Brown's Half Century-And Mine
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court's historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Although Thurgood Marshall is deservedly praised for his skillful execution of the campaign to dismantle America's system of racial apartheid, he was not the architect of either the legal or the educational strategy that made this assault possible. That honor, as Marshall reiterated throughout his life, belonged to his teacher and mentor Charles Hamilton Houston.
Born at the turn of the twentieth century, Houston's contribution to the Brown campaign have all but been forgotten by the turn of the twenty first. In a brief but brilliant career as Vice Dean of Howard Law School and the NAACP's first black Special Counsel, Houston laid out the blueprint for the step-by-step assault on legal segregation that ultimately resulted in victory in Brown. Just as important, Houston trained Marshall and a host of other black lawyers to be "social engineers for justice" with the skills and dedication necessary to put this legal strategy into action.
Sadly, Houston died four years before the Supreme Court's unanimous decision in Brown provided the ultimate vindication of his legal strategy for defeating segregation. But by 1950, his educational strategy to create an elite corps of black lawyers with the skill, courage, and dedication to play a leading role in the struggle for black equality was already a resounding success. Together with white supporters in the civil rights community, academia and the government, Marshall and his fellow "social engineers" created a new model for pursuing social justice through law and the nation's first public interest law firm, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, with the skill and commitment to accomplish this goal.
Today, Houston's original social engineers are gradually being replaced by a new generation of black lawyers-my generation. Born in 1956, it is no exaggeration to say that I owe my life to Thurgood Marshall and the world his victory in Brown created. Because of Marshall's historic victory, I have been given the opportunity to live in integrated neighborhoods, attend integrated schools, and pursue opportunities that would have been unthinkable for my parents and grandparents. Like many of my fellow black baby boomers, I chose to pursue a career in law-inspired, in part, by Marshall's towering legacy. Upon graduation, Marshall touched my life directly by giving me the incomparable honor of serving as one of his law clerks on the United States Supreme Court. It remains the greatest year of my life. Four years later, his recommendation was instrumental in persuading Harvard Law School to hire me as an assistant professor. I have taught there ever since.
In 1993, Thurgood Marshall touched my life-and the life of every American who cherishes freedom and equality-for the final time. Together with family, close friends, and a small group of my fellow "knuckleheads" as the Judge always referred to his law clerks, I was given the privilege of attending the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery where this great warrior for justice was laid to rest. When it was my turn to approach the Judge's casket to pay my final respects, I silently said through my tears: "Rest easy brave warrior. You have carried us far longer than we ever had a right to expect. It's our turn now."
And so it is. The task will not be easy. Even defining what we mean is difficult. What is our obligation as black lawyers to fight for social justice for black Americans? Why is it our obligation, as opposed to the obligation of all Americans, or, to put the matter even more tendentiously, white Americans? Moreover, how does an obligation to fight for social justice square with Brown's other primary legacy: that blacks should have the same opportunity as whites to pursue careers according to their interests and talents? How can black lawyers pursue social justice when their own pathways to success continue to be impeded by race?
But proceed we must. As black lawyers, we are in a very real sense, the lineal descendants of Houston and Marshall. We owe it to them-and to ourselves-to discover what it means to be social engineers for justice in our own time.#
David B. Wilkins is the Kirkland and Ellis Professor of Law and Director, Program on the Legal Profession. He clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall in 1993.