Executive summary: Super – and everyday – heroes
Vol. 80, No. 1 / Jan.-Feb. 2024
Mischa Buford Epps is executive director of The Missouri Bar.
As a young kid on Saturday mornings, I rarely missed watching the superheroes of the “Super Friends” cartoon solve problems and vanquish villains from their Hall of Justice headquarters. They stood up for others and nurtured hope, spurring on viewers to build a better world.
As I got older and expanded my worldview, I learned about several real-life heroes who were pioneers in the legal profession – Thurgood Marshall, William Henry Hastie, and Constance Baker Motley to name a few. These legal pioneers’ work and sacriﬁce ﬁghting for civil rights opened doors of opportunity and helped bring about historic change to make our profession more inclusive and more representative of our population as a whole – and their commitment to the law provides a lesson we can all use to help us better serve our clients and communities.
Heroes serve as symbols, demonstrating qualities we would like to possess and the ambitions we would like to satisfy. They inspire us by exemplifying values and overcoming challenges. Yet, it’s important to remember that heroes are human, just like us. As lawyers, we can nourish our own inner hero – and the inner heroes of those around us – by aiming to live up to our ideals and making an effort to tell the stories of those we look up to.
As I reﬂect on Black History Month, I am reminded of a hero of mine, Charles Hamilton Houston. The ﬁrst special counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Houston was the primary architect of the legal strategy aimed at toppling segregation, earning him the moniker “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow.”
After serving in the segregated U.S. Army during World War I, Houston returned to the U.S. in 1919 and entered Harvard Law School, where he became the ﬁrst Black student elected to the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review. After graduating and completing a fellowship at the University of Madrid, he was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar and joined forces with his father to practice law.1
Houston joined the law faculty at Howard University School of Law in 1924, eventually becoming vice-dean. He transformed Howard’s curriculum, leading to accreditation by the American Bar Association in 1930. Houston’s vision for Howard Law School was to train a generation of Black lawyers who would lead the ﬁght against racial oppression, exclusion, and discrimination.2
In 1935, he joined the NAACP on a full-time basis and led the organization’s litigation strategy to overturn the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” doctrine. Houston was the visionary in the development of the NAACP’s long range, carefully coordinated litigation campaign that challenged the laws that enforced segregation. He played a pivotal role in nearly every U.S. Supreme Court civil rights case in the two decades before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.3
Notably, he assisted 1935 Lincoln University graduate Lloyd Gaines in his quest for admission into the University of Missouri School of Law, at the time, an all-white university and the state’s only public law school. In Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada,4 Houston argued that though the state had offered to pay Gaines’ tuition to attend a law school out of state, Missouri had a duty to provide him a qualiﬁed “equal” legal education within the state and there was no “separate but equal” facility within Missouri. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed.
Houston died in 1950 before the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, but his legacy lives on through his famous arguments and the generations of lawyers whose lives he has touched, including mine. Aptly stated by one of his most famous students, the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, “[w]e wouldn’t have been any place if Charlie hadn’t laid the groundwork for it.”5
We may never have the legacy that Houston holds, but his story proves that heroes are often ordinary people doing extraordinary things to make a difference in the lives of others. You are heroes when you help your clients overcome overwhelming situations. You are heroes when you provide pro bono services to those in need and share your knowledge educating students on the role of our courts and the importance of the rule of law. You are heroes when you volunteer and work to improve the law and access to our legal system. It never hurts to consider our heroes and ask ourselves whether we are doing all we can to emulate and carry on their efforts. Perhaps what is possible for them, is possible for us.
1 Genna Rae McNeil, Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights 117 (1983); https://legacyofslavery.harvard.edu/alumni/charles-hamilton-houston.
2 McNeil, at 53-54. [136-136]
3 347 U.S. 483 (1954).
4 Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337 (1938).
5 McNeil, at 34 citing “College Honors Charles Houston ’15,” Amherst Magazine, Spring 1978, p. 12, 14.