The stately Italian Renaissance Revival building that faces Lafayette Square has been around for a century, housing federal courts, a U.S. Post Office and, for a few years after Hurricane Betsy, a public high school.
But for seven years in the 1950s and ’60s, the building at 600 Camp St. with the white marble façade took on a wider significance as a key battleground in wrenching struggles over desegregation and voting rights.
During those years, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges based in the building helped set a firm legal footing for civil rights advances across the Southeast and beyond.
That epoch on Monday earned the building National Historic Landmarks status, along with two other courthouses in Atlanta and Montgomery, Alabama, the National Park Service announced.
The John Minor Wisdom U.S. Court of Appeals Building, renamed for the New Orleans-born judge who helped guide many of those decisions, became the 21st building in the city to earn a status shared by about 2,500 places across the country.
The designation is reserved for landmarks that “tell stories that are of importance to the history of the entire nation, not just local communities or states,” according to the park service.
Along with prestige, the designation can mean grants, tax credits and protections to preserve a building’s historic character.
The same honor went to the Elbert Parr Tuttle U.S. Court of Appeals Building in Atlanta and the Frank M. Johnson Jr. Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in Montgomery, both named after allies of Wisdom.
The addition of the three buildings to the list of historic landmarks traces to decisions by Congress in the late 1990s to authorize the park service to study the history of racial desegregation and civil rights sites.
“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,” National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said in a statement. “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 New Orleans building was renamed in 1994 for Wisdom, who the year before was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Bill Clinton.
Wisdom, a Republican nominated to the court by President Dwight Eisenhower, served on the 5th Circuit from 1957 until he died in 1999 and was credited as a leader in prodding civil rights decisions across the six states that the appeals court then oversaw.
Opinions written by Wisdom forced the desegregation of the University of Mississippi and struck down a Louisiana voting registration test that was used to keep black people from voting.
Wisdom also authored an opinion that ratcheted up the earlier U.S. Supreme Court edict that states must desegregate schools with “all deliberate speed”; the opinion set a standard for Jefferson Parish to move forward with an affirmative duty.
“The clock has ticked the last tick for tokenism and delay in the name of ‘deliberate speed,’ ” Wisdom wrote in laying the groundwork for affirmative action more broadly.
Wisdom’s father, a cotton broker, attended Washington College in Virginia while Robert E. Lee was its president.
In awarding him the nation’s highest civilian honor, Clinton remarked, “He is a son of the Old South who became an architect of the New South.”
Andy Wisdom, a local investment adviser, said his great-uncle’s life, and not just his legal opinions, represented a transformation. “In one generation you go from that sort of classic old-school Southern upbringing to being an absolute leader in desegregation,” Andy Wisdom said.
The judge was alive when the building was renamed for him. He was uneasy with the plaudits then and probably would feel the same about Monday’s honor.
“If you asked him about his role, what he would say without fail is, ‘I played a small part.’ He was no peacock,” his great-nephew said. “I think he would be characteristically deflective. I don’t think he ever wanted to be fussed over, but I do think he was aware he played a role in some fairly significant affairs.”
Follow John Simerman on Twitter, @johnsimerman.