The Human /Civil Rights Trail…Topeka to Memphis

Well, I for one, did not know such a trail existed. Neither did anyone else, since I just made it up. But this was my primary feel after traveling from Topeka, Kansas… to St Louis, Missouri… to Memphis, Tennessee

Or should I say from Brown vs the Board of Education… to the Dred Scott Decision… to the National Civil Rights Museum.

But first, a small civil rights diversion… Four or five times on our trip so far, we have seen highway markers that told us we were following the Trail of Tears. The Trail of Tears was a forced relocation of multiple Native American tribes from their land in the Southeast to designated reservations west of the Mississippi River… the “Indian Territories.” This forced travel began in 1830 after passage of the Indian Removal Act by Congress. Many died along the way from starvation, fatigue, and disease… Hence the Cherokee name, “ The Trail of Tears.” It was totally unexpected, but appreciated, that these signs and publicity of the movement has been acknowledged, and indirectly an apology offered. If we see additional signs, I’ll see if I can get a pic for you.

Post Script: We passed the route again in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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Our first stop on my Civil Rights Trail was Topeka, the State Capitol of Kansas. Many African American families moved north after the Civil War to escape the South. Topeka was a popular destination: A small capital city in an anti-slave state. But despite the Emancipation Proclamation, the general law of the land became “Separate but Equal.”  These “ Jim Crow” laws prohibited Black and White integration. In Topeka, for example,  Black children were not allowed to attend the same schools as White children, which meant that many Black kids had to get up really early, cross dangerous traffic, and travel miles to attend Monroe Elementary School, the all- Black school in town. This had been in effect since the 1800s. The NAACP decided to begin challenging Jim Crow in the courts, and specifically targeted school desegregation. There were actually five pending cases that worked their way through the courts, and together were reviewed by the Supreme Court. They collectively were known as Brown vs the Board of Education. Oliver Brown sued Topeka on behalf of his daughter to attend their local neighborhood school. In 1954, the Supreme Court, by 9-0, struck done segregation and supported integration of public schools. BUT, they did not include any instructions on how or when this be achieved. Monroe Elementary School in Topeka is now a National Historic Site

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Our next stop was the home of the Dred Scott decision: St Louis, Missouri.

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Dred Scott was a slave who served his master in St Louis. At a later date, Dred was taken to the Missouri territories, which at the time were anti-slave. There he met and married. When he and his new wife returned to St Louis with his owner, Dred, fearing that he and his wife would be separated, filed suit in court for his freedom, claiming that since he had been taken to a free territory, he was no longer a slave. Lower courts upheld his case, but the Supreme Court, by 7-2 in 1857, declared that the Constitutional rights were not intended for Negroes and Dred should remain a slave. While the story worked out OK for Dred and his wife, who were ultimately given their freedom by his owner after the decision, this ruling literally threw out the compromises the politicians had made to keep a bandaid on the slavery issue. Three years later, with the election of Abraham Lincoln, the country was torn into Civil War. The pics above are the Old St Louis Courthouse where the local decision to free Dred was ordered. The aerial photo was taken from the top of the Gateway Arch, but that’s another story for another blog.

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Our last stop was the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. While aware that Dr Martin Luther King was assassinated at the Lorraine Hotel balcony in Memphis,  I was unaware that the property had been assimilated into the National Museum honoring the ongoing fight for civil rights

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Mrs Bear said that this tour was one of the best she had experienced. It began with the NAACP strategy for dismantling segregation and Jim Crow laws… And despite favorable court decisions, the writing stated that integrations should occur “ with all deliberate speed.” This left the interpretation of this phrase up to individual jurisdictions. Some, if not most, decided to simply ignore the new directive. What then began was a systematic, piece-by-piece, challenge of the civil rights injustices that remained after the Civil War… There were exhibits on challenges to voter registration, movements to integrate schools, lunch counters, and public transportation, almost everything somewhere. Walking through the exhibits led me to believe that this fight by so many brave people was tantamount to another civil war. It really was, and sometimes still is, a war. Touring this museum should be mandatory for all Americans to maintain their citizenship…An incredible experience.

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