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These U.S. Civil Rights Trail Sites Celebrate Social Justice

For any society to thrive, all its citizens must have fair access to housing, employment, health care, political representation and other necessities of life. During the civil rights movement, leaders fought for African Americans to enjoy the same rights as others in these critical areas of public life.

The following are five sites on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail that honor major achievements in social justice and some of the prominent figures who helped bring them to pass.

Social justice is demanded through coordinated campaigns and passionate protests, but it is also accomplished in small deeds and everyday goodness. Numerous sites on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail tell the stories of people who took a stand for justice in the face of opposition.

Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Preservation District

Tuskegee, Alabama

Located at historic Moton Field, which is named after Robert R. Moton, the second president of Tuskegee University, formerly Tuskegee Institute, the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site celebrates the more than 1,000 courageous African American pilots who received basic flight instruction there.

After World War I, African Americans were denied the right to enlist as military pilots. The decision was based on a study by the U.S. Army War College that concluded that African Americans were physically and mentally inferior in the ability to master the skills and aptitudes needed.

“As World War II brewed in Europe, this study was challenged and proven completely wrong when the Civilian Pilot Training Program began training pilots for military service at Moton Field,” said Ron Grissom, supervisory park ranger. “The first African American military pilots emerged from this experiment, battling not only Nazis and fascists in Europe in a hot war, but also segregation and racism in the Jim Crow South and America as a whole. It was ironic that they were fighting for and supporting a nation that did not consider them equals, putting their lives in jeopardy for a largely unappreciative country.”

Two hangars on this historic site house exhibits of training aircraft audio interviews with Tuskegee Airmen, interpretive text and video, and other memorabilia. Through these exhibits and daily Tarmac Talks, visitors learn that those involved in what was called the Tuskegee Experience were more than pilots. They included hundreds of men and women of many races who served as technicians, parachute riggers, meteorologists, mechanics, radio operators, dispatchers, bombardiers, medical personnel, and cooks and in other positions. All told, an estimated 15,000-plus individuals made significant contributions to the war effort there, together solidifying the Tuskegee Airmen legacy forever in the annals of history.

nps.gov/tuai

Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park

Atlanta

Attracting approximately 800,000 visitors a year, the 70-acre Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park is like none other, encompassing numerous structures and entities that played pivotal roles in the history of African Americans in Atlanta and the rest of Georgia during the civil rights movement.

“The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park preserves and protects and interprets for the benefit, inspiration and education of present and future generations the places where Martin Luther King Jr. was born, where he lived, worked and worshiped, and where he is buried,” said Rebecca Karcher, chief of interpretation and education. 

The guest experience begins at the visitor center, which features an array of exhibits that detail significant moments of the civil rights movement. Next comes a ranger-led tour of King’s birth home, where he lived until age 12. 

Self-guided experiences include the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where King was baptized and spent his first church-going and co-pastoral years with his father; the Prince Hall Masonic Temple and Tabor Building, the headquarters of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and where King served as president; and the Fire Station No. 6 Museum, which imparts the history of the desegregation of the Atlanta Fire Department.

The King Center for Nonviolent Social Change carries on King’s legacy of nonviolent movement for justice, equality and peace and is also the final resting place of King and his wife. There is also the “I Have a Dream” World Peace Rose Garden; the Behold Monument created in honor of King’s moral courage and nobility of spirit; and the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame, which features the footprints of various warriors of the civil rights movement such as Ralph Abernathy, Julian Bond, Thurgood Marshall, Medgar Evers, Hosea Williams and Rosa Parks.

nps.gov/malu

Whitney M. Young Birthplace

Lincoln Ridge, Kentucky

From meager beginnings in a small Kentucky town to being honored with the Medal of Freedom, the story of civil rights leader Whitney M. Young Jr. is one of passion, determination and unwavering dedication to furthering the rights of people of color.

On the campus of today’s Whitney M. Young Jr. Job Corps Center, which began as the Lincoln Institute, the Whitney M. Young Birthplace comprises two entities. The wooden, two-story home where Young was born and lived until age 15 serves as an interpretative center; it features photographs and memorabilia detailing his life and legacy. The Lincoln Institute Alumni Center depicts the history of the former, prominent boarding school for African American high school students founded by Berea College that operated until 1966. Whitney Young Sr. spent nearly 50 years on campus as a student, instructor and the institute’s first Black president. The junior Young graduated as valedictorian in 1937.

“Shelby County and the state of Kentucky are extremely proud of their native son,” said Paula Campbell, director of development for the Lincoln Foundation. “As one of the Big Six leaders of the civil rights movement, Whitney Young Jr. spent his life fighting to end employment and educational inequality, had the ear of three presidents and was instrumental in ensuring the success of the historic March on Washington and for creating [President Lyndon] Johnson’s domestic Marshall Plan. Unfortunately, he is one of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement and, as such, is not a household name like Martin Luther King Jr. Nor is he taught in schools, even in Kentucky. Visitors leave realizing his importance and the significant contributions he made in support of the movement.”

March 11, 2021, marks the 50th anniversary of Young’s death, and July 31, 2021, is the 100th anniversary of his birth.

nps.gov/places/kentucky-whitney-m-young-jr-birthplace.htm

Shelley House

St. Louis

From the time the first African slaves were brought to the American Colonies, brutal, segregationist, unlawful and politically motivated practices were used against them and their descendants. Among them was a restrictive racial covenant whereby property owners agreed to sell only to Caucasians.

In St. Louis, J.D. and Ethel Shelley and their children, who had previously left the segregated South in search of a better life, wanted to secure a home of their own. They found one and challenged the racial covenant, and the property owner ultimately agreed to sell to them. After the purchase was made, a nearby owner sued in state court to prevent finalization of the sale and lost the case. On appeal, the ruling was reversed by the Missouri Supreme Court.

Not willing to accept being denied the right to live wherever they choose, the Shelleys filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelley v. Kraemer. There, on May 3, 1948, the initial state ruling was upheld on the grounds of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, and they won the right to keep their home.

Although the home is now a private residence and not open for tours, it still stands as a decades-old symbol and strong beacon of hope that African Americans can indeed prevail in a court of law against systematic racial inequality and injustices.

nps.gov/places/missouri-the-shelley-house-l.htm

Elizabeth Harden Gilmore House

Charleston, West Virginia

In a time when the contributions of Black women were devalued, Elizabeth Harden Gilmore did more than break through the glass ceiling. Her life and legacy are honored at the namesake National Park Service Elizabeth Harden Gilmore House in Charleston, West Virginia.

Born in in 1909, Gilmore was a savvy business leader, a staunch civil rights advocate and an overall champion of the disenfranchised. Her list of accomplishments is impressive: She co-founded the local chapter of the Congress for Racial Equality, played a significant role in the upholding of the Fair Housing Act, formed a women’s club responsible for opening Charleston’s first integrated day care center, spearheaded a successful lunch counter sit-in campaign and served on a higher education board of regents, among other accomplishments.

Gilmore spent almost four decades in this home until her death in 1986. This 1900 home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Harden and Harden Funeral Home once operated there, as well as the J.E. Scott Funeral Home until the mid-1990s. It is currently unoccupied, and the property has been for sale for many years, yet its history is still significant.

“I believe the home attracted public viewing because of its historic style — a two-and-a-half-story structure with four two-story columns and five bays [and] said to be of the Classical Revival period,” said Anthony Kinzer Sr. of the West Virginia Center for African American Art and Culture. “The future use of the Harden Gilmore Home will depend upon new ownership.”

nps.gov/places/west-virginia-elizabeth-harden-gilmore.htm

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