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A Reader Wrties by Brian McNeece: Charles Hamilton Houston: An unsung hero

February 25, 2002

Have you celebrated Charles Hamilton Houston day recently?

You haven't. Look up Houston in your encyclopedia. He's not there. He should be. Houston was perhaps the prime figure of the civil rights movement in the first half of the 20th century. As Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Houston's protégé) remarked, "Charlie Houston was the engineer behind the whole thing. A lot of people are going to know who he was."

Unfortunately, few people do. In an age when many of our heroes are athletes, actors and singers, Charles Hamilton Houston should be one of our

real heroes. He was born in 1895 in Washington, D.C., to a middle-class family. His father was a lawyer in private practice. At age 19 Houston graduated from Amherst College as valedictorian.


He served in Europe in World War I in an all-Negro battalion. Discouraged by the poor treatment he received from his white comrades, he vowed that if he survived the war, he would attend law school and work for justice.

He graduated from Harvard Law School in the top 5 percent of his class and became the first black to be the editor of the Harvard Review. Subsequently, he became dean at Howard University, where he assembled a team of bright young black lawyers to wage war on discrimination in the U.S.

Despite the words of our Declaration of Independence "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," and despite the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law, blacks suffered discrimination on the basis of other legal rulings. Most notably, Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896 ruled the railroad could force black people to sit in

separate cars on the grounds that the accommodations were "separate but equal." (Homer Plessy, who attempted to sit in the whites-only car, was 1/8th black.)

This ruling provided the rationale that blacks must use separate bathrooms, separate drinking fountains, separate areas of a movie theater, even separate schools.

Believing that education was the ideal arena to start his battle, Houston picked up a movie camera and went to the South to document the differences between black and white schools. He pored through state records to add charts and graphs to his movie, documenting that some southern states spent as little as 1/10th on black schools as they spent on white. Black teachers earned half their white counterparts' wages for the same work.

Houston won his case before the Supreme Court to legally assert black teachers' claim to equal wages. Houston won a case against the state of Missouri to gain the admission of a black man into the state's only law school. The state had argued that a black man could find a separate but equal law education by attending a school in another state.

Houston took his fight outside the field of education. He won a case against the railroads. Because locomotives had recently become diesel-driven instead of coal-powered, the job of fireman was transformed from the most-difficult job on the train to one of the easiest. Now the white railroad workers wanted to displace the blacks, who had been consigned to the worst work. But Houston's team again prevailed.

His team took on a case concerning the exclusion of negroes from juries, another on the differential treatment of African-Americans in contracts.

In case after case, Houston whittled away at the foundation of Plessy vs. Ferguson's principle of separate but equal. Charlie Houston earned admiration among his protégés as a man who would work long into the night for weeks at a time, meticulously reading through case after case, using the legal system masterfully to his long-term goals.

But work took its toll. Because of poor health, Houston took a back seat to younger lawyers such Thurgood Marshall in his 25-year plan to end the rule of "separate but equal." Houston died of a heart attack in 1950 at the age of 54, but in 1954 Marshall led a team of lawyers to the U.S. Supreme Court where the final chapter of his plan would be written. In the case Brown v. Board of Education, the court stated, "The ‘separate but equal' doctrine adopted in Plessy v. Ferguson … has no place in the field of public education."

Houston was a tireless crusader. He had the good luck of being born into a family that could offer him an opportunity, and he had the character and the compassion to pursue it.

Without Houston, the civil rights movement in this country may have been long delayed. He's a model for all Americans, who realize that worthwhile change in this country come from the focused, noble efforts of people with heart. Too bad Charlie Houston went to an early grave because he asked too much from his own heart.

Local educators can share his story with their students by ordering the video "The Road to Brown."

>> BRIAN McNEECE, an El Centro resident, teaches English at Imperial Valley College

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