Road to Brown
A film from / CALIFORNIA NEWSREEL
A Presentation of / UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
NARRATOR: Here, in Chester County, South Carolina, the high school
population is half black and half white.
JEFF BROWN: In a minute or two they're going to come out of these
doors like mad.
NARRATOR: Jeff Brown is the principal. It hardly seems remarkable
today. But only 35 years ago, an integrated school? with a black man
as principal? Not only would it have been unthinkable here, it would
have been against the law. Few of these students realize that once there
were laws which would have kept black and white children out of the
same schools, off the same buses, and not too long ago they couldn't
even legally share the same drinking fountain.
This is Chester County then, during the era of segregation, the era
of Jim Crow. These old scenes were shot by a brilliant but little known
black lawyer, Charles Hamilton Houston. In 1934, Houston crisscrossed
the South documenting inequalities between schools for whites, and schools
for blacks. Charles Hamilton Houston would lead one of the great legal
campaigns of the twentieth century: the struggle to destroy Jim Crow,
a struggle whose crucial victory would come in the landmark 1954 Supreme
Court decision, Brown versus Board of Education. Today, few people know
the name of Charles Hamilton Houston, the man who killed Jim Crow, but
this is his story, and the story of how African-Americans won for themselves
the equal protection of the Constitution. This is the story of the road
ROAD TO BROWN
1. PROLOGUE TO BROWN
NARRATOR: The road to Brown begins in Jamestown, Virginia, just
twelve years after the first permanent English settlement in the new
world. There, in 1619, twenty African slaves were sold into bondage.
It wasn't long before colonial laws were defining black slaves as property,
not people. When the American colonists declared their independence
in 1776, they boldly asserted that: "All men are created equal."
But they didn't include the slaves. The Constitution of the new United
States of American specifically permitted slavery to continue. In 1857,
the Supreme Court reaffirmed the exclusion of African-Americas from
the Constitution. In the Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Tawney wrote
that the framers of the Constitution believed Negroes were (quote) "so
far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to
The Dred Scott decision set the stage for the Civil War, a war fought,
as Abraham Lincoln said, to determine if this nation could endure half
slave and half free.
With the North's victory, slavery was finally abolished by the 13th
Amendment to the Constitution. The 14th Amendment then guaranteed all
citizens equal protection of the laws, and then the 15th Amendment established
the right of black citizens to vote.
But, in 1877, as federal troops were withdrawn from the South, state
legislatures began passing new laws to undo the gains African-Americans
had made under the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. As with Dred Scott,
the Supreme Court would give constitutional sanction to racial discrimination.
It was in 1896, in a case called Plessy versus Ferguson. It was this
sanction which Charles Houston would dedicate his life to overturning.
TITLE: 2. PLESSY AND THE ERA OF JIM CROW
NARRATOR: In 1895, black people in Louisiana decided to test the
constitutionality of the new laws. One segregation law required separate
cars for Negro passengers. Homer Plessy sat down in a car reserved for
whites and was arrested. Because of the 14th Amendment and is equal
protection clause, Plessy never imagined the Supreme Court would rule
against him. But it did. The Court upheld his conviction in a decision
which would shape race relations for half a century. In Plessy versus
Ferguson it ruled:
GRAPHIC: "the 14th Amendment
could not have been intended
to abolish distinctions based upon color
or a commingling of the
races." Plessy v. Ferguson
HON. A. LEON HIGGINBOTHAM: And the tragedy of Plessy is that
having then held that you could discriminate on trains, the doctrine
then was applied to a whole host of other areas: to all public accommodations,
to boxing matches, to education, and, in some instances in the early
years, in housing. And it gave the imprimatur that the law in America
could do to blacks what it couldn't do to Irishmen, or Italians, or
NARRATOR: The Plessy decision introduced a new phrase into the language:
"separate by equal." Twenty-one states would soon pass segregation
laws under the protection of Plessy.
The turn of the century saw the existence of two Americas - one white,
and one "colored." Colored America could not eat in white
restaurants, play in white parks, die in white hospitals, or be buried
in white cemeteries. Oklahoma even segregated phone booths; Mississippi
segregated coke machines. In Atlanta, a Negro witness could not swear
on white bibles. Florida segregated not only the schools, but even the
textbooks in storage.
DREWARY BROWN: If you wanted to ride the bus, then you put your
nickel in the slot and you go into the back of the bus and you sit down
and shut up. And if you came in that bus, as a white person, and you
wanted a seat, then I got up and gave you my seat
We were not
supposed to mix the races. That was the law, the law of the land. So
you had to abide by that law or otherwise you went to jail. It was just
NARRATOR: This was the era of Jim Crow.
SONG: IF YOU'RE BLACK
NARRATOR: The promise of the 14th Amendment, the promise of equality
before the law had been derailed, and in practice many black people
had been removed from the protection of the law altogether. The Jim
Crow era was a time of unprecedented racial violence. Over 2,000 African-Americans
were lynched in the first years of this century.
SONG: STRANGE FRUIT (Billie Holiday)
NARRATOR: This was the divided America in which Charles Hamilton
Houston grew up. He was born in 1895 in Washington, D.C., one year before
the Plessy decision.
TITLE: 3. THE MAN WHO WOULD KILL JIM CROW
MUSIC: APPALACHIAN SPRING
GENNA RAE MCNEIL:
One of the interesting things about Charles Houston is that it was
very clear from the beginning that he had come from a privileged background
- privileged in relationship to the majority of African-Americans living
in the United States. He had come from a family in which his mother
had at one time been a teacher. His father was a lawyer. His father
was the head of his own law firm. Charles had an opportunity to attend
a high school that was designed to prepare black students for college.
NARRATOR: Houston went to Amherst college in Massachusetts, one
of the only black students in the school. He graduated Summa Cum Laude,
at the top of his class in 1915. He left school acutely aware of his
minority status as a black man, but he had no plans for a life of legal
or political activism. That was about to change.
Along with 200,000 other black men, Houston volunteered for duty in
World War I - the war to make the world safe for democracy, but he served
in a segregated army. Although Houston was an officer, that didn't protect
him from Jim Crow. He and the other black officers were given substandard
housing, next to a latrine. They were often restricted to base and harassed
constantly. Overseas in France, Houston even had to face off a lynch
mob of white soldiers. Houston later would write: "The hate and
scorn showered on us Negro officers by our fellow Americans convinced
me there was no sense in my dying for a world ruled by them
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."
Once back in the United States, Houston found Jim Crow more entrenched
than ever. In 1919 there were 78 lynchings, 10 of the victims were still
wearing their army uniforms. In 1922, the Lincoln memorial was dedicated
in Houston's home town, Washington, D.C. The people for whom the civil
war was fought watched the ceremony behind a rope designated "colored."
MCNEIL: Thus Charles Houston began to see even more clearly that
it was the administration of law, the lack of justice, that was a primary
concern for him. So that when he went to law school he fully intended
to begin to study the law with a view towards being able to use the
law to change that situation for his people.
NARRATOR: In 1920, Charles Houston took his first step down the
road to Brown. He entered Harvard Law School. Houston became the first
black editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, and one of his professors,
future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, called him one of the
most brilliant students he'd ever taught.
After graduation, Houston undertook a survey of black lawyers. In the
entire South he found fewer than 100 black lawyers serving nine million
black people. Houston wrote in the Journal of Negro Education: "The
great work of the Negro lawyer in the next generation must be in the
South and the law schools must send their graduates there and stand
squarely behind them as they wage their fight for true equality before
Houston realized that a legal challenge to the Jim Crow laws would require
a cadre of young black lawyers armed with a zeal for social justice.
Houston got the chance to forge this team in 1929: he was appointed
Dean of the Howard University Law School. Houston raised the standards,
improved the faculty, strengthened the curriculum, and got the School
From Maryland came Thurgood Marshall, a tall, gangly youth who would
become the first black Justice on the Supreme Court. From Virginia there
was Oliver Hill, who would become the first black to be elected to the
Richmond City Council. Houston's own cousin, William Hastie, joined
the faculty and would later become the first black federal judge. Charles
Houston was gathering the forces to fight a war, a legal war, against
J. CLAY SMITH: What he did was to use the Law School as a breeding
ground for, for testing issues on the faculty with the students. And
then as Houston began to, to be called upon by lawyers and communities
across the United Sates, then the United States became the classroom,
"A lawyer is either a social engineer or he is a parasite on society."
Charles H. Houston
TITLE: 4. THE STRATEGY UNFOLDS
NARRATOR: Houston was ready now to take on Jim Crow. Only one thing
was missing. Houston needed an organization linked to the black community,
an organization capable of broadening the attack on Jim Crow. That organization
would be the NAACP.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had been
founded in 1909 in a response to the rising tide of racial violence.
Charles Houston was appointed Special Counsel in 1934. It was now almost
forty years since the Plessy "separate but equal" decision
legalized segregation. Most people accepted Jim Crow as a permanent
part of American life. But Houston had spotted a weakness in Jim Crow
Law. In a report to the NAACP national committee, Houston outlined a
long-term strategy for overturning segregation. The battle, he believed,
could be won if fought in the schools. Houston wrote: "Discrimination
in education is symbolic of all the more drastic discriminations which
Negroes suffer in American life
The equal protection clause of
the 14th Amendment furnishes the key to ending separate schools."
Houston proposed a two-stage attack on segregation and the Plessy decision.
Rather than challenge the "separate but equal" principle directly,
Houston would first file precedent cases demanding that black schools
be made absolutely equal to white schools. Only then would he attack
the principle of separateness itself.
MCNEIL: Charles Houston and other black lawyers did understand that
you have to look at the entire system of the United States and particularly
the way in which the judicial system functioned. And it functioned in
relationship to precedent. It functioned in relationship to judicial
restraint. There would not be an immediate decision on the part of a
Supreme Court Justice to overturn precedent, to rule that something
was unconstitutional unless some groundwork had been laid.
HON. JUANITA KIDD STOUT: He devised a strategy. First of all, when
he attacked the "separate but equal" theory his real thought
behind it was that "All right, if you want it separate but equal,
I will make it so expensive for it to be separate that you will have
to abandon your separateness." And so that was the reason he started
demanding equalization of salaries for teachers, equal facilities in
the schools and all of that.
NARRATOR: The week after his appointment as Special Counsel to the
NAACP, Houston picked up a movie camera and headed for the back roads
of South Carolina to document the inequalities between black and white
Within three months of becoming Special Counsel, Houston had made a
film, got a strategy approved, and filed his first case - against the
University of Maryland Law School. Jim Crow was being taken to court.
TITLE: MURRAY V. MARYLAND
NARRATOR: Donald Murray had been denied admission to the University
of Maryland Law School, the only law school in the state, on the basis
of his race. Charles Houston bought suit in municipal court. When the
day came to argue the case, Houston asked the community to dress up
and attend the trial.
JUANITA JACKSON MITCHELL: We crowded that courtroom on that day
in June, I'll never forget it. And, Charles Houston and Thurgood Marshall
started off with their case, and the judge, never even having left the
bench, was so moved by the logic and the simplicity of Charles Houston's
words, and Thurgood Marshall's, that he ordered the University of Maryland
to admit Donald Gaines Murray to the University of Maryland Law School
The judge said
this young man has been denied his constitutional
rights to enter that University of Maryland Law School too long
Your constitutional right is personal, present and immediate.
NARRATOR: Since there were no black schools in Maryland the court
ordered the state university to admit Murray. Houston's legal campaign
had scored its first victory. One week later at the 1935 NAACP convention,
Houston announced the Murray breakthrough, presented his film, and persuaded
skeptical delegates to back his strategy.
TITLE: TEACHER'S SALARY CASES
NARRATOR: Houston's next move was to send out Thurgood Marshall,
Oliver Hill, and the other young attorneys to equalize teachers' salaries.
Teachers had long held the most respected positions in the black community.
Yet their salaries were a fraction of their white counterparts'. Houston
knew their support would be key in mobilizing black communities in the
South for the larger fight against Jim Crow. Modjeska Simpkins taught
school and was NAACP Secretary for many years in South Carolina.
MODJESKA SIMPKINS: I was up at the bank standing in line to get
my check cashed, and there was a white teacher about three in front
of me talking, I mean they were just talking in line. And, in the course
of the conversation I found out that she was teaching sixth grade. When
they counted out the money
counted out the money to her, she was
getting exactly twice as much as I was getting, and both of us were
teaching sixth grade, but her hide was white and my hide was black.
Now, that went, that went on in the South for years and years. Well,
no matter what you were doing the white man's work was just more valuable
than the black man's work no matter what category of labor or profession
it was. So, we went up for equal salaries
STEPHEN WRIGHT: I made the call to Charles Houston
NARRATOR: In Maryland, school principal Stephen Wright was chosen
by his fellow black teachers to ask Charles Houston and the NAACP to
help them equalize their salaries with the white teachers. The next
morning Wright was confronted by the white district superintendent
WRIGHT: And he sat and told me everything that had happened at the
meeting the night before. And then said to me, "Now, Mr. Wright,
you've got to make up your mind, you've got to make up your mind whether
or not you're going to be a good school man, or a good NAACP man."
I said, "Mr. Orrum, I don't see the conflict." He ushered
me out. Of course, he fired me the end of that year
By the end
of the next school year, which was 1939, Houston and Marshall had gotten
enough cases to force the equalization of salaries at the entire Maryland
FLORENCE BRYANT: Right then I decided that I would work for the
NAACP from then on. And of course at present I'm the Life Membership
Chairperson for the local branch, and I just will be an advocate because,
it might seem selfish to say this, but I think that when you touch people's
lives personally it becomes real to you. And of course it became real
NARRATOR: In case after case, southern school districts were forced
to equalize teacher's salaries. Black teachers saw their paychecks double.
Support for the legal attack on Jim Crow grew.
TITLE: GAINES V. MISSOURI
NARRATOR: The next step on the road to Brown would be the Gaines
STOUT: Charles H. Houston brought this case seeking his admission
into to the law school. That is the only time in my life - grade school,
high school, college, or even graduate school, or professional school
- that I ever cut class. But even though I was a teenager I had heard
of Charles H. Houston, and I had a life-long ambition to be a lawyer
myself, and when I heard that Charles H. Houston was coming to Jefferson
City, Missouri, I cut class and went to the Supreme Court of Missouri
that day, and I was thrilled!
HIGGINBOTHAM: Gaines was a citizen of Missouri, and he had to temerity
to believe that since the state had only one law school that he should
be able to attend it. But the Missouri Supreme Court, tragically, in
a unanimous opinion that state court said, that since there were schools
available in Nebraska, and in Illinois, and in Iowa, which would accept
blacks, that Gains would have to go to one of the schools bordering
Missouri, rather than to go into his own native land.
NARRATOR: But now, Houston could appeal the Missouri court's ruling
to the Supreme Court. Unlike the Murray case, a decision here would
apply to all states.
HIGGINBOTHAM: And by a magnificent opinion by Chief Justice Hughes,
they held that that was a violation of the equal protection clause -
that even if a state were going to provide separate education, it couldn't
provide separate education outside of the state.
NARRATOR: With the Gaines victory, the precedents against segregation
were mounting higher and higher. Jim Crow was headed for a showdown
in the U.S. Supreme Court.
SONG: NO MORE JIM CROW
NARRATOR: In 1940, after six years as Special Counsel, Houston left
the NAACP. By now there was a small but growing network of black civil
rights attorneys - almost all trained by Houston and William Hastie
at Howard. Houston's former student and assistant, Thurgood Marshall,
was named his successor. Marshall's NAACP team would continue to challenge
unequal facilities in higher education. Meanwhile, Houston switched
his attention to attacking segregation in transportation, public accommodations,
housing, and labor. These cases provided additional precedents for the
final assault on Plessy.
One of theses cases attacked preferential hiring in the railroad industry.
JOSEPH L. RAUH, JR.: The reason that they have black firemen in
the early days is 'cause that was the lousiest job you could have. You're
stoking coal, and it was an ugly job, and it didn't pay too very much,
but it - all of a sudden you get diesel engine. All a fireman has to
do is pull this lever, pull this lever, and sit, sit and enjoy himself.
Well, you can imagine what the whites, how quickly they went after those
jobs. Well, Charlie Houston was a genius. He won a case called the Steele
case, and where that was declared illegal for the white union to negotiate
to give the jobs that the black firemen had to white firemen just 'cause
they were now easy jobs.
NARRATOR: It seemed as if Charles Houston never rested. He sued
to integrate the armed forces and defense industries after World War
II. He served on President Roosevelt's Fair Employment Practices Commission,
wrote a regular column for the Baltimore Afro-American, he testified
before Congress, led protests, marches, and rallies.
In 1947 Houston wrote: "We may not win today or tomorrow; the mills
of the gods grind slowly. But the storm gathers, and all the pride and
power [of the prejudiced whites] will be swept away, because they have
repudiated the brotherhood of man."
SONG: OH FREEDOM!
GRAPHIC: I Would Give My Life Fighting Day and Night / Charles H.
NARRATOR: Houston was cautioned by his doctor to cut back on his
work. His already weak heart had been aggravated by the stress of his
travels and endless litigation. But although his heart condition steadily
deteriorated Houston worked his normal 14 to 19 hour days.
DR. EDWARD MAZIQUE: He was a workhorse. He dedicated his whole life
to law, to justice, to legal matters, and to people. I can't recall
a single social event, I can't recall one in which Charlie went to.
I can't recall one, not one.
FREDERICK R. MORROW: It was interesting to me to watch this man
work, shirt sleeves, an old eyeshade on, his door open, bent over a
big book reading it very closely and making notes. This was his method,
day in and day out, until he had achieved what he wanted to do
The thing about Houston that impressed me so much was the fact that
he did not realize his own greatness.
NARRATOR: Charles Hamilton Houston died of heart failure on April
22,1950. He was 54 years old.
STOUT: There was just a sense of such a loss. And almost a sense
of how could this have happened to a man who did so much good and whose
life was still needed? And he literally, I mean you talk about someone
who literally gave his life for the cause! Because he had this heart
trouble, heart attack, and the doctors told him that he had to rest.
And he said, "I can't rest." And then he had a favorite saying
he used to say: "I would rather die on my feet than live on my
knees." And he literally died on his feet.
TITLE: 5. FINAL GROUNDWORK
NARRATOR: Just before his death, Houston had sensed the tenor of
the times were changing. In 1947, Jackie Robinson integrated Major League
baseball. The next year President Truman ordered the integration of
the armed forces. The times, Houston felt, were ripe for intensifying
the assault on the Plessy decision. Houston said: "Now the NAACP
is making a direct, open, all-out fight against segregation itself,
on the ground there is no such thing as 'separate but equal,' that the
only reason colored people are segregated is to prevent them from receiving
The NAACP had taken the case of Herman Sweatt - a black mailman who
wanted to study law at the University of Texas.
HIGGINBOTHAM: And what occurred in Sweatt v. Painter was that they
then built a completely separate law school for this one black. And
the issue became whether that was a violation of his equal protection
clause. The United States Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, held
that the admission, the denial of admission to Sweatt was a violation
of his Fourteenth Amendment rights. Because they went on and they said,
"What makes a great law school? It's not merely a building, it's
not merely a teacher. It includes its history, its alumni, its heritage."
HON. CONSTANCE BAKER MOTLEY: It represented a case in which the
Supreme Court for the first time in this century
ordered the admission
of a black to a previously all white institution
a couple of years later in 1948, a young woman wanted to go to the University
of Oklahoma Law School. Her name was Ada Lois Sipuel. And at about the
same time a black man wanted to go to graduate school at the University
of Oklahoma, and his name was Dr. McLaurin.
HIGGINBOTHAM: McLaurin was a distinguished gentleman, probably 60
years or older from Oklahoma. He had taught in a black college, and
he wanted to get his Ph.D. Well, Oklahoma apparently doesn't have as
much money as Texas, and they weren't about to put up a complete, new
school of education for one black to get his Ph.D. So what they did
was that they admitted him, but segregated him and required him to sit
in the hall with the other students were in the classroom.
MOTLEY: He was required to sit at a separate table in the library
and eat at a separate table in the cafeteria, and we went back to the
Supreme Court on that, and the Supreme Court struck that down as unconstitutional,
point out that obviously, once a black student was admitted, you couldn't
segregate the student within the institution.
TITLE: 6. BROWN VERSUS BOARD OF EDUCATION
NARRATOR: The groundwork was now set. With the Sweatt and McLaurin
decisions the precedents chipping away at the separate but equal doctrine
were mounting up. The time had come to put the very idea of separate
on trial, to prove that separate schools could never be equal. Just
two years after his death, Charles Houston's strategy to end legal segregation
was put to the final test.
Reverend Oliver Brown joined a dozen other Topeka families in a NAACP
lawsuit demanding that their children be allowed to attend nearby white
schools rather than cross town and ride a bus to their assigned black
schools. Brown v. Board of Education was not just their case but four
other desegregation lawsuits from across the country consolidated by
the Supreme Court into one critically important national case. Fittingly,
the last case included was a Washington, D.C. suit begun by Charles
Thurgood Marshall had become the chief coordinator for the Brown strategy.
Once Houston's student, now Marshall stood in Houston's shoes. He was
Chief Counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. For this most important
case of all, Marshall relied not only on his expert team of NAACP lawyers
- including Constance Motley, Robert Carter, Jack Greenberg, James Narbrit,
Oliver Hill, and Louis Redding - but he called upon leading scholars
and educators from around the nation.
JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: I have never seen such work, such commitment,
such dedication, such energy, as was put into that undertaking. They
kept this up
week in and week out, so that when the arguments began
in December of 1953 they, they felt that they were ready.
NARRATOR: Opposing Marshall as chief counsel for segregation was
John W. Davis. Davis had argued over 140 cases before the Supreme Court,
more than any other attorney in this century - a formidable, world-famous
On December 9, 1952, spectators filled every seat in the Supreme Court
and 400 people lined up in the corridors hoping to hear the foremost
legal minds argue about segregation and the meaning of the Constitution.
Thurgood Marshall and his team argued that segregated schools marked
black children with a stamp of inferiority and affected their ability
to learn. They argued that such suffering denied black people the equal
protection of the law guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. John W. Davis'
argument relied on the Plessy decision to justify segregation. He felt
confident it would yield him yet another legal victory.
WILLIAM H. HARBAUGH: He was of the opinion all of the precedents
were on his side. Well, what he really meant was he had Plessy-Ferguson
on his side, because he had failed, it seems to me, in thinking that
he could win the case, to consider the buildup by all of the other cases
that the NAACP group, and others, were mounting.
NARRATOR: For 17 months the fate of segregation in America hung
in the balance.
SONG: WE SHALL OVERCOME
NARRATOR: On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court handed down the decision
that Charles Houston had begun fighting for 20 years earlier. In a unanimous
decision, the Supreme Court ruled in the Brown case:
"To separate [children]
solely because of their race generates
a feeling of inferiority
that may effect their hearts and minds
in a way unlikely ever to be undone
in the field of public education
but equal has no place
Separate educational facilities are inherently
Any language in Plessy versus Ferguson contrary to this
finding is rejected
It is so ordered."
MITCHELL: May 17, 1954, I was downtown, and over the radio came
"a unanimous Supreme Court voted today that racial segregation
in the public schools is inherently unequal and unconstitutional."
I was so thrilled! It was like being born again! It was tremendous!
And the people were coming out into the streets. They couldn't believe
that we had won!
SONG: OH HAPPY DAY
TITLE: 7. THE ROAD FROM BROWN
NARRATOR: Charles Houston once said: "Nobody needs to explain
to a Negro the difference between the law in the books and the law in
action." Despite the Brown decision, Southern states defiantly
upheld segregation. They waged a campaign of delays, obstruction, and
violence they called "Massive Resistance."
GEORGE WALLACE: This nation was originally constituted as a government
of laws, not of men. We are going to find out if this is still true.
SONG: COME BY HERE
NARRATOR: Elected officials played to racist sentiment; some state
governments even declared the Brown decision unconstitutional. Across
the South, a resurgent Ku Klux Klan - often with the support of local
police - terrorized anyone who tried to implement the Brown decision.
Black schools and churches were bombed, children and civil rights workers
Arthur Shores and his family were attacked when the Court ordered Birmingham
ARTHUR SHORES: And the night after that order came down, one end
of my home was blown off, and I was just lucky nobody was, was injured.
Well, two weeks later, when the first black entered a white school,
two weeks later, they blew the other end of my house off.
NARRATOR: Despite the violence and intimidation, there were by now
dozens of able civil rights lawyers carrying on the work of Charles
Houston. The Brown decision applied only to education. But these attorneys
prosecuted Jim Crow in every other walk of life - housing, restaurants,
transportation, voting, using Brown as a precedent.
HON. CONSTANCE BAKER MOTLEY: Now once the decision was rendered
by the Supreme Court it was easy to get the Court to strike down state
enforced racial segregation in all other areas of the public life of
the American community. So there wasn't a single area that anybody could
think of in 1964 ten years after the Brown decision in which the Supreme
Court hadn't rendered some kind or decision barring segregation.
SONG: OH, FREEDOM
NARRATOR: But it would take a mass movement, people willing to put
their bodies on the line to give life to these new legal principles
and trigger the social revolution which would transform the South, and
bury Jim Crow.
Atlanta Congressman John Lewis, son of a sharecropper, was arrested
40 times during those struggles.
JOHN LEWIS: During that period, I saw people literally grow up overnight.
Young people, young black people, sitting-in at a restaurant on a lunch
counter, riding a bus to Montgomery, marching in Selma, or in the streets
of Birmingham, grown up, because people started saying, "The law
is on our side."
NARRATOR: Each night on television, the civil rights movement educated
all of America about the meaning of the Constitution. The whole country
had finally become Charles Houston's classroom. Charles Morgan was a
civil rights attorney during those turbulent years.
CHARLES MORGAN: And all over the United States every night was election
night, and every night the people in the United States watched the news.
Every night they made up their minds. And as they made up their minds,
they forced the Congress of the United States to confront the issue,
make up its mind, and pass the civil rights bills.
SONG: AIN'T GOING TO LET NOBODY
NARRATOR: One by one the barriers set up by Plessy and Jim Crow
In 1956: Montgomery buses are integrated.
In 1957: A reluctant President Eisenhower orders troops to protect black
students integrating Little Rock schools.
In 1960: Students sit-in at segregated lunch counters.
In 1961: Freedom riders integrate interstate buses.
Finally, in 1964 Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, and in '65 the
Voting Rights Act, committing the federal government to enforce the
constitutional rights of all its citizens almost 100 years after the
14th and 15th Amendments were first adopted.
Birmingham, 1990. As a result of Charles Houston's campaign and the
Civil Rights Movement it helped to launch, the political balance of
power across the South is changing. Birmingham, once the city where
fire hoses and biting dogs attacked civil rights demonstrators, now
has a black mayor.
Donald Watkins is special counsel to Mayor Arrington of Birmingham,
as well as three other Alabama mayors.
DONALD WATKINS: You know we stand here in front of the Governor's
mansion, and we can look right over there at the guard station, and
you'll see black guards there who would not have been there except for
litigation that was filled in the early 1970s, recent United States
Supreme Court cases. So, laws can change the quality of life; civil
rights lawyers can give life to those laws. We got plenty of laws on
the books, but if you don't have lawyers who are willing to go in the
courtroom and battle for these individuals, you, all you have is a bunch
of empty words and phrases.
NARRATOR: The laws are different now. Thanks to Charles Houston
and others, laws no longer keep these Chester High School students out
of the same schools and off of the same buses. Legal segregation is
over, but the legacy of Jim Crow remains. One of every three black people
lives in poverty. Only two of every hundred elected officials are black;
four of every ten black students do not finish high school. The road
to a just society, the road Charles Houston took us so far along, did
not end with Brown. It is a road present and future generations of Americans
must continue to travel.
WATKINS: I do it because I owe that to all the people who died,
who got beat, who marched, who didn't have big names and fancy titles
and fancy degrees, who held the doors open for me at the University
of Alabama. I didn't get in the University of Alabama because I was
the smartest black person. There were smart black people long before
Donald Watkins who couldn't get in simply because of their color. And
it's my obligation and it's my duty - just like I believe that it is
the duty of every black lawyer who is out here in private practice to
take up his or her fair share of civil rights cases. And I'm going to
do it as long as I can talk, walk, speak, think, hear and practice as
a lawyer. I'm going to make sure that I can keep the door open for as
many other people as I can, just as the door was kept open for me.
MUSIC: APPALACHIAN SPRING
NARRATOR: In 1949, five years before the Brown decision and fifteen
years before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Charles Houston made a prediction
and expressed his hopes for the future.
CHARLES HOUSTON: There come times when it is possible to forecast
the results of a contest, of a battle, of a lawsuit long before the
final event has taken place. And, so far as our struggle for civil rights
is concerned, the struggle for civil rights in America is won.
What I am more concerned about is the fact that the Negro shall not
be content simply with demanding an equal share in the existing system.
It seems to me that his historical challenge is to make sure that the
system which shall survive in the United States of America shall be
a system which guarantees justice and freedom - for everyone.
SONG: THE NEGRO ANTHEM (Barbara Edwards)