Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights

Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights

Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights

Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights


"A classic.... [It] will make an extraordinary contribution to the improvement of race relations and the understanding of race and the American legal process."--Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., from the Foreword

Charles Hamilton Houston (1895-1950) left an indelible mark on American law and society. A brilliant lawyer and educator, he laid much of the legal foundation for the landmark civil rights decisions of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the lawyers who won the greatest advances for civil rights in the courts, Justice Thurgood Marshall among them, were trained by Houston in his capacity as dean of the Howard University Law School. Politically Houston realized that blacks needed to develop their racial identity and also to recognize the class dimension inherent in their struggle for full civil rights as Americans.

Genna Rae McNeil is thorough and passionate in her treatment of Houston, evoking a rich family tradition as well as the courage, genius, and tenacity of a man largely responsible for the acts of "simple justice" that changed the course of American life.


There has always been, and probably always will be, an “explicit… conflict between the obligations of law and of conscience—between the commands of law and the claims of justice.” I am grateful for Dr. Genna Rae McNeil’s superb book, which traces the journey of a heroic lawyer who tried so valiantly to make the American legal process a system that synthesized concepts of moral conscience and justice for blacks within the commands and obligations of law.

Fifteen years after Charles Houston’s lamentable and premature death, Martin Luther King, when speaking to the Bar Association of the city of New York, said:

You should be aware, as indeed I am, that the road to freedom is now a
highway because lawyers throughout the land, yesterday and today,
have helped clear the obstructions, have helped eliminate roadblocks, by
their selfless, courageous espousal of difficult and unpopular causes.

The road to freedom that Martin Luther King described as a highway in 1965 was in the early twentieth century not even a discernible path in the jungle of racism tolerated by the American legal process. Among the builders of the early road to freedom, which Martin Luther King significantly extended, no one person played as significant a role as did Charles Hamilton Houston. The primary architects and engineers in building this highway also included William Henry Hastie, Thurgood Marshall, James Nabrit, and at most two or three others. Yet each of these illustrious lawyers would have agreed that Charles Hamilton Houston was the chief engineer and the first major architect on the twentieth-century civil rights legal scene.

Some readers may rebel when I describe our America of fifty or one hundred years ago as a jungle of racism. There is no better way to test this hypothesis, at any time, than by examining the policies of the . . .

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