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Where Justice Prevailed: Courtrooms of the Civil Rights Movement

During the turbulent segregationist period of our country there were two sets of laws.

The first was “the rule of law,” defined by Encyclopedia Britannica as “the mechanism, process, institution, practice, or norm that supports the equality of all citizens before the law, secures a nonarbitrary form of government, and more generally prevents the arbitrary use of power.” 

But there was another set of laws in action: the Jim Crow laws of the South. These legalized racial, segregationist statutes set by local and state governing bodies were designed to marginalize and deny basic human rights to people of color.

The latter resulted in untold fear, violence and death. Yet justice was eventually served in the hallowed halls of America’s historic courts and statehouses. Here are five sites on the United States Civil Rights Trail where important legal victories were won.

Elbert P. Tuttle U.S. Court of Appeals Building

Atlanta

Completed in 1910, the Elbert P. Tuttle U.S. Court of Appeals Building was originally constructed as a combination U.S. Post Office and courthouse, the latter hearing cases in the Fifth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals along with another courtroom located in New Orleans.

Built in a Second Renaissance Revival style, listed in the National Register of Historic Places and part of the Fairlie-Poplar Historic District, it became the site of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in 1981.

Among the things that make this site so significant is its namesake, Judge Elbert P. Tuttle, the chief judge of the 5th Circuit Court who eventually served here until his death in 1996. Tuttle and three other judges were nicknamed “The 5th Four” — a nod to their position on this court responsible for the lion’s share of the civil rights case appeals in Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and Florida.

The judges earned this moniker for their commitment to honesty, racial equality and justice under the law, which bucked the segregationist political and social environments of the day in many parts of the country, particular in the South. Their rulings encompassed job discrimination, voter registration and implementation of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Tuttle, who was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the other judges have gone down in history as some of the most influential in helping the civil rights movement retain its momentum, strength and impact.

Still an active courthouse, the building is open to the public. For information about group visits, contact the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau.

discoveratlanta.com

Davidson County Courthouse and Witness Walls

Nashville, Tennessee

It’s perhaps fitting that the Davidson County Courthouse, now known as the Historic Metro Courthouse, sits only a few blocks from Fifth Avenue, the site of many nonviolent lunch counter sit-ins implemented by Black students from the four area predominantly Black universities: Meharry Medical College, American Baptist Theological Seminary, Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial, and Fisk University.

“Before the first sit-in took place in Greensboro, North Carolina, on February 1, 1960, intensive planning was already underway in Nashville,” said Anne-Leslie Owens, public art project manager for the Metro Nashville Arts Commission. “In 1958, following the formation of the Nashville Christian Leadership Conference by the Kelly Miller Smith Sr. of First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill and others, Nashville’s African American leaders and students devised an attack on Jim Crow segregation, making purchases in downtown stores and staging ‘test sit-ins’ in unsuccessful attempts to desegregate the lunch counters.”

Built with Indiana limestone and featuring Classical and Art Deco details, the courthouse is where city leadership was confronted about the bombing of the home of civil rights attorney Z. Alexander Looby, the desegregation of public accommodations and the overall immorality of racism and segregation across the city, state and country.

In Public Square Park on the west side of the courthouse, Witness Walls is a moving artistic tribute to the people of Nashville who came together and took action against all forms of racism. Every day at 10 minutes before the hour from sunrise to sunset, music reminiscent of what one might have heard on the radio in Nashville in the 1950s and 1960s wafts through the air, providing a backdrop that connects visitors with the powerful emotions and feelings around the struggle for civil rights.

metroartsnashville.com/witness-walls

Tallahatchie County Courthouse

Sumner, Mississippi

August 28, 1955, saw one of the most brutal, heinous acts in our country’s history: the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till. On that day, his body was mutilated almost beyond recognition as punishment for reportedly making a pass at a white woman, becoming another unfortunate symbol of the depth and cruelty perpetuated against people of color and supported by the segregationist laws of the South.

The Tallahatchie County courtroom where the “not guilty” verdict from the all-white jury was announced after only about an hour of deliberation has been restored to how it appeared during the trial in 1955, offering visitors a glimpse into the past from various vantage points.

“This trial, though brief in duration, was a clear indication of conditions in Mississippi and all over the South during the Jim Crow era,” said Benjamin Saulsberry, museum director at the Emmett Till Interpretive Center. “Our visitors are often engaged in dialogue concerning our past and present as it relates to race, racism and racial reconciliation, and our buildings and structures from our past can be restored and reused as places for learning and healing.  Specifically, the center uses arts and storytelling to help process past pain and to imagine new ways of moving forward.”

Founded to tell the story of the Till tragedy and to point a way toward racial healing, the courthouse and interpretive center continue to draw interest from around the state, across the country and around the world. In addition to guided or self-exploratory tours of the courthouse and interpretive center, visitors can also embark on guided off-site tours by appointment and are encouraged to download the Emmett Till Memory Project app, which provides historical context for the off-site locations. 

emmett-till.org

U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals

New Orleans

When the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals first convened in 1891, it was located in New Orleans’ famed Customs House, serving as the home for numerous circuit courts located in six Southern states. In 1980, as a result of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Reorganization Act, the court was divided into the Fifth Circuit, encompassing Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and the Eleventh Circuit, located in Atlanta, responsible for Georgia, Alabama and Florida.

Today, the Fifth Circuit Court, located in the John Minor Wisdom U.S. Court of Appeals Building and named after one of the 5th Four, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can walk the halls of this stunning Italian Renaissance Revival-style structure where many noteworthy civil rights movement cases took place. Among them was the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that opened the door for 6-year-old Ruby Bridges to become the first Black student to integrate New Orleans’ William Frantz Elementary in 1960. Johnson v. Stevenson and Van Orden v. Perry are just a couple of the other significant cases that took place here. The building remains an active courthouse and is open to the public.

ca5.uscourts.gov

South Carolina State House

Columbia, South Carolina

Originally completed in 1907 and extensively renovated in the late 1990s, the South Carolina State House is a historic landmark where many people employed strategies and tools to effect change and enhance democracy during the civil rights movement, not just in Columbia but across the state.

Historic events here include an ultimately successful 1954 federal lawsuit filed by Sarah Mae Flemming, who, some 17 months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus, was assaulted by a bus driver who refused to allow her to sit near the “Whites Only” section.

Several years later, in March 1961, scores of protestors marched to the State House from the Zion Baptist Church, resulting in the arrest of approximately 200 people by police who overtly denied their right of assembly.

“The pursuit of justice and peace has never been easy,” said Bobby Donaldson, director of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research at the University of South Carolina. “Our state’s history shows the long arc of the struggle for freedom and the full rights of citizenship by thousands of women, men and school students; from Emancipation and Reconstruction through the long decades of legal segregation in the early 20th century, the Great Depression and World War II, then landmark victories in the modern civil rights era and beyond.”

Adjacent to the State House is an extraordinary monument created by renowned sculptor Ed Dwight. It chronicles the journey from West Africa through the Middle Passage to the Modern Era and stands as a testament to the many contributions, actions and overall history of African Americans in South Carolina.

columbiasc63.com

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