He was a brave man who, in the face of racial prejudice and bigotry, utilized the law to alter the path of American history. Charles Hamilton Houston is remembered for his courtroom prowess, as well as his contributions to the development of policies and regulations that have benefited citizens to this day. Houston, in particular, was a driving force behind the civil rights campaign that resulted in the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education, which mandated that schools be desegregated.
Despite the fact that he did not aggressively oppose Brown’s choice, Houston established the framework for the strategy. He earned the moniker “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow” for these and other reasons. This is the story of his life.
Houston was born on September 3, 1895, in Washington, DC, to attorney William Houston and hairdresser and seamstress Mary Houston. Houston attended M Street High School in Washington, DC, before enrolling at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he was the only Black student in his class. He enlisted in the US Army two years after graduating in 1915, and trained at the all-black officers’ training camp at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, before being deployed to France.
After serving in the United States Army, he went on to Harvard Law School, where he became the first African American editor of the Harvard Law Review. In 1922, he graduated with honors and moved on to the University of Madrid to study law. After being admitted to the District of Columbia bar, he returned to the United States in 1924 and practiced law with his father.
At the same time, he was teaching in the evening program at Howard University Law School, and eventually became dean of the Howard University Law School, where he trained numerous civil rights lawyers, including Oliver Hill and Thurgood Marshall. The latter went on to become a United States Supreme Court justice after successfully litigating the pivotal Brown case.
Houston brought his Howard University law student Marshall with him when he was recruited as a Special Counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1935, and the two began working together to help eradicate segregation. In the 1930s, they went across the South, publicizing the unjust conditions or inequities of Black educational facilities. According to BlackPast, the two devised a legal strategy to combat school segregation by first requesting equalization of facilities for Black pupils and then pursuing full integration.
“Houston labored valiantly to combat Jim Crow laws that barred Blacks from serving on juries and accessing housing,” the NAACP notes. Houston, on the other hand, came up with the ingenious argument that would make him renowned in the struggle against school segregation. His brilliant legal strategy was to remove school segregation by exposing the fiction that Black students’ facilities were ‘separate but equal.’”
Houston argued in a 1938 Supreme Court decision over a Black man’s admittance to the University of Missouri that the state’s refusal to admit Blacks was unconstitutional since there was no “separate but equal” facilities. According to the NAACP, during that time period, Southern governments spent less than half of what was set aside for white kids on education for black students. Houston’s goal was to make it prohibitively expensive for facilities to remain independent. At the end of the day, his plan was successful. The Supreme Court determined that if there was only one school, Black children might be admitted to it, paving the stage for desegregation.
Unfortunately, he died four years before the Supreme Court pronounced segregation illegal in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The Supreme Court heard the Brown v. Board of Education case on behalf of 13 Black families whose children were refused entry to schools because of their skin color. In 1950, the NAACP invited the families to apply for school admissions knowing they would be denied, and this served as the impetus for filing the famous lawsuit.
According to Biography, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, “disavowing the premise of’separate but equal,’ and concluding that segregated facilities deprived African-American children of a richer, fairer educational experience.”
Houston died of a heart attack in 1950, therefore he did not survive to see the decision he had battled for during his lifetime. His drive to make a difference in a world of racial prejudice, on the other hand, was admired. He became recognized as the “Man Who Killed Jim Crow” as a result of his civil rights activism, as he was engaged in nearly all of the lawsuits between 1930 and 1950. Houston became well-known for challenging the Supreme Court in Steele v. Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company (1944) 323 U.S. 192 [65 S.Ct. 226] when African Americans were barred from labor unions. Houston persuaded the court to decide that unions had a “obligation of fair representation” to all workers, even if those people were not members of the union.
Houston was inspired to pursue law and utilize his time “fighting for men who could not strike back” while serving in the racially segregated United States Army.
“The hatred and derision directed at us Negro officers by our fellow Americans convinced me that dying for a world dominated by them was pointless,” he remarked. “I resolved that if I survived this battle, I would study law and devote my time to fighting for guys who could not defend themselves.”