A Cemetery Road Trip to Pay Tribute to Modern American Heroes

As the world reopens and Americans hit the open road, it is a great time to pay your respects to some of the people who worked to make the country a better place. These monuments and cemetery sites around the country honor a few of our favorite prominent activists and leaders.

César E. Chávez, California
The National Parks Service operates the César Chávez National Monument in California which includes his gravesite and a memorial garden. The Mexican American labor leader and civil rights activist died in 1993. Many places are named for him and a handful of states have holidays on March 31 in his honor. Chávez received the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1994.

Frank Emi, California
Even though Frank Emi was born in the U.S., he and his family were relocated to an internment camp in Wyoming during World War II. He is buried in East Los Angeles at the Evergreen Cemetery. When the federal government decided to draft Japanese American men in the camps, Emi and six others joined to form the Fair Play Committee to ask how they could be asked to fight for freedom abroad and denied it at home. He was the last to die at 94 in 2010 after a quiet life as a civil servant.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Virginia
The Supreme Court Justice was buried in September 2020 at Arlington National Cemetery, next to her husband and near some of her former colleagues. The women’s rights trailblazer and only the second to serve on the high court was the first woman to lay in state in the U.S. Capitol. By the way, two former presidents, John F. Kennedy and William Howard Taft, are also buried at Arlington along with many other prominent Americans. If you have time and interest in visiting a few other past presidents, there are several others in the Virginia area.

John Lewis, Georgia
Civil rights activist and longtime congressman John Lewis, who died at 80 in July of 2020, is buried in an Atlanta cemetery that “speaks volumes about the life he lived.”

According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the South-View Cemetery was founded in 1886 as a respectable place for former slaves to be buried. Both Martin Luther King and Dr. Benjamin Mays were buried there, but later moved to the King Center and Morehouse College respectively.

Wilma P. Mankiller, Oklahoma
The first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation is buried at the Echota Cemetery in Adair, Oklahoma. She was an activist, social worker and community developer. She was honored with many awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her memorial service in 2010 was attended by many dignitaries including Gloria Steinem and statements from presidents Clinton and Obama were read at her ceremony.

Harvey Milk, California
The first openly gay elected official of a major U.S. city, Milk has a cenotaph (monument) at the San Francisco Columbarium. After his murder in 1978, he was cremated and his “ashes” scattered in the Pacific Ocean. Milk was posthumously given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

Rosa Parks, Michigan
Though the civil rights icon is known for her activism in Montgomery, Alabama, she lived for decades in Detroit, Michigan, where she worked for a congressman. She’s buried in Detroit’s Woodlawn Cemetery. When she died in 2005, 50,000 people visited her casket in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. She was the first woman to “lie in honor” there, while Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as a government official, was the first to “lie in state.” Other prominent members of Detroit’s Black community are buried at the cemetery there, including Aretha Franklin’s father.

To find out more about paying your respects to civil rights heroes, you can visit a “virtual cemetery” on FindaGrave.com.

Photo by Dino Reichmuth

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