Copyright's Civil Rights Movement

By Dames, K. Matthew | Information Today, February 2013 | Go to article overview
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Copyright's Civil Rights Movement


Dames, K. Matthew, Information Today


When people tell the story of America's civil rights movement, you're likely to hear more than a few names. Nearly always, Martin Luther King Jr. is the first name you'll hear. Rosa Parks is another; James Meredith's name will likely come up as will Emmett Till's. And typically, people will mention Thurgood Marshall, citing his efforts through jurisprudence to win the equality that American society historically denied people of African descent.

But it is rare that the standard civil rights narrative will mention the name of Charles Hamilton Houston. A native of Washington, D.C., and an alumnus of Amherst College and Harvard Law School, Houston was the chief architect of the strategy to end state-sanctioned segregation in the U.S. Houston's method was to file lawsuits that questioned whether such segregation (de jure segregation) was constitutional. Dubbed "the man who killed Jim Crow," Houston used his skills as a litigator and his strengths as an educator to challenge the U.S. Supreme Court's 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that the concept of state-provided "separate but equal" services was constitutional under the Equal Protection Clause.

To understand the audacity of Houston's plan and the brilliance of its execution, consider the environment in which Hamilton and his disciples were operating. First, Houston, a former dean at Howard University School of Law, had to find and train a group of adherents who could successfully challenge the sacred legal notion of stare decisis, a legal principle by which judges are obliged to respect the precedent established by prior decisions. And make no mistake about it: Legally approved segregation was once this nation's standard.

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The Law of the Land

By the time Houston began using his Howard law disciples as what author George Metcalf once called "a West Point of Negro leadership," not only had the Supreme Court codified the "separate but equal" premise as the law of the land, but it tacitly had reverted to its infamous holding in Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), in which the court held that people of African descent were not U.S. citizens entitled to the protections of the Constitution. In so ruling, this nation's highest court helped reinforce Black Codes laws that many Southern states passed after the Civil War in order to control the labor, activities, and migration of slaves whom then-President Abraham Lincoln had freed in the Emancipation Proclamation.

Essentially, the legal and social precedents that Houston faced in the early 20th century ruled that African-Americans had little to no citizenship or civil rights, and if they did, those rights were not worth respecting. These case and statutory precedents, when taken together, created a paradigm of white superiority and, coincidentally, black inferiority that many Americans accepted as true and beyond challenge. As Julian R. Dugas, a Houston protege, said in the documentary film With All Deliberate Speed, the main issue was about fighting for a way of life--free labor or indentured servitude, perceived racial and ethnic superiority--that many, especially in the South, believed in and had come to expect. Therefore, in order for Houston to challenge segregation legally, he had to challenge stare decisis, which represented a cornerstone of his legal training.

The attitudes that supported the social and legal systemization of segregation and superiority had developed over centuries. Even though Houston and his trainees were phenomenally successful in reversing the legal part of this paradigm, principally through the Supreme Court's unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), his group eventually learned that the law was only one important piece of creating the paradigm shift necessary for nonwhites to reach true equality. Houston and his students soon learned that other actions, including the social engineering that influenced national behavior and attitudes on a broad scale, were also necessary.

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