important to African American history.

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