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Charles Houston: The Man Who Killed "Jim Crow"

"A lawyer is either a social engineer or he is a parasite on society," wrote Charles Hamilton Houston, the African-American lawyer who is called the "man who killed Jim Crow."

Houston, a legal visionary and staunch supporter of integration, orchestrated a series of important, yet little-known legal battles throughout the 1930s and '40s that laid the groundwork for the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which legally ended segregation in the United States.

During the first half of the 20th century in the United States, "Jim Crow" laws mandated that African Americans have separate facilities for travel, lodging, eating and drinking, schooling, worship, housing, and other aspects of social and economic life. This railroad station sign in Manchester, Georgia, indicates the location of the restroom for black men.
Courtesy Library of Congress: Farm Security Administration/ Office of War Information Collection

The Road to Brown

Houston came of age in the years before World War I, during an era of repressive segregation in the southern United States. Schools, public waiting rooms, and even drinking fountains were labeled "colored" or "white" as a result of "Jim Crow" laws which were based on a court decision that declared separate-but-equal facilities for blacks and whites were legal.

After graduating from Amherst College in Massachusetts and serving as an officer in World War I, Houston studied law. He believed that was "the area where great social change would take place," says Edward C. Smith, director of American Studies at American University, Washington. D.C.

This belief set Houston apart from some of the most prominent African-American leaders of the time, including W.E.B. DuBois, who advocated a type of voluntary segregation. "At the time," says Smith, "African Americans had their own society—their own Ivy League—Howard University and the Tuskegee Institute."

"The seat at the back of the bus was no different than the seat at the front," says Smith, "but the difference was that society viewed you as inferior."

Equal Education

After graduating from Harvard Law School and serving as the first African American on the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review, Houston became the dean of Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C. In this position, he supervised the training of nearly a quarter of the nation's African-American lawyers.

In 1934, Houston recommended to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that the organization focus its efforts on the segregated education system in the United States. "Education is preparation for the competition of life," wrote Houston, who was appointed special counsel to the NAACP in that year.

Targeting the graduate level of education, Houston launched a systematic attack on the doctrine of "separate but equal." As many states did not offer graduate education for blacks, the inequality of opportunity was dramatic. Also, the number of people affected by integration at this level was small, and therefore represented less of a threat to the status quo.

Methodically, Houston chipped away at the system. He argued University of Maryland v. Murray, which resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court ordering the University of Maryland to admit Donald Murray, an African American, to its law school on the grounds that there were no law schools for blacks in the state.

The ruling in Missouri ex rel Gaines v. Canada, another case that Houston argued before the Supreme Court, declared that the scholarships Missouri offered to African Americans to attend out-of-state graduate schools did not constitute equal admission.

Houston's victories laid the groundwork for subsequent victories by the NAACP. Together with Thurgood Marshall, Houston's protégé and former student at Howard, the NAACP legal team attacked inequalities in housing, transportation, and education.

No Place for Segregation

Throughout the 1940s, the lawyers built the case against segregation. Marshall was appointed head of the NAACP legal team in 1940 and over the next decade won cases that proved that in black and white schools, teacher salaries were not equal, nor was equal money spent on individual students.

Houston died of heart failure in 1950. He did not live to see the death of Jim Crow, but in 1952 Thurgood Marshall argued the case Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court.

"The case that would become Brown was actually five cases, representing segregated public elementary and high schools in Washington, D.C., Delaware, Virginia, and South Carolina." says Cheryl Brown Henderson, executive director of the Brown Foundation and daughter of Oliver Brown, for whom the case was named.

The 1954 ruling, in which the Supreme Court justices ruled that "we conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of separate but equal has no place," struck a death knell for segregation in the United States.

"Houston was the visionary behind the movement to end 'separate but equal,'" says Brown.

After the Brown decision, the battle for racial equality in America was far from over. Thurgood Marshall, who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1961, would spend his career fighting for equality under the law for all Americans.

Marshall called Houston "Iron Shoes" for his relentless drive in the battle to end segregation, saying of his mentor's role in the Brown decision, "we were just carrying his bags, that's all."

This is the first in a series of articles about the events in the United States that preceded the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. The series is being produced to mark Black History Month in the United States.

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Who Was "Jim Crow"?

Jim Crow was "born" in 1828. The name was taken from a popular minstrel routine written by a white actor, Thomas Dartmouth Rice, originally called "Jump Jim Crow."

Rice performed the song in blackface makeup and used exaggerated, streotypical dancing and singing to imitate African Americans. Soon, the term "Jim Crow" was used to describe an African American person in a derogatory way.

During the Reconstruction of the south in the years after the U.S. Civil War, individual states began passing laws that excluded "persons of color" from parks, schools, public transportation, and cemeteries.

These laws became known collectively as Jim Crow laws, and were enforced by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that declared "separate but equal" facilities were constitutional.

Black actors in blackface makeup eventually replaced white actors in minstrel shows. They performed songs and often told jokes onstage that characterized African Americans as ignorant and lazy. The popularity of minstrel shows waned with the advent of radio and movies, but the stereotypes created by minstrel show actors persisted long into the 20th century.