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Friday, February 17, 2012

Robert Treadway: He’s the Man Who Killed
Jim Crow, Civil Rights hero Charles Houston

Fifth of a series


Another of my favorite Civil Rights heroes may well be the most important civil rights leader you’ve never heard of. Who is the man who earned the title “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow?”


As Wikipedia summarizes it, “Charles Hamilton Houston (September 3, 1895 – April 22, 1950) was a prominent African-American lawyer, Dean of Howard University Law School, and NAACP Litigation Director who played a significant role in dismantling the Jim Crow laws, which earned him the title The Man Who Killed Jim Crow. He is also well known for having trained future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.”


Houston graduated from Harvard Law School, and won prominence both as a private practitioner and as dean of Howard University Law School, which trained the next generation of civil rights lawyers, famously including Thurgood Marshall.


But that’s a resume, not a story. The story is that Houston looked at the condition of black education in America in the aftermath of the turn of the century decisions requiring separate but supposedly equal facilities for the races. Houston developed the strategy of requiring the states to actually make the schools equal, a process that proved that they could not be made equal, and thus the entire separate but equal doctrine could not prevail. In retrospect, this looks logical. At the time, there was fierce debate within and without the NAACP, concerning its legal strategy, and Houston’s view of a long term strategy of knocking block after block out from under segregation until nothing was left won out over others, who wanted to attack the entire concept of segregation in the Supreme Court once and for all. Houston, the wily trial lawyer that he was, knew that in litigation, you’ve got to “educate the judge,” as trial lawyers say, about the law of your case. The problem there was that he had to educate not only a judge or a court, but an entire judicial system to believe that civil rights was an American value.


This was a litigation strategy that took 30 years to come to fruition, but which changed America. He knew that in order to effect the changes he wanted, he had to start at the top, with state run graduate schools, in law and medicine. The reason this was important is that the legal standard still theoretically allowed segregation so long as the schools were “equal.” It might be possible to create two racially segregated kindergartens, each providing the same education to its students. But is that true of a law school? And is it particularly true of the flagship law school of a state?


Therefore, in the 1930s, he began attacking Southern state run graduate schools. The theory was that if the states could not make the segregated schools “equal,” then they must make them available to all. The graduate schools of both the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville were desegregated in this manner. Then the principle was ultimately applied to colleges, including the University of Kentucky itself.


Then, finally, the public schools. Houston didn’t live to see Brown v. Board of Education become law, having died in 1950, four years before the decision.


As someone who has largely been a corporate lawyer himself, with forays into civil rights, I can appreciate the fine legal scholarship of the man who killed Jim Crow in a battle that lasted not only his entire life, but beyond.