Contributions of Missouri’s Black lawyers to securing equal justice: The NAACP connection
Part 2 of 4
Editor's note: In 1989, Saint Louis University School of Law Assistant Professor Leland Ware republished this article, examining the history of Black lawyers in Missouri during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in the Journal of The Missouri Bar. The author is now the Louis J. Redding Chair and Professor for the Study of Law and Public Policy at the University of Delaware's School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy. In recognition of February's celebration of Black History Month, we are pleased to republish this article online.
The NAACP Connection
The NAACP was organized to eliminate racial discrimination in 1909. A Harvard undergraduate, Charles Garland, received a bequest from his father in 1919 of more than one million dollars which he used to establish the American Fund for Public Service in 1922. The Fund was devoted to the support of liberal causes, and Roger Baldwin, the director of the newly-formed American Civil Liberties Union, became the chief administrator of the Fund. In 1930, the Fund's Committee on Negro Work, whose members included James Weldon Johnson, the Executive Secretary of the NAACP, Morris Ernst, a member of the NAACP's Legal Committee, and Lewis Garnett, who was also active in the NAACP developed a proposal for a grant to the NAACP. When the proposal was submitted to the Garland Fund, it requested financial assistance for a large-scale campaign to secure the constitutional rights of Southern Blacks designating specifically equal rights in the public schools, voting, transportation, housing and juries.9 The Garland Fund initially approved an allocation of $100,000.
The Fund established a committee to administer the grant and it specifically authorized an "intensive campaign" against "unequal apportionment of school funds, barring Negroes from juries, jim crow cars, and residential segregation by property holder's covenants, disenfranchisement and civil liberties defense.”10 In its proposal, the NAACP had also indicated that it would retain the services of a "very able lawyer" who would personally direct the campaign.11 On October 4, 1930, the NAACP hired Nathan Margold, a Harvard graduate, as a consultant to develop a litigation strategy. On May 31, 1931, Margold delivered a preliminary report concerning the educational campaign and three days later, he submitted another report which dealt with racially restrictive covenants. With regard to segregation in public schools, Margold recommended a direct challenge to the separate but equal doctrine which was established in Plessy v. Ferguson.12 In his report, Margold urged that "if we boldly challenge the constitutional validity of segregation ... we can strike directly at the most prolific sources of discrimination." 13 According to Margold's analysis, racial segregation, coupled with discrimination, denied equal protection of the law under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Not long after he submitted his report, Margold went to work for the Solicitor of the Department of the Interior. Consequently, the NAACP still needed a "very able lawyer" to conduct its litigation campaign. In 1934, Walter White, who had succeeded James Weldon Johnson as the Executive Secretary of the NAACP, recruited a Black attorney, Charles Hamilton Houston, who was then Dean of Howard University's Law School, to serve full time as the organization's legal counsel. 14 Houston had graduated from Amherst College with honors in 1915 after being elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He served as an officer in World War I, and later enrolled in Harvard Law School, where he became the first Black student elected to serve on the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review.15 Houston received an LL.B. and S.J.D. from Harvard. He was awarded a Sheldon Traveling Fellowship which he used to study law for an additional year in Spain at the University of Madrid.
In 1924, Houston joined the faculty of Howard's Law School and was appointed to serve as Dean in 1929. During his tenure at Howard, Houston transformed the law school from an unaccredited part-time program to a fully accredited institution.16 In addition to raising standards and improving the program of instruction at Howard, Houston served as the mentor for a generation of Black lawyers who devoted their careers to the Civil Rights cause. Houston believed that the inequities of the American system of racial segregation, which were sanctioned by Supreme Court decisions like Plessy v. Ferguson, could be successfully challenged through innovative litigation.
The Margold report was a compelling document but Houston disagreed with the direct attack strategy. He did not want to risk, in the mid-1930s, a reaffirmation of Plessy. Houston believed that the NAACP should adopt a more gradual approach, beginning in an area where the separate but equal fiction was most vulnerable and least likely to generate massive opposition when challenged. Houston calculated that the inequalities of the segregated school system were most obvious at the graduate and professional school level. With the exception of Howard University in Washington D.C. and Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, there were no graduate or professional schools in any of the Black colleges in the South.
In Houston's view, if civil actions were filed challenging the southern states' failure to provide graduate educational opportunities for Black students, the states would be required to bear the enormous expense of building and operating separate schools for Black students, or to admit them to white schools. Because of the small number of studentss who would be involved, Houston believed that the opposition would not be as severe at the graduate level as it might be at other levels. If the graduate schools could be desegregated, the NAACP could later direct its attention to colleges and thereafter to secondary and grade schools. This "equalization" strategy was the course which the NAACP elected to pursue under Houston's leadership. 17
After Houston accepted the position of Special Counsel to the NAACP in 1935, a network of Black attorneys evolved which spread itself across the nation. The network combined Howard University Law School, the NAACP's Legal Committees, and the National Bar Association. By the late 1930s, these organizations had become a far-flung network of interconnected Civil Rights organizations which played the pivotal role in Civil Rights litigation. A Missouri case, Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, was one of the first of several important Supreme Court victories in the equalization cases which eventually led to the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education.