When the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools on May 17, 1954, in its ruling on Brown v. Board of Education, the accolades mostly went to Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP lawyer who litigated the case before the court.
But then and later, Marshall, who became the first African-American Supreme Court justice in 1967, gave credit to his mentor and teacher Charles Hamilton Houston, HLS ’22, S.J.D. ’23, a special counsel for the NAACP who conceived the legal campaign to desegregate public schools. At Houston’s funeral in 1950, Marshall said, “We wouldn’t have been anyplace if Charlie hadn’t laid the groundwork for it.”
With the anniversary of Brown v. Board nearing, the Gazette sat down with Tomiko Brown-Nagin, Daniel P.S. Paul Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School and faculty director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice, to discuss Houston’s role and influence. Brown-Nagin took over the directorship a year ago, succeeding Charles Ogletree, the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law and founder of the institute. (Brown-Nagin has just been named dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and will assume her new role on July 1.)
She spoke about Houston, his legal strategy to dismantle Jim Crow laws in the courts, and the institute’s mission to continue Houston’s “unfinished” work.
GAZETTE: What should we know about Charles Hamilton Houston’s legacy in the fight against segregation in the United States?
BROWN-NAGIN: You should know that Houston was a special counsel for the NAACP for many years, and he was the intellectual architect of the NAACP’s legal strategy against Jim Crow. He was also one of Harvard Law School’s most distinguished graduates. In 1922, he was the first black student elected to the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review.
Houston was also a law teacher and the vice dean of Howard Law School, and that’s important to know because he wanted to raise the standards and the profile of Howard Law School in hopes of servicing the African-American community. Houston felt very strongly about the need to train lawyers for public service to send them out into the world so they could serve the special legal needs of the black community around the issues of racial oppression and exclusion and discrimination in the labor market. As you might imagine, white lawyers were not inclined, certainly those in the South, to represent blacks.
GAZETTE: Houston played a leading role in the legal campaign against segregation that eventually led to Brown v. Board. How did he come up with the strategy?
BROWN-NAGIN: In 1930, the NAACP hired attorney Nathan Margold to think of a plan for a legal campaign to undermine segregation, and he suggested that the way to do it was to challenge segregation in schools. Houston decided that the legal strategy should be done incrementally, step by step, to show there was widespread inequality through a series of legal decrees to build the groundwork leading to the fight against segregation in schools.
Houston focused on the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, the “separate but equal” rule, to argue that that was never followed. He came up with a series of cases to illustrate that despite Plessy v. Ferguson, which ruled that segregation is constitutional if the facilities are equal, the Southern states were not meeting their obligations.