Black History Month: Moment of Reflection
In modern society, we sometimes take for granted the rights and freedoms that we all share. It is part of the reason why holidays and remembrances are so important. They give us an opportunity to take a look back and reflect on the work of our ancestors. In celebration of Black History Month, Fleming Nolen & Jez would like to pay homage to two amazing lawyers of history. These lawyers have helped push our country towards a more positive direction and have made incredible impacts in the courtroom.
To no one’s surprise, Thurgood Marshall is regarded as one of the most prominent civil rights lawyers in United States history. Born in Baltimore Maryland, Marshall has credited his path to law to his father for always encouraging him to stand up for his beliefs. He once said that his father “never told me to become a lawyer, he turned me into one.”
While attending law school at Howard University, Marshall spent time reviewing the landmark 1896 U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine. The case refers to an incident involving an African American train passenger who refused to sit in the car designated for colored people. The Supreme Court ruled that a law that “implies merely a legal distinction” between White people and Black people was not unconstitutional, and as a result, restrictive Jim Crow legislation and separate public spaces and facilities based on race became the norm.
Thurgood Marshall believed that this decision was inherently flawed, for “separate” in practice did not materialize as “equal.” He suggested the only way for people of all races to succeed was to receive a proper education. Unfortunately, the discrepancy in the caliber of education for Whites and Blacks at that time was far too apparent.
Together with Charles Hamilton Houston, Marshall participated in the cases Murray v. Maryland (1936) and Missouri ex rel Gaines v. Canada (1938). Marshall then argued Sweat v. Painter (1950) and McLaurin v. Oklahoma Board of Regents of Higher Education (1950) after taking over the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
After winning these cases, Marshall won his arguably most notable case, Brown v. Board of Education (1954). In this landmark case, the justices of the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. This ruling became one of the first cornerstones of the civil rights movement.
After winning more cases after Brown, U.S. President John F. Kennedy appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Then in 1965, Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the post of Solicitor General. This position is a part of the third highest office in the U.S. Justice Department and is responsible for arguing cases on behalf of the U.S. government before the Supreme Court. It was in 1967 when President Johnson appointed Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court, making him the first African American to be appointed. After years of protecting the rights of all citizens, he eventually retired from the Supreme Court in 1991 before passing in 1993.
Charles Hamilton Houston
Because of his work with various civil rights cases, he became known as “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow”. Houston grew up in Washington D.C. His father, William Le Pre Houston, was an attorney, and his mother, Mary Hamilton Houston, was a seamstress. After serving as a First Lieutenant in World War I, Houston used his negative experiences to drive his passion to use law as a tool for social change.
After graduating from Harvard Law School, Houston joined his father in practicing law.
Charles Hamilton Houston continued to argue cases in court while serving as the vice dean (and eventually dean) of Howard University’s law school. This was around the same time when Thurgood Marshall was attending law school at Howard. One of Houston’s missions was to create an accredited, full-time program with an intensified civil rights curriculum. He wanted to create world class lawyers who would lead the fight against racial injustice. When the American Bar Association refused to admit African American attorneys, he helped found the National Bar Association to help render support when it was needed the most. For decades Charles Hamilton Houston would play a pivotal role in nearly every Supreme Court civil rights case.
In 1935, Houston directed the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and with Marshall as his right-hand man, the two began working together on cases that challenged the “separate but equal” idea. Unfortunately, Houston would pass away from a heart attack before getting the chance to argue in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case.
Because of the great work done by both of these men, we have countless attorneys today following their example by fighting for the rights of all citizens across the country. Our society is not perfect nor is our court system. But if there is any lesson that can be derived from Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston, it is that systems do not need to be perfect. We just need people willing to stand and fight for what’s right and what’s just.