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Clay proposes African-American civil rights trail

Rep. Lacy Clay
St. Louis Public Radio
Rep. William Lacy Clay spoke on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives this morning about the tragic shooting in Arizona. (St. Louis Public Radio)

The City of St. Louis would be the first stop on a proposed national trail to mark historic sites in the struggle for African American civil rights, if Congressman Lacy Clay, D-University City, is successful in his efforts to preserve “precious historic waypoints along the routes of that largely untold story.”  

Clay, along with Missouri Congressman Jason Smith, R-Salem, have co-authored the African American Civil Rights Trails Act, to authorize the National Park Service to establish a program “to preserve and protect the memory of the people and places” in that struggle.  

The National Park Service and other federal agencies manage at least 19 historic trails.  Clay says such a network would be a valuable tool for education on civil rights for future generations, “by recognizing those brave souls from all walks of life who fought to make the promises enshrined in our constitution finally ring true.”

While the bill does not name specific sites, Clay says St. Louis should be the first stop on the trail, to commemorate Dred Scott’s legal battle for freedom.  Scott, a slave who migrated from Virginia to St. Louis in 1830, and later tried to buy his freedom, began a ten-year legal effort to win his freedom in 1847.  

After initial efforts failed, the St. Louis circuit court ruled in an 1850 retrial that Scott and his family were free.  Two years later, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed that decision.  Scott’s lawyers lost all subsequent appeals.  In 1857, the U.S. Supreme court ruled that as a black man, Scott was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue for his freedom in the first place.  

That decision infuriated Northerners and played a role in Abraham Lincoln winning the Republican nomination for president on the eve of the Civil War.

Clay says he sees the proposed trail system “as an opportunity to foster healing (and) to show tolerance and understanding in all Americans.”

The bill has the bipartisan backing of at least 60 House members and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.