is no easy road ahead. The fight for equal rights enlists the time,
the best efforts and the money of every Negro, and all the Negro's
maybe the next generation will be able to take time out
to rest, but we have too far to go and too much work to do. Shout
if you want, but don't shout too soon.”
Charles Hamilton Houston,
Shout Too Soon”.
The Crisis Magazine, March 1936
The turn of the new century saw a surge in immigrant
passage to America. Many would encounter cruel prejudice and open
hostility. Sickness, poverty and hardship would become a routine
part of life. Some would not survive; others would simply give up
and leave. For African Americans whose families had been here for
generations, life in the agrarian south was little better.
Disproportionate poverty, and a system that was fiercely
separate and anything but equal, relegated the majority of southern
Black Americans to the rank of second-class citizen. Despairing
of ever realizing the promise of true freedom, millions would eventually
join in a Great Migration to the north. Here there would be jobs
and opportunity for education and achievement, but they would go
head-to-head with a largely white immigrant population, also willing
to work for survival wages.
this time, educated Black leadership in the North was taking a stand.
Mary Church Terrell and Ida Wells-Barnet had merged interests to
form the National Association of Colored Women. W.E.B. DuBois, William
Monroe Trotter and others collaborated to create The Niagra Movement.
Though short lived, it laid the foundation for the formation of
the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in
despite these efforts, there was little relief from the government.
President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), a Southerner by birth, would
do little to advance the cause of the Negro. He declined for years
to speak out against the murderous practice of lynching. When confronted
by prominent Black citizens who protested his segregationist policies,
the President maintained that being separated from the mainstream
white society actually benefited Blacks. While denied the equal
protection of the law, this population was nonetheless expected
to uphold eve the hardiest duties of citizenship.
Americans had served their country with distinction since the American
Revolution. By the end of the First World War, nearly 200,000 Black
American soldiers had served in Europe. Among them was an elite
corps of ‘Colored Officers’ that included a young professor
from Howard University named Charles
Hamilton Houston. Houston and his colleagues had formed the
Central Committee of Negro College Men to press the War Department
for an officer's training camp so that they might with honor lead
Black troops whowere drafted to serve. Houston had done just that.
When the War ended, Charles Houston was honorably discharged from
the Army. In 1919, He traveled home to Washington bitter from the
prejudice he encountered upon his return to the US. Houston entered
Harvard Law School and within a few short years would return to
Washington and transform Howard University Law School as Dean. Later,
he would lay the groundwork for the strategy that would bring to
an end the practice of legal segregation in American public education.
roaring 20's saw a burgeoning of interest in African American culture.
New York's Harlem routinely drew the elite from both Black and white
society, eager to consume the music, dance and intellectual offerings
created by America's celebrated Black artists-the “talented
tenth” as DuBois called them.
During this period of African American Renaissance,
researcher and Columbia University professor, Franz Boaz, called
the "Father of American Anthropology", was pioneering
anti-racist studies.As the decade roared on, African Americans remained
under the stranglehold of Jim Crow law. Worse, there were those
who still maintained that Blacks were naturally fit to live secondhand
lives. This of course included school life.
African American students in the southern and border
states were left to attend separate and decidedly unequal "Colored
Schools". Like white schools located in poor, rural areas,
these classrooms were chronically under funded, understaffed and
lacking in all but the most basic amenities. This phenomenon had
not gone unnoticed by all of white America, including industrialist
philanthropists Julius Rosenwald, John D. Rockefeller and Pierre
S. Dupont of Delaware.
and concerned by the condition of Delaware's "Negro Schools",
Dupont had poured personal funds, amounting to nearly one million
dollars, into both rehabilitation and new construction of schools
for African Americans throughout the state. This noble effort resulted
in the greater equalization of educational facilities there, but
Black Delawareans would remain separate and barred from attending
"white schools" until a landmark ruling in the state's
Chancery Court admitted them into two white schools in 1952.
the 1920s and early 30s, the NAACP received $100,000 from a young
Harvard undergraduate named Charles Garland, who had dedicated much
of his inheritance to the struggle for Civil Rights. Charles Houston
recommended they retain the services of his fellow Harvard graduate,
Nathan Margold, to devise
a strategy to attack segregation in schools. Margold produced a
lengthy report recommending
that the funds be used to directly challenge the constitutionality
of the Plessy v. Ferguson decision. In the years to come, Houston
would work toward the lofty goal of reversing Plessy from the ground
up. He was, however, aware that he must first challenge states to
make their separate facilities truly equal, because the cost to
do so would likely necessitate desegregation, and also because the
nation was not yet ready to denounce the decision that had kept
blacks and whites legally divided for so long.
The idea of successfully seeking in the
Courts the justice that had for so long eluded African Americans
affirmed Charles Houston's belief in the lawyer as "social
engineer". He was already succeeding in transforming Howard
University Law School into a first class institution. Accepting
nothing less than excellence, he would graduate a corps of talented
young lawyers, including Thurgood
Marshall, who would take up the mantle.
this time Plessy had become nothing less than a sacred cow. Sidestepping
the issue of equal protection as it pertained to public education,
in Gong Lum v. (versus) Rice, the Court in 1927 unanimously refused
to admit a Chinese child, considered ‘colored’, to a
white school in Mississippi. Yet where the pressure is greatest
and the social antagonisms most acute,' wrote Houston, `the services
of the Negro lawyer as social engineer are needed.
Because of the Court's refusal to consider overturning
Plessy, Houston and the NAACP would initiate a strategy designed
to compel the Court to enforce the ‘equal’ part of ‘separate
but equal’, including pay for qualified Negro teachers, transportation
at public expense, buildings and equipment, and per capita expenditure.
In 1935, they targeted public institutions of higher learning, specifically
law and graduate schools, in the southern and border states.
The first case was filed against the University of
Maryland on behalf of Donald Gaines Murray who sought acceptance
to the Law School there. The young attorney Thurgood Marshall recommended
the case and helped to prepare a flawless argument. Murray prevailed
and was later affirmed by the Maryland Court of Appeals. Houston
was cautiously optimistic and authored an article in the NAACP's
Crisis magazine entitled, ‘Don't Shout Too Soon.’ ‘Law
suits mean little unless supported by public opinion,’ he wrote,
‘The truth is there are millions of white people who have no real
knowledge of the Negro's problems and who never give the Negro a
We must remain on the alert and push the struggle
farther with all our might.’ Marshall agreed.
most of the world's academic circles, long held racist theories
were now being challenged. Ralph Bunche completed his Ph.D. in government
and international relations at Harvard and helped to organize a
conference at Howard University. The Conference assessed the role
of the New Deal on the economic crisis facing Negroes in America.
The sweeping Federal program had thus far brought mixed blessings
to the African American community. While many Blacks found work
in WPA projects, segregation was more deeply rooted than ever, particularly
in the South. In 1936 Bunche helped A. Philip Randolph and others
to form the National Negro Congress, a coalition black organizations
opposing racial discrimination.
Franklin Roosevelt, working to sell Congress
his plan to free the nation from economic depression, was loath
to antagonize powerful Southerners whose support was critical. Once
again, America had more on its mind than securing educational equality
for its Black citizens, but the NAACP and Houston were evolving
|In 1935, Lloyd
Gaines graduated from a state supported black college in Missouri
andapplied to Missouri University Law School. Refused on the
grounds of race, the University offered to set up a separate
Law School or even pay his excess tuition if hewould study elsewhere,
out of state. Gaines declined.
In 1938, after an expensive
and frustrating battle, the Supreme Court decided in his favor,
instructing the University that it would have to offer Gaines
facilities that were truly equal to facilities available to
whites.The victory was sweet but short lived when the
University circumvented the order. In 1939, Lloyd Gaines simply
disappeared, leaving the NAACP without a plaintiff. Some feel
that Gaines was murdered, given the history of tension and
violence between the races in Missouri (a lynching the decade
before had resulted in accusations that some U. Missouri students
had been involved in the killing). Others think Gaines was
convinced (financially or by threat) to disappear and deprive
the NAACP of its opportunity to break the color line on the
University of Missouri campus. No one really knows what happened
to Lloyd Gaines.
Shortly afterwards, the NAACP set up an offshoot
of the parent organization to spearhead a legal attack on
segregation. Thurgood Marshall was promoted to head the new
NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Incorporated, eventually
known simply as ‘The Fund.’ In this capacity, he would
travel around the country until the early 1950's promoting
its mission and earning the title, ‘Mr. Civil Rights.’
By this time, graduate students
Kenneth and Mamie Clark began to publish findings on what
would become the life's work of the eminent African American
psychologists: studying the effects of race on the self-identity
of Black children. Their work would also become a cornerstone
of the Brown v Board argument.
As the U.S. was drawn into the Second
World War, it was not lost on African Americans that they
did not yet enjoy the rights for which they would again be
fighting and dying. Black
service units were routinely segregated. On the home front,
combating racism in labor practices, including defense plants,
became a focus of the NAACP. Prominent African Americans led
by A. Philip Randolph lobbied President Roosevelt to end the
violence and discrimination that was plaguing Black workers
in the Defense Industries and threatened the march on Washington
in protest against this discrimination. Roosevelt, in an attempt
to avoid this embarrassment, issued Executive Order 8802 in
July of 1941, prohibiting discrimination in the Defense Industry.
It was the first Presidential directive on race since the
post-Civil War period of Reconstruction.
During the war, Kenneth Clark worked on a Carnegie
Corporation study of the American Negro headed by Swedish
Economist Gunnar Myrdal. Clark also consulted for the Office
of War Information concerning Negro morale and taught at the
City College of New York, while his wife Mamie earned her
Ph.D. at Columbia University.
In 1944, Myrdal published the results
of an exhaustive study on the plight of the Negro in America.
"An American Dilemma" was a voluminous, pioneering
work in sociology and cultural anthropology that systematically
documented the bedrock of institutional racism under which
African Americans still lived. Myrdal suggested that the NAACP
could indeed mount a successful legal campaign to end school
segregation. He offered that it was to the advantage of American
Negroes, as individuals and as a group, to become assimilated
into American society, and to acquire the traits held in esteem
by the dominant culture. Education was the path to achieving
On April 12, 1945, a few weeks after
being sworn in as the President of The United States for
an unprecedented fourth term, Franklin Roosevelt was stricken
with a cerebral hemorrhage and died. On December 5, 1946,
his successor, President Harry Truman, created The President's
Committee on Civil Rights, established by Executive Order
to strengthen and safeguard the rights of the American people.
Government policy, announced in the same order, affirmed
that civil rights were guaranteed by the Constitution and
essential to domestic tranquility, national security, the
general welfare, and the continued existence of our free
institutions. The final report of the committee was published
in 1947 as a one-hundred-and-seventy-eight page document
entitled To Secure These Rights. Hard at work, Marshall
and the Fund were arguing education cases at the graduate
school level to do just that.
April of 1947, the Oklahoma Supreme Court upheld the refusal of
a lower court to admit Miss Ada Sipuel to the University of Oklahoma
Law School. In January of 1948, Marshall argued Sipuel v. the Oklahoma
State Board of Regents before the United States Supreme Court, winning
a unanimous decision. The University had to admit Miss Sipuel OR
provide her with an equal experience. But despite the legal victory
and supportive campus protests by whites who sided with her cause,
the University got away with providing Miss Sipuel with several
instructors and a roped off room in the State Capital. For now,
Plessy would stand, and Marshall and his team would turn up the
fight: only truly equal would suffice, and only for the time being.
July 26, 1948, President Truman issued an executive order abolishing
segregation in the armed forces and ordering full integration of
all the services. Executive Order 9981 stated that, "there
shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in
the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national
origin." The order also established an advisory committee to
recommend ways to make desegregation a reality. There was significant
opposition to the mandate from the military and on the whole, white
southerners stiffened their resistance, fearing that any co-mingling
simply raised Black aspirations even further.
That same year, South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond
challenged Truman's bid for a second presidential term, creating
the States Rights' Democratic Party. The ‘Dixiecrats’
managed to win Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Thurmond's home
state of South Carolina, energizing racist hate groups and conservatives
everywhere (not all anti-integrationists were southerners, after
As the 1950s approached, Marshall had assembled a
first class team of dedicated legal practitioners that included
men like James Nabrit, Spottswood Robinson, III and Oliver Hill.
The team that would eventually argue Brown would include Robert
Carter, Louis Redding, George Hayes, and the only white member of
the group, Jack Greenberg. They continued to battle in pioneering
court cases throughout the years that followed the war.
In 1946, Heman Sweatt, a mailman from Houston, had
been rejected in his bid for admission to the Law School at the
University of Texas. In a mock attempt at providing ‘equal’ facilities,
the state created a poorly equipped ‘law school’ for Black applicants
in a basement near the campus. Sweatt fought back, even in the face
of amicus (friend of the court) briefs filed by eleven southern
and border states.
1950, Marshall argued and won Sweatt's case before a packed Supreme
Court Chamber. The Court unanimously held that it could not find
‘substantial equality in the educational facilities offered
white and Negro law students’ by the state of Texas. Harassed
and threatened by whites, Heman Sweatt became ill and eventually
Deciding in another case that same day, the Court upheld the right
of Doctoral student George
McLaurin to pursue his degree at the all-white University of
Oklahoma. A sixty-eight year old school teacher when he first applied,
McLaurin had been grudgingly admitted in a humiliating arrangement
that enabled him to audit classes from a segregated alcove. The
Court ruled that the arrangement `impaired and inhibited' McLaurin's
ability to learn his profession.
Defense Fund team members Jack Greenberg and Louis Redding were
also in court in 1950. The Chancery Court of Delaware functioned
as an equity court and had primary jurisdiction over a wide range
of disputes affecting plaintiffs from multi-million dollar corporations
to individuals seeking custody, guardianship, pardons and even civil
rights. In 1950, the case of Parker v. (versus) the University of
Delaware was heard by thirty-five year old Vice Chancellor, Collins
Patient and courageous, Seitz was a superb arbiter
who carefully listened to the arguments, then personally inspected
the white and colored colleges provided by the state. Seitz found
facilities at the Delaware State College for Negroes grossly inferior'
and ordered Mr. Parker and the other Negro plaintiffs admitted to
the white university.
"How can we say we deeply revere the principles of our Declaration
and our Constitution," Seitz asked in a commencement speech,
"and yet refuse to recognize those principles when they are
to be applied to the American Negro in a down-to-earth fashion?"
Within two years, Seitz, who was now the Chancellor,
would order Delaware public schools to admit Negro students Shirley
Bulah and Ethel Belton in the lone case brought by the Fund to receive
relief at the state level.
and the LDF were now at a crossroad. Even if successful, continuing
to force the mandate of equality on a case by case basis would take
years, not to mention copious amounts of funding. The nation was
at war in Korea and President Truman, who would soon seek re-election,
was already fending off a growing anti-communist frenzy spearheaded
by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Once again, desegregating public education
was not the foremost issue on the minds of most white Americans.
It was time for the Fund to change its strategy. At great personal
risk, southern black constituents, would now stand with the Fund
in a direct attack on Plessy and segregation itself.
Writing in "An American Dilemma", Gunnar Myrdal reported
that when "slavery disappeared, caste remained." "Within
this framework of adverse tradition," he continued, "the
average Negro in every generation had had a most disadvantageous
start." Myrdal went on to detail a pathological system of inequity
and abuse that resulted in the abandonment of hope and self-esteem-that
was particularly pernicious for young Black people.
Social scientists Kenneth and Mamie Clark continued
working to pinpoint the nature and development of the damage caused
by racism. Using investigative techniques shared by researchers
Marion Radke and Helen Trager, the Clarks conducted "doll tests"
in which children of both races were presented with dolls cast from
the same mold in every respect except that one was brown and the
other white. A series of questions were then posed to each child:
Show me the doll that looks like a white child. Show me the doll
that looks like a colored child. Show me the doll you like best?
would look nice in clothes?
that is likely to act bad?
is a nice color?
that you like best?
that looks like you?
The results were appallingly clear. The majority of children of
both races attributed positive aspects to, and preferred, the white
dolls. Researchers concurred that intervention would need to occur
before despair and self-loathing generated by prejudice and racism
took their toll.
As Marshall and the Fund developed a strategy for
directly assaulting segregation, Jim Crow maintained a stranglehold
on Black America, particularly in the south: health care, sports,
leisure facilities, public accommodations, prisons and the majority
of schools remained segregated by law. Overturning Plessy would
be nothing less than a Herculean task, requiring additional consultation.
After learning about the Clarks and their work, Robert
Carter believed he had found exactly what was needed to push the
argument against segregation over the top. Marshall was skeptical
but allowed Carter to proceed. Other team members took a wait-and-see
attitude. The challenge would be to isolate the damage specifically
caused by segregation in schools.
Kenneth Clark was first enlisted to testify in the
Briggs v. Elliott case in South Carolina. The introduction of the
social-psychological argument provided a new and compelling perspective
for judging the constitutionality of school segregation.
By this time, the Legal Defense Fund was overwhelmed
with litigation. Marshall himself would no longer be able to spearhead
each case. Moreover, he and the team determined that the best strategy
for dismantling school segregation, once and for all, would be to
present a single argument to the Supreme Court in an alignment of
suits that would become known as Brown v. Board of Education of