Civil Rights Courthouses
Three courthouses in the South that helped galvanize the civil rights movement after Brown v Board of Education began the dismantling of the Jim Crow era were designated as national historic landmarks this week.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals courthouses join more than 2,500 other National Historic Landmarks across the country recognized as places that possess exceptional value and quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which had jurisdiction in six southeastern states, were involved in rulings of nation-changing events, including the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1961 Freedom Rides, the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march, and desegregation of southern schools and universities.
In 1998, the U.S. Congress authorized the National Park Service to study the history of racial desegregation in public education, and in 1999, the U.S. Congress authorized the National Park Service to conduct a special resource study of civil rights sites. As a result of these two Congressional directives, the National Historic Landmarks Program began either preparing or contracting for the completion of National Historic Landmark nomination forms for properties associated with the civil rights movement in the United States and racial desegregation in public education. Nominations for the three courthouses associated with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals were drafted as part of this special study.
The three courthouses of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals announced as national historic landmarks are (click courthouse name for more details on PDF):
U.S. Court of Appeals – Fifth Circuit (John Minor Wisdom U.S. Court of Appeals Building), New Orleans, La.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans, Louisiana was named in honor of appellate judge John Minor Wisdom, a scholar of legal doctrinal development whose greatest legacy is in the field of civil rights. The courthouse’s most significant period of contribution began in 1956 when the Fifth Circuit court became involved in a multi-year battle to end Louisiana’s crusade against school desegregation and ended in 1963 when Judge Wisdom’s doctrinal defense in a voting rights case would later be applied to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. During this period, the court developed civil rights jurisprudence and overcame massive resistance to school desegregation and discriminatory voting practices.
U.S. Post Office and Courthouse (Elbert Parr Tuttle U.S. Court of Appeals Building), Atlanta, Ga.
Under Chief Justice Elbert Parr Tuttle (1960-1967), the Fifth Circuit developed a significant body of civil rights jurisprudence, overcame massive resistance in multiple school desegregation and voting rights cases, and more fairly applied and enforced the right to trial by jury of one’s peers. The greatest period of contribution of the courthouse began in 1960, when Tuttle became chief judge to 1966 when a Fifth Circuit school desegregation ruling (U.S. v. Jefferson) marked a turning point in school desegregation. One of the “Fifth District Four,” Justice Elbert Parr Tuttle’s administrative leadership, along with his innovative jurisprudence, secured justice without delays and earned him a national reputation as one of the most significant judges of the twentieth century.
The District Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. and Fifth Circuit appellate judges Richard T. Rives and John R. Brown contributed to the emergence of civil rights in America and led the courts through new legal territory during a decade of social upheaval and the judicial remaking of the South. The period of significance began in 1956 when Judges Rives and Johnson ruled on the Montgomery bus boycott case, the first major nonviolent social action of the modern civil rights era, and extended to 1967 when Judge Johnson authored an opinion that mandated statewide school desegregation over a case-by-case basis. During this period the courts developed civil rights laws, battled massive resistance to school desegregation and discriminatory voting practices, and developed the right to trial by jury of one’s peers.
Established in 1935, the National Historic Landmarks Program is administered by the National Park Service on behalf of the Secretary of the Interior. The agency works with preservation officials, private property owners, and other partners interested in nominating properties for National Historic Landmark designation. Completed nominations are reviewed by the National Park System Advisory Board, which makes recommendations for designation to the Secretary of the Interior. If designated, property ownership remains the same, but each site receives a plaque and is eligible for technical preservation advice.
The National Historic Landmarks Program is one of more than a dozen programs administered by the National Park Service that provide states and local communities technical assistance, recognition, and funding to help preserve our nation’s shared history and create close-to-home recreation opportunities.
“In an era of significant resistance to racial equality, these monumental rulings defined civil rights laws, formed the basis of congressional civil rights legislation, and pioneered judicial reform,” said National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis. “These decisions are relevant to the study of Civil War to Civil Rights as well as modern conversations regarding civil rights, diversity, and inclusiveness.”
The United States General Services Administration (GSA) manages nearly five hundred historic federal buildings and courthouses, including the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals “Civil Rights” courthouses now designated as National Historic Landmarks.
“We at GSA are honored to serve as stewards of some of America’s most treasured resources,” said GSA Public Buildings Service Commissioner Norman Dong. “The historic Fifth Circuit courthouses stand at the cornerstone of change that revolutionized our country. The National Historic Landmark designation provides a unique platform from which these buildings and their sacred stories will inspire the American people for generations to come.”