African American History Month: How Our Nation’s Courthouses Played a Role in the Civil Rights Movement

Three Southern Courthouses Named as National Historic Landmarks for their role in Civil Rights Movement

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During February, in commemoration of African American History Month, the General Services Administration (GSA) is taking a look back at the historic sites that played a prominent role in the Civil Rights Movement.

In 2015, The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, La., the U.S. Post Office in Atlanta, Ga., and the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse in Montgomery, Ala., were all designated as national historic landmarks for the role they played in shaping the Civil Rights Movement.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which had jurisdiction in six southeastern states, was 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 following the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decisions in 1954 and 1955.

Three courthouses of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals were named as national historic landmarks in 2015:

Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals John Minor Wisdom U.S. Court of Appeals Building, New Orleans, La.

In 1953, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Chief Counsel Thurgood Marshall argued for the desegregation of schools in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. The court voted unanimiously in favor of Brown, thus outlawing segregation in schools. In order to address the southern resistance to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education rulings in 1954 and 1955, Justice John Minor Wisdom developed a theory of law to help uphold the Supreme Court’s ruling. In 2015, the court was named a National Historic Landmark for its role in adjudicating some of the most critical issues of the American Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s. 

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), this courthouse played a pivotal role in the American Civil Rights Movement. In 1966, counsel from the NAACP helped promulgate a Fifth Circuit school desegregation ruling (U.S. v. Jefferson) which marked a turning point in school desegregation. 

U.S. Post Office and Courthouse (Frank M. Johnson Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse), Montgomery, Ala.

In 1955, a woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger, and in one the first nonviolent social action of the modern civil rights era, African Americans boycotted the buses in what became known as the Montgomery Bus Boycott. After 381 days, Fifth Circuit appellate judges Richard T. Rives and John R. Brown ruled on the Montgomery bus boycott case in favor of system integration. In 1967, District Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. mandated statewide school desegregation over a case-by-case basis.

During this period of the American Civil Rights Movement, these 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.

GSA manages several other historic properties that played an important role in our nation’s history, such as the Montgomery Greyhound Bus Station in Alabama, home of the Freedom Rides exhibit. On May 20, 1961, a group of students staged a nonviolent protest at the bus station, precipitating a chain of events that led to the cessation of racial segregation in interstate travel. GSA leases the terminal to the Alabama Historical Commission; it is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Preserving our nation’s history is an important part of GSA’s mission and we are proud to be a part of this year’s National African American History Month celebrations.

Last Reviewed: 2019-07-23