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March On Washington changed everything except our National Parks

Edmund Pettus Bridge

Edmund Pettus Bridge

March On Washington changed everything except our National Parks

By Audrey Peterman

It feels almost sacrilegious to say that I experience the 1963 “March On Washington” through our national parks. The seriousness of the march contrasts shockingly with the frivolity associated with a park. But the national parks represent a lot more than frivolity, and in fact encompass 401 of the most significant, unique or beautiful places totaling 90 million acres where history actually happened.

Consequently, I have walked in the footsteps of the 1963 leaders, including crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge where John Lewis barely escaped with his life on “Bloody Sunday.” This bridge is protected in the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, Alabama, and like everything protected in the 401 unit National Park System, it allows you to contemplate the experience at the place where it actually happened.

I’ve visited the house where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was born, seen his toys and games and the environment in which he grew up. I’ve visited the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where he honed his oratory and I’ve pictured him at the sacred altar. I experience these aspects of Dr. King at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, part of the National Park System, while smelling the aroma of Mrs. King’s “I Have A Dream World Peace Rose Gar-den.”

Another great leader of the ’63 March was A. Philip Randolph, and there is a proposal moving through Congress to designate the Pullman area of Chicago as a national park, in honor of Mr. Randolph and the Pullman Porters. Besides being a leader of the 1963  March, Mr. Randolph and Black Pullman porters regularly toured the majestic vistas of the American West as they made travel comfortable for the wealthy in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Now that I have seen the majesty of places such as Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon National Parks I am in awe that my ancestors played such a big role in building public support for the national parks.  When the Pullman Park gets authorized, I intend to be among the first visitors.

Even the National Mall, site of both the 1963 and 2013 marches, are part of the National Park System.

Looking back at innumerable accomplishments of the 1963 March, I am struck by this thought: the part of society that appears to have changed the least in 50 years is African Americans’ connection to the National Park System, which less than 5 percent of us use. Simultaneously the conservation workforce remains almost devoid of workers who are Black or Hispanic. Considering that the Park Service alone has an annual budget of approximately $3 billion and a workforce of more than 22, 000, something is obviously wrong with this picture.

To visit a national park is to be connected to almost 300 million foreigners and American tourists spread out across the country, spending their vacation time in places of ineffable beauty and assured safety. The parks probably have the lowest crime rate of any public space in the country. In 2006, when 273 million visitors toured the parks, 11 deaths were investigated across the park system. As an African American, finding so much black history in the Parks makes me want to shout it from the rooftops.

The parks are also the most affordable destinations for tourism. When I turned 62 on August 21, I drove an hour from Ft. Lauderdale into the beautiful Everglades National Park in Homestead and bought my “Senior Lifetime Pass” for a whopping $10. That pass will get me into every single national park in the country for the rest of my life, plus my carload of friends. If you’re not yet $62, an Annual Pass for $80 gives you the same privilege for a year at a time.

Along with all the changes that the leaders of our 2013 March call for, I hope you will choose to change something that is within your control. The parks offer every kind of accommodations from camping to luxury hotels. There are chain hotels in “gateway cities” right outside the parks, so you can easily spend the day in the park sightseeing and return to your comfortable hotel at night. It’s like taking an exotic vacation in your own back yard.

Visit and check out my daily blogs for information.

(Audrey Peterman is an environmental author and speaker and expert on the National Park System.



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