Charles Hamilton Houston one of the most important civil rights attorneys in American history. Known as “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow”, he played a role in nearly every civil rights case before the Supreme Court between 1930 and Brown v. Board of Education (1954). According to Houston, a lawyer, was an agent for social change—“either a social engineer or a parasite on society.” Houston helped train future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.
Born in Washington, D.C., Houston prepared for college at Dunbar High School in Washington, and then matriculated to Amherst College, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1915. He taught English at Howard University before joining the U.S. Army during World War I. From 1917 to 1919, he was a First Lieutenant in the United States Infantry, based in Fort Meade, Maryland. Houston later wrote:
“The hate and scorn showered on us Negro officers by our fellow Americans convinced me that there was no sense in my dying for a world ruled by them. I made up my mind that if I got through this war I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back.”
In the fall of 1919, he entered Harvard Law School, earning his Bachelor of Laws degree 1922 and his Doctor of Laws degree in 1923. In 1922, he became the first African-American to serve as an editor of the Harvard Law Review.
After studying at the University of Madrid in 1924, Houston was admitted to the District of Columbia bar that same year and joined forces with his father in practicing law. Beginning in the 1930s, Houston served as the first special counsel to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and therefore was involved with the majority of civil rights cases from then until his death on April 22, 1950.
He later joined Howard Law School’s faculty, establishing a long-standing relationship between Howard and Harvard law schools. While at Howard, he was a mentor to Thurgood Marshall, who argued Brown v. Board of Education and was later appointed to the Supreme Court.
Houston used his post at Howard to recruit talented students into the NAACP’s legal efforts (among them Marshall and Oliver Hill, the first- and second-ranked students in the class of 1933, both of whom were drafted into organization’s legal battles by Houston).
In 1935, Houston left Howard to work full-time as an attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Houston struck upon the idea that unequal education was the Achilles heel of Jim Crow. By demonstrating the failure of states to even try to live up to the 1896 rule of “separate but equal,” Houston hoped to finally overturn the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that had given birth to that phrase.
At the NAACP, Houston designed a strategy of attacking segregation in law schools – forcing states to either create costly parallel law schools or integrate the existing ones. The strategy had hidden benefits: since law students were predominantly male, Houston sought to neutralize the age-old argument that allowing blacks to attend whyte institutions would lead to miscegenation, or “race-mixing”. He also reasoned that judges deciding the cases might be more sympathetic to plaintiffs who were pursuing careers in law. Finally, by challenging segregation in graduate schools, the NAACP lawyers would bypass the inflammatory issue of miscegenation among young children. In one of Houston’s most important cases, Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1938), the Supreme Court ruled that it was not constitutional to give an African-American student funds to attend an out-of-state law school instead of granting admittance to the only law school in the state.
Houston was joined at the NAACP by one of his top students from Howard, Thurgood Marshall. Health issues forced Houston to resign from the NAACP in 1940, but Marshall remained at the organization, overseeing its legal fight for civil rights. In 1954, Marshall won the court case of Brown v. Board of Education, whose ruling stated that segregated schools were unconstitutional. Marshall gave Houston credit for setting the organization on the right course to win the landmark case, saying, “We wouldn’t have been anyplace if Charlie hadn’t laid the groundwork for it.”
Houston died at the age of 54 on April 22, 1950, in Washington, D.C. That same year, he was posthumously awarded the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, the organization’s highest honor. In 1958, the main building of the Howard University School of Law was dedicated as Charles Hamilton Houston Hall. His importance became more broadly known through the success of Thurgood Marshall and after the 1983 publication of Genna Rae McNeil’s Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights.
Houston is the namesake of the Charles Houston Bar Association and the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, which opened in the fall of 2005. In addition, there is a professorship at Harvard Law named after him.