The Slayer of Jim Crow

Charles Houston was born in Washington DC in 1895. He was the grandchild of a former slave and the son of an attorney. He graduated from high school at the age of 15 and from Amherst at the age of 20. He was the college valedictorian and the only African American student in his class.

After service in the U.S. Army, he chose to pursue the practice of law. He wanted to be in a position to fight the wrongs that African Americans were experiencing in all walks of life. He was selected for Harvard Law School and became the first African American to serve as an editor of the Harvard Law Review.

He was on the law faculty at Howard University where he encouraged his students to use their degrees to fight social injustices. One of his students was Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Later he became special counsel to the NAACP. It was in this role he was a contributor to nearly every important civil rights case. He became known as The Man Who Killed Jim Crow.

His legal battles included a number of milestones for civil rights including:

  • Elimination of all-white juries
  • Attacking the separate but equal doctrine established in the infamous Plessy vs Ferguson decision
  • Opening up law schools to African Americans
  • Elimination of restrictive housing for African Americans
  • Contributing to the legal strategy that ended up in the landmark decision: Brown vs Board of Education.

For all of his courtroom success, perhaps the greatest achievement of Charles Houston was his legacy of lawyers he trained and mentored to continue fighting for civil rights. He passed away at age 54, but his legacy is still felt 50 years later through the lawyers he trained and the ones that followed them.

Hidden heroes often are the warriors who are little-known but who do the essential work to support others who are more prominent. They contribute through their direct efforts but also through the efforts devoted to preparing those who will follow them.

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“We have defeated Jim Crow, but now we have to deal with his son, Jim Crow Jr., esquire”
– Al Sharpton

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