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8 Mar 2019

The Building Block

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March 8, 2019 Category: Local Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO: Temple University College of Education presented Charles Hamilton Houston III as their 100th Anniversary Distinguished Speaker Series speaker. From left; Grace A. Greenwich, assistant dean of development and alumni relations, Temple University, College of Education;  Charles Hamilton Houston III, corporate attorney and the grandson and historian of Charles Hamilton Houston, architect of the legal strategy leading to the end of legalized racial segregation in the United States; and Dr. Gregory Anderson, dean, College of Education, Temple University. (Photo Credit: Martin Regusters-Leaping Lion Photography)

While the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education was a good start for the Civil Rights Movement, it was part of a larger strategy, says Charles Hamilton Houston III, the grandson of the man who put it together.

By Denise Clay

This year marks the 65th Anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education. 

While it struck down the concept of separate but equal in terms of public education, the case that brought NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer Thurgood Marshall success before a Supreme Court that he would later join, was part of a larger strategy, said Charles Hamilton Houston III.

It was Charles Hamilton Houston’s strategy, and the lawyers he was training at Howard University Law School were using it to try and leave the world for African-Americans much better than how they found it.

“What’s not widely known is that Brown was part of a 20-year-strategy that my grandfather designed,” Houston III said. “It was a long process that started in the 1930s by trying to desegregate higher education.”

As part of the 100th Anniversary of Temple University’s College of Education, Charles Hamilton Houston III came to the Barnes Foundation on Benjamin Franklin Parkway to talk about how his grandfather changed the law school program at Howard to create the generation of lawyers needed to fight for equality, and why Brown might be more important than ever at a time when the gains it led to are being rolled back.

Charles Hamilton Houston was born in Washington, D.C. He graduated at the top of his class at Amherst University, where he was the only Black student in his class. After serving in a segregated military during World War I, he returned to D.C. to teach English at Howard University. 

After that, Houston went to Harvard Law School, his grandson said, and became the first Black editor of the Harvard Law Review. 

He was honing his skills to fulfill a mission, Houston III said.

“He dedicated his life to fighting for those who couldn’t fight for themselves,” he said. “He felt that there were only two types of lawyers: you were either a social engineer, or a parasite on society.”

When he became the dean of the Howard Law School, he brought that dedication to his work, his grandson said. He knew that the fight for equality for African-Americans would require the nation’s best legal minds in the area of constitutional law to win.

Since those students couldn’t necessarily get this education at White law schools due to segregation, he knew he’d have to turn Howard’s Law program into one that could do that job.

Doing that wasn’t without its complications, however. 

“He did away with the part-time law school program,” Houston said. “A lot of people were upset, but he was trying to create a new generation of Black constitutional lawyers. That required a commitment.”

When Marshall, one of Houston’s prized students, graduated from Howard Law, he went to work with him at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where Houston was litigation director. Brown was just one of the group’s victories.

But the decision has taken a beating in recent years. The issue that Brown addressed directly, the equalization of education, is still an issue 65 years later, according to a recently released study from the New Jersey-based education think tank EdBuild. The study showed that predominately White schools get $23 billion more in funding over schools with more diverse populations.

The legacy of Brown is that it started a movement toward equality through the courts. But the courts aren’t where it’ll make its comeback, Houston said.

“[The Courts] can’t do it alone,” he said. “There has to be grassroots activism to maintain and utilize it.”

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