Thursday, February 14, 2013

Meet Charles Houston

In the ongoing struggle for civil rights in America there have been a lot of people who found ways to stand up against racial injustice. Charles H. Houston chose the legal system as his weapon to attack the injustice. His plan was to break down the fact that there was no equality in the “separate but equal” doctrine that was established in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case. Through his efforts Houston became known as “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow.”

Born in 1895 in Washington DC where his father was also a lawyer. Charles attended Amherst College where he was one of six valedictorians and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1915. For the first two years after graduation he taught English at Howard University until 1917. After that he entered World War I at the rank of 1st Lieutenant. His experiences in the military are what lead Houston to decide to study law. In one of his writings he stated so: “The hate and scorn showered on us Negro officers by our fellow Americans convinced me that there was no sense in my dying for a world ruled by them. I made up my mind that if I got through this war I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back.”

In 1919 Houston entered Harvard Law School and earned his Doctor of Laws degree in 1923. While at Harvard, Charles served as an editor for the Harvard Law Review. After leaving law school he was admitted to the District of Columbia bar and began practicing law with his father. During the 1930’s Houston began his relationship with the NAACP. He was the first special counsel and was involved most of the civil rights cases.
Houston was also involved in the academic world as he joined the faculty at Howard Law School. He helped create a relationship between Harvard and Howard’s Law Schools that still exist today. As a teacher he also mentored a young Thurgood Marshall. Using his position at Howard, Houston was able to recruit the best young black legal minds for the NAACP legal challenges.

With the NAACP Houston attempted to pass anti lynching bills and went after housing discrimination cases. His main focus became the unequal education system that he thought was the biggest problem with Jim Crow. He wanted to show how the states were failing to meet the “separate but equal” standard that the Plessy v Ferguson case was supposed to have established. His goal was to finally overturn the ruling of that case.

Houston was going to use evidence of how school systems in the south spent far less money on black schools than white ones. The facilities were out of date and materials were all hand me down at the black schools. He started out attacking law schools. He used the reasoning that judges might some sympathy toward the plaintiff who wanted entry into the profession that they loved so much. It worked as in evidence in the Gaines v Canada case of 1938.

Lloyd Gaines was denied admission to the University of Missouri Law School because he was a black man. There was no law school in the state for blacks to attend. Gaines felt like this violated his 14th Amendment rights. The school tried to pay his tuition and a law school in a nearby state but Gaines declined. Houston battled this case all the way up to the Supreme Court who ruled in Gaines favor. They ruled that state must provide in-state education to whites as well as blacks. States can either allow blacks to enter or created a second school of for blacks. There were other successful cases argued after that such as Siquel v. Oklahoma State Baord of Regents which was won by one of Houston’s prized students Thurgood Marshall.

Unfortunately Houston did not see his dream finally come true as he died in 1950. In 1954 Marshall argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that ended legal school segregation in the United States. Houston’s legacy is strong and still lives on today. The main building at the Howard University Law School bears his name, Charles Hamilton Houston Hall. The Charles Houston Bar Association is named after him and Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice is located at Harvard when he studied.

The Editor of Harvard Law Review Barack Obama 1991

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