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Is St. Louis really ‘#1 in Civil Rights?’ The Missouri History Museum makes a compelling case

Gwen Moore and Percy Green joined "St. Louis on the Air" to discuss the Missouri History Museum's recent exhibit "#1 in Civil Rights."
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Gwen Moore and Percy Green joined "St. Louis on the Air" to discuss the Missouri History Museum's recent exhibit "#1 in Civil Rights."

If you remember the day two St. Louis activists climbed 125 feet up a construction ladder on the unfinished north leg of the Gateway Arch, you remember a key moment of the civil rights movement in St. Louis. Percy Green was one of the people who climbed the Arch on July 14, 1964.

Green’s protest was an attempt to push construction companies working on the Arch to hire more African-American workers and contractors for the project. It is one of many protests and court cases that make St. Louis “#1 in Civil Rights," according to the Missouri History Museum.

The museum recently opened an exhibit looking back at the fight for racial justice in St. Louis and its national implications.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh looked back on the compelling and complex history of civil rights in St. Louis with Green alongside Gwen Moore, curator of urban landscape and community at the Missouri History Museum.

“[#1 in Civil Rights] is a bold claim but that bold claim came from Judge Nathan B. Young, the founder of the St. Louis American newspaper,” Moore said. “Young was also a keen researcher of local African-American history and he made that claim repeatedly.  In 1964, he said we had more civil rights cases go to the Supreme Court than any other city in the nation, possibly with the exception of New Orleans. We had three separate civil rights cases: The Dred Scott decision, Gaines v. Canada, Shelley v. Kramer.”

By 1968, with the case Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Company, St. Louis had four cases go before the Supreme Court. At the time, Young wrote another editorial asserting that St. Louis’ reputation was firm.

That history goes back as far back as 1819, when black and white allies took to the steps of the Old Courthouse protesting the fact Missouri had become a slave state. The exhibit at the History Museum extends from the 1800s to the 1960s and even includes a portion about Ferguson.

“We invite our visitors to contemplate Ferguson: what is the meaning of Ferguson?” Moore said. “Is this part of the civil rights narrative? Is this something different? If so, what is it? We want people to ponder Ferguson and think about it.”

Listen as Green and Moore discuss the history of civil rights in St. Louis:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.