Source: American Experience: "Simple Justice"
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional. What happened that day reflected years of work, dating back to the law school days of the NAACP attorneys and the professor who trained them, Charles Houston. This video segment, from American Experience: "Simple Justice", looks at Houston's role in preparing the NAACP attorneys and the strategies they would use later in court to attack segregation.
The legal strategy to dismantle segregation began decades before the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Its chief architect, Charles Hamilton Houston, grew up in Washington, D.C., attended the prestigious all-black M Street School, graduated from Amherst College in 1915, and served as an army officer during World War I. Like many black veterans, he experienced racism in the military and returned from the war resolved to fight discrimination at home.
In 1919, Houston attended Harvard Law School. There he studied under Felix Frankfurter, who would go on to become one of the Supreme Court justices in the Brown case. After graduation, he accepted a teaching position at the all-black Howard University Law School, and in 1929, he was appointed dean.
Houston believed that education was the means to equality, that ignorance was the tool of racism, and that the law could be used to eliminate inequality. He also knew that equal access to education would require overturning the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, which established the "separate but equal" doctrine and had legally sanctioned segregation in America since 1896. To this end, he restructured his school's curriculum and began training young lawyers to destroy legalized segregation.
In the meantime, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) commissioned a young attorney, Nathan Margold, to draft a legal strategy for attacking segregation. The Margold Report proposed changing the law by showing the pervasive inequalities inherent in separate schools, and thereby eliminating segregation first in education. In 1935, Houston left Howard Law School to become legal counsel for the NAACP. He decided to start the attack on segregation in graduate schools, since many southern states provided no graduate or professional opportunities for black students. And because a very small percentage of the population even attended graduate school, resistance to change was likely to be minimal. With each small victory, the NAACP would build important legal precedent.
Houston singled out two young lawyers from Howard's class of 1933, Thurgood Marshall and Oliver Hill, to join his team at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. During the late 1930s, they successfully sued to integrate law schools at the Universities of Maryland and Missouri. The latter case, Gaines v. Canada, was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that in order to uphold the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause, the University of Missouri would have to either admit Lloyd Gaines, an African American student, or establish a separate, equal law school for black students. Houston and his team knew that establishing separate, equal schools would be too expensive for either private or state universities.
With these victories, the NAACP legal team began collecting evidence of inequalities in public schools throughout the South in the 1940s and early 1950s. Charles Houston died in 1950 and was succeeded by Thurgood Marshall who brought in Robert Carter from Howard Law School to be his legal aide at the NAACP. Carter argued the Brown case in the lower courts of Kansas, while Marshall argued the Briggs v. Elliott case in South Carolina. As the lead attorney for the NAACP, Marshall coordinated the legal team for the five school desegregation cases that were combined in Brown v. Board of Education.
For the NAACP's legal team, the Brown case marked their first collective appearance before the Supreme Court. For the defense, it would be attorney John Davis's last case. At 82, Davis had been involved in more than 250 cases and was the most experienced attorney to appear before the Court.
In the end, the Court ruled unanimously in favor of the NAACP's clients, declaring that segregation in public education violated the Fourteenth Amendment. While Charles Houston did not live to hear the ruling, he had laid the groundwork and provided the legal training for the most important civil rights victory of the twentieth century.
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