Curious Nature: The National Park Service and celebrating civil rights leader Martin Luther King
Walking Mountains Science Center
On a windswept Montana hillside, the morning sun begins to warm the cool spring air and rouse the residents of Gardiner. The small town sits on the edge of Yellowstone National Park.
This strangely magnificent landscape was enshrined as America’s first national park and would help propel a nation to think differently about the preservation of its landscapes, wildlife and history.
On a spring morning in 1903, the community was abuzz with excitement. President Theodore Roosevelt had been vacationing in the park and would be coming to dedicate a new grand entrance. Inscribed on the 50-foot tall arch are the words, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” a lofty phrase lifted from the original legislation creating the park. The words reflect a deeper ideological goal of America’s newly minted national park idea, but in 1903, the idea who constituted “the people” was not an all-encompassing concept.
On this same April morning, people walked down the streets of countless cities, eyes carefully scanning as not to offend the delicate balance of the divided world they lived in. They did not look up to see grand archway entrances, but instead signs barring their presence and degrading their very existence.
For African Americans, the racial oppression of Jim Crow would loom over life for most of the century. The idea of public spaces being for the benefit of all people was impossible to comprehend for many when legalized racial discrimination ran rampant with painful consequences.
As the newly formed National Park Service strived to protect and preserve the nation’s diverse natural and cultural resources, African Americans around the country were fighting to simply have their voices heard on a level playing field.
Fast forward 108 years to a fall morning along the banks of the Potomac River, where the National Park Service was dedicating a new monument celebrating a man who devoted his life to ending racial segregation and racial discrimination. The scene mirrored that of the 1903 dedication of the Roosevelt Arch outside of Yellowstone, but the social progress made in the country since then cannot be understated.
Instead of being relegated to a separate viewing section, an African American man takes center stage behind the podium. He is the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, and he stands before a diverse crowd to celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
King’s leadership during the civil rights movement was instrumental in ending the legal segregation of African American citizens in the U.S. and globally improving civil rights. The 30-foot tall granite sculpture of King, engraved with the words, “From a mountain of despair, a stone of hope” stands as a reminder of the struggles and hard-won successes of racial progress in America and that progress should not and will not end.
Our national park sites stand as mileposts along the continuum of what makes this country and its people uniquely American and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is no different. It honors a champion of the past but more importantly challenges us all to focus on creating a future for “the benefit and enjoyment of the people” anchored in dignity, sensitivity and mutual respect.
Scott Dunn is the Community Programs Coordinator at Walking Mountains Science Center and has visited both the Roosevelt Arch in Yellowstone National Park and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C.