Decades before Brown v. Board of Education, which was decided 65 years ago today, a lawyer was toiling in the background to overturn segregation.
It was not Thurgood Marshall, who argued the case and later ascended to the U.S. Supreme Court. The mastermind of desegregation in public schools was the lesser known lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston. Known as "the Man Who Killed Jim Crow", he played a role in nearly every civil rights case leading up to the historic decision. Today, many people mark the date but don't know the real story behind segregation.
What's worse, many people don't realize that it still exists.
A Personal Mission
For Houston, it was a personal mission to overthrow the "separate but equal doctrine" that still stains American jurisprudence. Next to slavery, it was the ugliest vestige of racism in the country at the time. He saw it as a student, and later as a soldier in World War I. "The hate and scorn showered on us Negro officers by our fellow Americans convinced me that there was no sense in my dying for a world ruled by them," he wrote. "I 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."
After studying the law and passing the District of Columbia bar, Houston worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He also taught at Howard Law School, where he became a mentor to Thurgood Marshall. His masterpiece, however, was devising a strategy to undo the damage of Plessy v. Ferguson. His plan was to show that "separate but equal" was a lie -- that black schools were woefully inferior to white schools. Through litigation, he would force states to create costly schools for blacks or integrate all schools. That paved the way for the decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
A Personal Decision
John Stokes, who led a student protest over conditions at his black high school in 1951, remembers the day the law changed. He was happy to hear about the decision, but he knew the battle was not over. He told National Public Radio that it would take a long time to right the wrong. "It's never going to be easy because we can make any law we wish to make, but it has to be in the confines of a person's heart," he said. "It has to be a moral issue, it has to be how a person feels in his heart about another human being."
That's where racism still exists for too many in America, and it is nothing to celebrate even today. But it is a good day to remember, May 17, 1954.