The battle for civil rights was fought at lunch counters, on public buses and on city streets. But it was won in the courtroom.
In was in state and federal courts and, ultimately, in the U.S. Supreme Court that black Americans were finally recognized as equal citizens who were entitled to the same treatment under the law as whites.
The Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision began the unraveling of Jim Crow in the South. Over the next decade, case after case, ruling after ruling dismantled the segregation of public parks, public transportation and public facilities for black citizens.
The U.S. Civil Rights Trail includes numerous courthouses and other spots where legal victories helped to propel the civil rights movement forward.
Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, began their fight for freedom at the Old Courthouse in St. Louis in 1847, when they filed their first suit to be freed from slavery. Eleven years later, the U.S. Supreme Court made its “heinous decision” in the case, which effectively ruled that African Americans were not citizens and had no right to sue, said Bob Moore, a historian with Gateway Arch National Park.
In an ironic twist, the Scotts were permanently freed two months later at the Old Courthouse after their ownership was transferred to an abolitionist congressman.
St. Louis suffragette Virginia Minor also took her civil suit to the court in 1873 to argue for women’s right to vote, gaining significant attention for voting rights for all U.S. citizens.
The courthouse will close to the public June 1 to undergo a major renovation that is slated to take at least 18 months. Though much of the work is infrastructure-related, the project will add new exhibits, including one about the Scotts and a brand-new gallery called “Pathways to Freedom” that will explore urban life for persons of color in St. Louis, both enslaved and free. The courtroom where the Minor case was heard will also be converted into an exhibit space exploring women’s voting rights.
When the courthouse reopens, groups can participate in mock-trial programs and take guided tours of the ornate structure, which was built between 1839 and 1862.
Tallahatchie County Courthouse and Emmett Till Interpretive Center
In a courtroom at the Tallahatchie County Courthouse in Sumner, Mississippi, an all-white, all-male jury acquitted two men of the 1955 kidnapping, beating and lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till. The jury deliberated for 67 minutes; one juror reportedly said, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.”
For the next 50 years, residents of Sumner and the surrounding area hoped the incident would fade into history. Instead, Till’s significance grew.
In 2006, Jerome Little, the first black president of the Tallahatchie County Board of Supervisors, formed the Emmett Till Memorial Commission. The following year, the commission delivered a formal apology to the Till family in a public ceremony in front of the courthouse.
Over the next several years, the group worked to restore the courtroom to its 1955 appearance and to create an Emmett Till museum. The restored courtroom and the Emmett Till Interpretive Center across the street opened in spring 2015.
At the center, groups will find community space along with some exhibits. At the courthouse, Benjamin Saulsberry, the center’s tour coordinator, leads visitors on guided tours or in facilitated conversations.
“We talk about the trauma that it took over 50 years to get to, as a county and as a community, to address that 50-year silence,” he said.
In August 2019, the center also launched the Emmett Till Memory Project, a mobile app for sites and historical interpretation related to the tragedy.
Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site
Third grader Linda Brown had to walk six blocks to the bus stop and then ride a bus to Monroe Elementary School, a school for black children. Meanwhile, an all-white elementary school was only seven blocks from her home. Her father was one of 13 parents who filed a class-action lawsuit against the Topeka Board of Education for operating segregated schools. The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 ruling in the case declared it was unconstitutional for states to establish separate public schools for black and white students.
Today, Monroe Elementary is the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. Two galleries recount the barriers to education that African Americans had to overcome and the civil rights movement following the Supreme Court ruling.
The site recently completed a $500,000 refresh of its exhibits to make them more tactile, engaging and accessible. Evocative wall photos were added where visitors can write their thoughts anonymously on a sticky note “to leave it there for the next visitor to grapple with,” said program manager Enimini Ekong. “The sticky notes are the most jarring. People will come along and see this conversation and see this is where we’re at.”
An oral history booth will soon be added so visitors can record their thoughts about the site and their experience.
In the Hall of Courage, guests see and hear the vicious slurs that were yelled at the first black students at Little Rock Central High School in 1957, and visitors can also watch a 30-minute film in the auditorium. Guided group tours are available for up to 90 people, and ranger presentations can be arranged.
Frank M. Johnson Jr. Federal Building and United States Courthouse
While Rosa Parks’ case was bogged down in state courts, two attorneys strategically filed a separate case to challenge Montgomery, Alabama’s segregation of city buses.
When a three-judge panel that included Judge Frank M. Johnson struck down the city’s ordinance segregating buses in 1956, it marked the first time the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education rationale — that separate but equal is unconstitutional — was applied outside of public education.
“Judge Johnson ruled on numerous cases over the next decade that sort of dismantled Jim Crow,” said Thomas Rains, executive director of the Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. Institute, a new nonprofit whose mission is to promote understanding of the Constitution and the independent judiciary.
Johnson’s rulings ended segregation of city parks, interstate buses and terminals, the city airport, city libraries and the YMCA.
Today, the 1933 Frank M. Johnson Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in downtown Montgomery is still an active courthouse. Judge Myron Thompson sits in what was Johnson’s courtroom, which has been restored.
With sufficient notice and advance scheduling, groups “can come in and see the courtroom, which is really ground zero for the civil rights movement,” Rains said. He or one of the court’s judges can also speak to groups before Rains takes them to the nearby library to see Johnson’s desk and his Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Bay County Courthouse
Panama City, Florida
When Clarence Earl Gideon was charged with burglarizing the Bay Harbor Pool Room in 1961, he couldn’t afford an attorney. And when he appeared in the Bay County Courthouse in Panama City, Florida, the judge refused to appoint one for Gideon, forcing him to mount his own defense at trial. When the jury convicted Gideon, the court sentenced him to five years in state prison.
From his prison cell, Gideon appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, using the prison library for reference and writing on prison stationery. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction in the renowned Gideon v. Wainwright case, unanimously ruling that states are required under the Sixth Amendment to provide an attorney to defendants in criminal cases who cannot afford to hire their own.
Two years after his initial trial, Gideon was retried at the same courthouse — and was acquitted.
A historical marker about the Gideon case sits outside the 1915 yellow-brick courthouse in downtown. The building is still an operating county court, so it’s open to the public, but visitors must go through a security checkpoint. It’s also one of 14 sites on the historic downtown walking tour, and Destination Panama City can assist with requests for step-on guides.