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The Man Who Defeated Jim Crow: Charles Hamilton Houston

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Charles Hamilton Houston

Throughout February the Democrats will present an on-going blog series celebrating African American heroes, both past and present. Staffers at the Democratic National Committee and Organizing for America have been asked to write about influential African American in our country’s history and leaders who continue making contributions today.

 

Charles Hamilton Houston’s name is often not remembered in the lexicon of leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Thurgood Marshall and yet, the legal struggle for civil rights in the last century wouldn’t have come to past without the brilliant mind, sacrifice, and dedication of this barrister. The son of an attorney and a former school teacher, he laid the path that would strike down Plessy v. Ferguson—the U. S. Supreme Court case that upheld racial discrimination under the doctrine of “separate but equal.”

Houston graduated first in his high school class and then magna cum laude from Amherst College at the early age of 19. After teaching at Howard University in Washington, DC, he enlisted in the US Army during World World I. It was, in part, the mistreatment of African American soldiers in the racially segregated Army that impressed upon him the wrongheadedness of the separate but equal doctrine. From that experience, he determined he would use the law to fight for those who could not strike back themselves. Following an honorable discharge, he enrolled in Harvard Law School and excelled academically, becoming the first African American Editor of the Harvard Law Review.

Houston went on to become a law professor and Dean of Howard Law School, which at the time was the training ground for nearly a quarter of all Black lawyers in the nation. It was from there that he taught and inspired a new cadre of African American lawyers, many of whom would later become legal heavyweights on their own accords—including Thurgood Marshall, James Nabrit, Spottswood Robinson, A. Leon Higginbotham, Robert Carter, and William Hastie.

In addition to fostering the legal talent needed to overcome segregation, Houston was the architect and chief legal strategist of the NAACP’s successful campaign to defeat Jim Crow and Plessy. He was the first special counsel to the NAACP and successfully attacked racial discrimination in law schools and jury selection, among other places in society. He represented the NAACP through all his years as a practicing attorney, and his name is associated with nearly every seminal civil rights case from 1930 until his death in 1950.

Although he passed away four years before his work would culminate with Brown v. Board of Education overturning the separate but equal doctrine, Justice Marshall would later recall of his mentor that every lawyer from across the nation who had worked on Brown had been touched in some way by Houston: “taught by him, or friendly with him or guided in their careers by him…The school case was really Charlie’s victory. He just never got a chance to see it.”