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The forgotten architects of the Civil Rights Movement

On Behalf of | Feb 26, 2021 | Criminal Justice |

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Many heroes of the Civil Rights Movement are household names: Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcom X, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, to name a few. We learn their names and stories in grade school, and they remain pillars in Black history.

Yet they were far from the only warriors who helped turned the wheels of justice. Black History Month is an opportunity to bring to light some of the lesser-known heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.

The “Man Who Killed Jim Crow”

Take, for example, Charles Hamilton Houston, also known as the “Man Who Killed Jim Crow.” A prominent Black lawyer, he served as dean of Howard University Law School, where he helped train up the first generation of Black Civil Rights attorneys.

In 1935, he joined the NAACP as special counsel. Over the next several decades, he served as the “Moses of the Civil Rights Movement,” charting a path toward freedom from the inequality inherent in “separate but equal.” After Plessy v. Ferguson established that doctrine – which upheld segregation in public facilities – Houston crafted a powerful legal strategy for slowly whittling away the façade that separate could be equal. He took the helm on several successful cases that laid bare the reality: separate was not equal. Many of those cases resulted in desegregation of schools and public transportation.

The Margold Report

Another lawyer also operated largely behind the scenes to help crack the foundations of Jim Crow. Nathan Ross Margold was a Romanian-born lawyer and Harvard Law professor. He was commissioned by the NAACP to conduct a thorough investigation into the inequalities of “separate but equal.” His resulting work – the Margold Report – served as a blueprint for the NAACP’s Civil Rights strategy, spearheaded by Houston. The Report’s conclusion urged the organization to “boldly challenge” segregation as unconstitutional under the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The beginning of the end of segregation

Houston and Margold laid the groundwork for Houston’s successor, Thurgood Marshall, to shatter a major link in the chains of segregation. In 1954, Marshall secured the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which ended segregation in public schools. Marshall went on to serve as the first Black justice on the Supreme Court.

Brown v. Board of Education ushered in a new era for the Civil Rights Movement. It was a pivotal moment in Black History – one of many – and many pioneers worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make it happen.

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