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The A.G. Gaston Motel and the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument

In the face of violent state repression, the modern civil rights movement sought equal rights and constitutional equality at the national level. Churches, courthouses, schools, parks, and a myriad of other landmarks make up the constellation of sites, both large and small, where moments of change occurred. One of these sites was the A.G. Gaston Motel, a significant site of civil rights activities in 1963 that served as the headquarters of the campaign to desegregate public accommodations in Birmingham, Alabama. From the motel, leaders made critical decisions that advanced the cause of civil rights locally and shaped events and legislation nationally.

The A.G. Gaston Motel

The A.G. Gaston Motel, built by prominent African American businessman and entrepreneur, Arthur George Gaston (1892-1996), provided first-class lodging and dining in Birmingham, Alabama, to African American travelers. Designed by Birmingham-based architect Stanley B. Echols, the motel opened in 1954 and occupies a 0.88-acre parcel at 1510 Fifth Avenue North within the city center.
A.G. Gaston and R.A. Hester stand in a motel courtyard, wearing suits, ties, and brimmed hats
A.G. Gaston and R.A. Hester in the motel’s courtyard, no date (1954-1961).

City of Birmingham Archives

A person walks on a sidewalk beside the facade of Gaston Motel in 1954, lined with blocks of windows
Front façade of Gaston Motel looking northwest. Note street tree at west end (December 27, 1954).

Jefferson County Board of Equalization Records, from Birmingham Public Library

The motel was a brick midcentury building composed of a two-story L-shaped corridor that housed visitor accommodations and a one-story wing fronting Fifth Avenue that housed a lobby, coffee shop, and porte cochere. The construction drawings for the motel depict 29 guest rooms, each room featuring high-end furnishings. In December of 1954 Gaston added a restaurant building on the east side of the coffee shop to serve his guests.

The surrounding landscape was characterized by an interior courtyard with a small landscaped island and outdoor furniture; a parking court; a raised brick tree planter with a mature tree likely maintained during construction; a Z-shaped motel sign attached to the top of the west end of the front façade; and planters along the front façade facing the street. The courtyard patio was located towards the back of the property away from the street and composed of brick pavers in a running bond pattern oriented north-south. Several sets of metal tables and chairs provided outdoor space for visitors. Images from the early 1960s depict a planting bed, edged in sawtooth brick, to the east of the patio. A concrete walkway separated the east side of the planting bed from the adjacent parking area. Scattered shrubs and a birdbath decorated the courtyard.
Postcard of the A.G. Gaston Motel, showing the restaurant, master suite, and exterior.
Postcard of the A. G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Alabama, circa 1960-1969.

From a book of letters sent to Arthur Shores, prominent attorney and civil rights leader in Birmingham, Alabama. With permission of Alabama Department of Archives and History

Over the next decade, the A.G. Gaston Motel offered accommodations, food, and entertainment to black travelers. A fixture of black businesses in Birmingham, the motel was the choice for headquarters of the local civil rights campaign that shaped the city and the nation in 1963.

The Birmingham Campaign

The modern Civil Rights movement followed southern-state defiance of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that ruled segregation was unconstitutional. While some state and local governments tried to maintain the status quo of systemic racism and oppression, including racial segregation of public accommodations, civil rights groups and allies organized to address racial injustice and promote equality.
In Birmingham, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR), founded by Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth in 1956, was key in organizing resistance to segregation and discrimination within the city. Encouraged by Rev. Shuttlesworth, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) joined forces with other civil rights figures in Birmingham in 1962.
Dr. King believed desegregation in Birmingham would have national effects and was thus a logical site for a large direct action campaign. In Rev. Shuttlesworth’s words, "If you come to Birmingham, you will not only gain prestige, but really shake the country. If you win in Birmingham, as Birmingham goes, so goes the nation.” Together they conceived of a protest campaign to work toward the desegregation of the city. The campaign, known as the Birmingham Campaign or Project C – C for confrontation – consisted of a four-part strategy including small-scale sit-ins, a generalized boycott of the downtown business district, mass marches, and finally a call on outsiders to descend on Birmingham.
A crowd, including Martin Luther King, Jr., in the rainy courtyard of the Gaston Motel.
Martin Luther King, Jr. outside Gaston Motel in 1963.

Birmingham, Ala. Police Department Surveillance Files, 1947-1980. Collection 1125, Archives Department, Birmingham Public Library

Leaders from the SCLC took up residence in the A.G. Gaston Motel from April through May of 1963, which became the focus of Project C planning activities with Room 30, located on the second floor above the office and lobby, the epicenter. The hotel was the site of constant activity associated with the campaign, including meetings and press conferences held regularly within the courtyard that were extensively documented and broadcast by journalists.

In April 1963, Project C began by boycotting downtown department stores and occupying lunch counters, resulting in a small number of arrests. The movement built towards larger marches, the first of which began in the courtyard of the A.G. Gaston Motel on April 6, 1963. The marchers planned to reach city hall, but were stopped short by police at nearby Kelly Ingram Park.
On April 10, the city government obtained a state circuit court injunction against the growing protests taking place in the City of Birmingham. In defiance of the court order, a group of 50 individuals, led by Dr. King and Ralph David Abernathy, set out on April 12, Good Friday. The group was stopped and arrested by police. Following his arrest and a day spent in solitary confinement, Dr. King wrote his widely published seminal “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
16th Street Baptist Church, across the street from Kelly Ingram Park, where flowers grown in a planting in wide walkway.
Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park.

Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS AL-898), Library of Congress

In early May, the campaign continued putting pressure on the city with a series of children’s marches, known as D-Day or the Children’s Crusade. The young marchers were met with violent aggression in Kelly Ingram Park at the hands of Birmingham police under orders of Public Safety Commissioner Bull Connor. Images of young nonviolent demonstrators blasted by fire hoses, clubbed by police, and attacked by police dogs were broadcast around the world. While local jails began to fill with hundreds of young protestors, the images galvanized public opinion and the broader fight for civil rights. The marches continued for six more days until a moratorium was issued by the campaign on May 8 with the plan to negotiate a compromise with the City of Birmingham.

On May 10, 1963, the A.G. Gaston Motel was the site to announce the compromise between local white business owners, city officials, and civil rights leaders. The truce addressed some of the issues in the original list of demands issued by the Birmingham Campaign. Rather than the originally called for immediate desegregation of lunch counters, restrooms, fitting rooms, and other facilities such as drinking fountains, and the hiring of more black workers, the compromise established a longer timeline to desegregate the city.
Debris of bomb-damaged trailers at Gaston Motel, 1963.
Bomb-damaged trailers at the Gaston Motel, Birmingham, Alabama.

Marion S. Trikosko, May 14, 1963, Library of Congress

The negotiations were met by a series of attacks. The day after the truce was announced, a bomb was detonated at the A.G. Gaston Motel, leaving a door-sized hole on the west side of the building below Room 30. Four people were slightly injured in the bombing, but Dr. King and Abernathy were unhurt, having recently departed. The bombing was in turn met by large demonstrations by civil rights advocates in Kelly Ingram Park. These demonstrations in Birmingham inspired solidarity protests throughout the country over the next several weeks.

Violent attacks would continue in the city of Birmingham, including the tragic bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, that killed four young girls. Nonetheless, efforts to desegregate the city continued slowly over the following months. These events in Birmingham created significant public pressure that helped lead to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law on July 2, 1964, by Lyndon Johnson.

The A.G. Gaston Motel Today

The A.G. Gaston Motel was an important resource in the realization of the Birmingham Campaign to help end racial segregation in public accommodations in the city with effects far beyond city limits. The motel housed strategy sessions, meetings, and press conferences, in addition to providing lodging and social space.

A.G. Gaston modernized and expanded the motel in 1968, adding a supper club and other amenities. Business declined in the 1970s and in 1982 Gaston converted the motel into housing for the elderly, which functioned until 1996. The property has since been vacant.
A.G. Gaston Motel is rectangular building with low stone wall along the front and trees along the sidewalk
A.G. Gaston Motel, Birmingham, Alabama.

Carol M. Highsmith, February 28, 2010, Library of Congress

Recognizing the significance of the property, the City of Birmingham acquired the former motel in 2015 with the plan to incorporate it into the larger Birmingham Civil Rights Historic District. Today, the A.G. Gaston Motel is jointly owned by the National Park Service (NPS) and the City of Birmingham and is a part of Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. The monument was created by presidential proclamation on January 12, 2017, to honor the nonviolent protestors that fought against discriminatory state and local laws and practices in the 1950s and 1960s.
Encompassing approximately four blocks in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, the national monument preserves and interprets the history, historic structures, and landscapes associated with the civil rights movement in the city, including the 16th Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, the 4th Avenue Historic District, and the A.G. Gaston Motel, in addition to other resources.

In 2016 a Historic Structures Report was completed by Lord Aeck Sargent for the A.G. Gaston Motel and a Cultural Landscape Report was completed by WLA Studio in 2019 to inform future treatment decisions by managers. NPS and the City of Birmingham plan to develop the A.G. Gaston motel site for heritage tourism, commemoration, and interpretation for the public. With the other resources of the district, the A.G. Gaston motel will offer visitors an opportunity to commemorate and connect with the events of the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement.

A project through the African American Civil Rights Grant Program, which works to document, interpret, and preserve the sites and stories related to the African American struggle to gain equal rights, funded recent work to document oral histories related to the significance of the A.G. Gaston Motel. The project focused on providing information to new audiences wishing to gain a deeper understanding regarding the historic significance of the Gaston Motel as a civil rights site.

Last updated: January 6, 2021