The Power of Place: From Selma to Stonewall

The dedication of the Stonewall National Monument outside the Stonewall Inn
The dedication of the Stonewall National Monument outside the Stonewall Inn
There are places in America where events occurred that are so powerful, they helped shape our nation’s history and culture — and must never be forgotten. The Stonewall Inn and the area surrounding this historic site in New York’s Greenwich Village form one such place.

Stonewall served as a gathering place. In the late 1960s, it was one of the few venues in New York City where LGBT people could openly congregate and be themselves. In fact, at that time very few establishments welcomed openly gay people. Despite the routine police raids, at Stonewall they found a place they could gather without judgment.

Stonewall served as a spark. On June 28, 1969, in response to yet another police raid at Stonewall Inn, LGBT people rose up and fought back, igniting a movement that would change America. No longer would LGBT citizens let their community suffer injustice without taking action against the continued harassment. It was this moment, and the days that followed, that are often considered to be some of the most important in the LGBT community’s fight for civil and human rights.

Stonewall has served as a beacon of hope. In 2015, thousands gathered to mark the Supreme Court's decision for marriage equality, a pivotal turning point in American history that granted an important right that had long been denied the LGBT community.

And Stonewall has served as a place of mourning. It was here that crowds gathered to try and make sense of the tragic events of Orlando, where a gunman targeted a community that has long struggled for equal rights.

A place this powerful, with a story this meaningful, deserves to be protected and its story deserves to be told. And in fact, it’s not just the story of that night in 1969. Many of those who gathered there after Orlando weren’t even born when the Stonewall uprising occurred. Rather, this is a story of the decades-old struggle in communities across the country — a struggle that continues to this day, four decades after the rebellion that sparked the modern LGBT rights movement. This is a story that deserves to be told by the National Park Service.

Two-thirds of America’s more than 400 national park sites are dedicated to cultural and historic significance. These are places where people lived, ideas were born, struggles occurred, and history was made. The history of America isn’t always pleasant, but it is always important. Our past is full of triumphant victories and inspirational people but also full of regrettable moments. And we have national park sites that tell those stories, from the fight for women’s rights at Seneca Falls to the fight for African-American rights at Selma.

Thanks to President Obama, we are making progress ensuring our national parks tell the stories that represent all Americans — including our struggles. We now have a national park site to tell the story of the plight of U.S. farm workers and their fight for higher wages and safer working conditions with President Obama’s designation of the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in California in 2012. We now have a national park site to tell the story of the nation’s first industry-wide strike in 1894 and early civil rights history with President Obama’s 2014 designation of Pullman National Monument in Chicago, the city’s first national park site. And just this year, he designated the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, home to the National Woman’s Party for the last 90 years and the epicenter of the struggle for women’s suffrage and equal rights.

Now we have a national park site dedicated to telling the story of the LGBT rights movement.

I commend President Obama for honoring Stonewall’s powerful civil rights story and those who fought for those rights more than 47 years ago. The story of discrimination represented at Stonewall is too tragic to repeat and too important to forget.

Learn more at www.npca.org/stonewall and join the conversation online with #NatlParkForStonewall.

Theresa Pierno
THERESA PIERNO is the president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association. Follow Pierno on Twitter @NPCA.

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