U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced that civil rights national park sites will get $13 million this year as part of the federal fiscal 2018 budget approved last month, a significant boost that coincides with the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination this week.

The funding, which will go towards preserving the civil rights movement sites that are part of the park system, is nearly 62 percent higher than the $8 million the U.S. Congress allocated for civil rights park sites in 2016, and about 3 percent higher than last year’s $12.6 million funding.

Some 51 projects in 24 U.S. states benefited from last year’s funding, such as the home of civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell in Washington, D.C. and the Memphis Heritage Trail in Tennessee. The 2018 grant application for the most recent funding isn’t available yet.

Last month, Memphis launched the Memphis Heritage Trail, a 60-block area in downtown and south Memphis that celebrates African American business, culture and musical heritage achievements in Memphis. The city is also hosting commemorations and events on April 4, the 50th anniversary of the day King was killed at the Lorraine Hotel, now the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel.

Memphis is happy with the federal government’s support of civil rights site preservation projects, said Paul Young, director of the division of housing and community development for the City of Memphis. “Our local CVB is embracing the concept of a civil rights trail,” said Young.

“We don’t have to sweep it under the rug, this is history that everyone can learn from,” said Young. “More local communities need to embrace this concept. I like the notion of a national civil rights trail because it helps improve local economies on a broader scale.”

The city has evolved since King’s assassination and time in the city in the 1960s, but challenges remain with preserving civil rights sites and telling their stories while improving residents’ lives, said Young.

“We still have a significant problem with poverty in Memphis,” said Young. “There’s a lack of affordable housing. Over last five to six years we’ve seen more investment in neighborhoods that circle our downtown that were previously marginalized but have seen more investment over the years. Whereas 20 years ago the trend was to run away from the core city.”

Memphis isn’t trying to gentrify certain neighborhoods, said Young, although many residents feel gentrification has already negatively impacted their lives. “We’re not trying to gentrify, we want local people to benefit from tourism,” he said. “I think visitors do see this.”

Young said the city released a mobile app last week for the Memphis Heritage Trail that uses geolocation beacons to show travelers images and historical information about the trail as they walk through different sites. “There are some significant things happening in Memphis,” he said. “With projects like this, it’s going to take a variety of sources.”

Grant-supported projects include surveys and documentation, interpretation and education, oral histories, architectural services, historic structure reports, planning, and physical preservation.

Trump and Civil Rights Tourism

Zinke has sparred with many National Park Service officials and board members during the past year as he’s sought to reorganize the park system, shrink federal lands part of the park service, and open some parks to mining, but the Trump administration’s record on civil rights tourism legislation has been more positive.

“Through the work and engagement of public and private partners, these grants will preserve a defining part of our nation’s diverse history,” said Dan Smith, deputy direct of the National Park Service. “By working with local communities to preserve these historic places and stories, we will help tell a more complete narrative of the African American experience in the pursuit of civil rights.”

President Donald Trump signed the African American Civil Rights Act of 2017 last year, which requires the Department of the Interior to establish a U.S. Civil Rights Network within the National Park Service. The network includes all park service units and programs that relate to the African American civil rights movement from 1939 through 1968.

Essentially, the network is meant to help all civil rights park sites better collaborate and coordinate programming and education resources for visitors.

On February 1, Zinke designated the Marion Anderson mural depicting her famous 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert as the first site part of the network. President Trump also signed an order in January that designates the MLK Center in Atlanta as a National Historical Park, one of the highest designations within the park service.

The civil rights park sites funding is small in the scheme of the entire federal budget, but given the current dysfunction of Congress securing funding for a such a grant program is likely considered a win by many tourism officials.

With the launch of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail in February on top of the new funding, tourism officials have plenty to be optimistic about during this milestone anniversary year.

Photo Credit: The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel was the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and is among the top 10 highlighted attractions on the new U.S. Civil Rights Trail. National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel