All Deliberate Speed: Charles Hamilton Houston and the background to Brown

The third in a series of posts about “All Deliberate Speed,” by Charles Ogletree. See the first post here about the Brown decision and the second post about the Boston busing riots.

Part memoir and part historical survey, “All Deliberate Speed” weaves between Ogletree’s personal experience as, in his language, a “Brown baby” (born near the 1954 decision) and a more traditional legal history of the lead up and response to Brown. This post focuses on a monumental figure in that history: Charles Hamilton Houston.

Perhaps overlooked in the history of Brown, Olgetree explains that the decision wouldn’t have been possible without “hundreds of cases” leading up to it that established the precedent for overturning the “separate but equal” doctrine set by Plessy.  A standout at Harvard Law School and the first African-American member of the Harvard Law Review, Houston was the architect of all of it. Here was his primary legal strategy, as outlined by Olgetree:

  1. “Solidify a nationwide network of African-American lawyers to file ‘test case’ litigation against segregation”
    • When Houston was asked to lead the NAACP strategy against Jim Crow segregation, he was also the Vice Dean at the Howard University Law School. There, he sought “to prepare the next generation of black lawyers,” including most famously, Thurgood Marshall. Olgetree explains that “without this cadre of lawyers, the NAACP, with its limited staff and budget, could never have taken on the workload of the hundreds of cases that led up to Brown.”
  2. “Build precedential support for a direct constitutional attack against segregation”
    • Olgetree notes that Houston decided to focus on graduate programs first (i.e., before K-12), a brilliant move for a number of reasons, but especially because such cases “could lead to victories for the NAACP and create precedents for a future direct attack on segregation without making waves.” Olgetree explains that Houston believed “White opponents to integration were not going to fight the establishment of an in-state black pharmacy school or the admission of a sprinkling of black students to the law school, because their communities and, more especially, their young children would not be affected.”
    • To improve their chances, Houston “elected to bring cases in the Upper South and border states, where segregation existed in full form, but judges and officials would be less defiant than their Deep South counterparts.” For all cases, he coordinated between national level leadership at the NAACP and local lawyers who knew the “procedural quirks and substantive nuances of local law.”
  3. “Organize black communities in broad, unified support of legal, political and social action”
    • Olgetree writes that Houston and Marshall “went on proselytizing campaigns throughout the South,” and wrote articles/pamphlets “instructing communities how to bring lawsuits, build community solidarity, and agitate for better schools.”
    • Houston used early victories to “strengthen the black communities’ resolve and the NAACP’s membership.”

Building off victories at the local and state levels, this approach eventually led to major federal suits that effectively paved the way for Brown. In the key victories of this era, the Supreme Court ruled against several questionable methods for avoiding integration:

  • Paying a student’s out-of-state tuition to integrate a law school in another state. (Ruled unconstitutional in Gaines v. Canada: “the right to equal protection was a personal one, which one state could not pass off to another.”)
  • Establishing separate facilities for black students. Famously, in Sweatt v. Painter, the University of Texas attempted to establish a separate law school for black students and, in McLaurin v. Oklahoma, the plaintiff “was forced to sit in a room adjoining the main classroom roped off with a sign that read ‘colored section’.”

Both cases established the precedent that “physical equality was still insufficient to meet the requirements of equal protection,” because, of course, “there was more to legal education than a physical plant” (Gaines) and because “separate arrangements imposed a stigma and was therefore unconstitutional” (McLaurin). With these victories, Olgetree reflects that “the road map for the political dismantling of Jim Crow was complete,” as the court had ruled against state strategies for avoiding integration.

I revisit all of this mainly to re-tell the story of a major American figure, without whose efforts our world would look very different. Especially given the other giants who came before (Du Bois) and after (Marshall and of course MLK), it’s possible that Houston has become somewhat overlooked, but he shouldn’t be.

Of course, in this story, there’s also relevance for race and school segregation today. I look at it two ways. For one, there might be a tendency to look back that this history with a sort of elitism, as if to say that the kind of racism of that era wouldn’t have happened if people were as enlightened as we are now. To try to pay another state to take a black student for example- maybe we like to think that we’d recognize such overt/absurd racism today, but I don’t know that’s the case. Funding formulas based primarily on property taxes, physical restraint by police in schools, strongly punitive/ “no excuses” disciplinary practices- will future generations look at these in the same way we look schools in the 1940’s that forced a man to sit behind a roped line in a “colored section” of a classroom?

Which brings me to my second point- I think it might be easy/tempting to think that we’ve evolved past this time, that injustice almost became alleviated naturally. But, Houston’s story demonstrates that, in a way, it almost didn’t happen. It took decades of extremely hard work under deeply unfavorable circumstances. Of course, progress from where we are today will require the same. And, thankfully, we have the lessons and inspiration of people like Houston as a guide.

8 thoughts on “All Deliberate Speed: Charles Hamilton Houston and the background to Brown

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