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SPRIGGS: 60 Years After Brown

William Spriggs, Special to The Informer | 5/27/2014, 9:18 a.m.
Rarely has one institution played such a profound role in changing history.
William Spriggs

The weekend of May 17 marked the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in the five related cases known as Oliver Brown et. al. v. the Board of Education of Topeka. It struck down the principle that segregation was legal under the Constitution and was the crowning intellectual achievement of the Howard University Law School.

Rarely has one institution played such a profound role in changing history. With the exception of Louis Redding and Jack Greenberg, who argued the companion case about segregated schools in Delaware, all the cases-involving public elementary schools in Kansas, Virginia, South Carolina and a separate case for Washington, D.C.-were argued by faculty or alumni of the Howard Law School. Under the direction and mentorship of Charles Hamilton Houston, Howard single-handedly took on the challenge to dismantle segregation; with the spotlight on his protégé Thurgood Marshall and a legal who's who of Leon Ranson, William Hastie, Oliver Hill, Spotswood Robinson, George E. C. Hayes, James Nabrit, Jr., Loren Miller, Dovey Johnson Roundtree, Frankie Muse Freeman and Robert L. Carter.

While Brown crowned that intellectual feat, earlier victories were also important. Led by Marshall, these cases broke down barriers in higher education, equal pay, public transportation and residential segregation. In 1936 with Houston in Pearson v. Murray, ended segregation of the University of Maryland Law School (which had denied Marshall entry based on his race). In 1938 in Missouri ex. rel. Gaines v. Canada ruled that Missouri could not meet the needs of Black students pursuing law by sending them to other states to study.

Marshall, in cases argued with Houston, Hastie, Hill and Ranson in 1939 and 1940, oversaw Mills v. Board of Education of Anne Arundel County and Alston. v. School Board of the City of Norfolk, winning equal pay for Black public school teachers; in 1946 with Hastie in Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia ruling that federal anti-discrimination laws on interstate bus routes trumped Virginia's segregation laws; in 1948 in Sipuel v. Board of Regents of Univ. of Oklahoma ending segregation at Oklahoma's only public law school, and with Miller in Shelley v. Kramer that while race restrictive covenants in deeds were permissible, they could not be enforced by a court, removing an important pillar that maintained housing segregation; and 1950 in Sweat v. Painter on the inadequacy of Texas' racially separate law schools. McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Board of Regents ended practices of racial isolation of a doctoral student.

On the immediate heels of the Brown decision, later in 1954 Freeman was the lead in Davis et al. v. the St. Louis Housing Authority ending segregation in public housing in St. Louis, and in 1955 Roundtree in Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company settled the legal issue ending segregation on interstate buses.

The litany of cases highlights a legacy of barriers in all walks of life, a history driven home in a poignant article by Ta-Nehisi Coates making a case for reparations. A key contribution of Coates' article is to remind America that "equal opportunity" is a meaningless concept when centuries old legacies deal hands that are inherently unequal due to malice.