On the 60th anniversary of Brown, we salute the vision, courage, intellectual heft and hard work of the lawyers who conceived, developed and executed the plan to dismantle “separate but equal” in American life. Following are brief biographies on some of the leading lights of the legal team.
“As I take the measure of my life and experience, it is, at a personal level, a story of struggle and triumph. With the support of family and community, I overcame the limits of racial exclusion, discrimination, and poverty to become a leading civil rights lawyer and ultimately a federal judge. Brown v. Board sits at the center of my career and of what has been a lifelong struggle against racial inequities and injustice. My efforts and achievements have been celebrated in recent years with countless awards and honorary degrees. While this has been very gratifying, for me these have also been occasions for setting our sights on what remains to be done to rid this country of the vestiges of white supremacy.” — Robert Carter
In 1941, Robert Carter, a native of Florida, was drafted into the military; but the racial prejudice he experienced there compelled him to join LDF. After his release from the army in 1944, Carter became a legal assistant to Thurgood Marshall, and the following year he became an assistant special counsel. Carter served as lead attorney in the Topeka school desegregation case, one of the five cases which were consolidated to form Brown. In addition, Carter served as one of the lead attorneys on Sweatt v. Painter and Brown, as well as many other cases. In 1972, President Nixon appointed him as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. He served on that bench for nearly 40 years with great distinction.
Judge Carter, who died in 2012, held adjunct faculty positions at the University of Michigan and New York University Law Schools, as well as in Yale University’s graduate school. He won an unprecedented 21 of the 22 cases that he argued before the Supreme Court. The cases appear in every constitutional law textbook and their names announce the death of a racial order that disgraced this nation. Every case was a death struggle that pitted what America was against what America should be.
Jack Greenberg succeeded Thurgood Marshall as LDF’s second Director-Counsel from 1961-84. Greenberg first joined LDF in 1949 as a 24 year-old Columbia Law School graduate. At the time, Marshall was looking for an assistant to help fight Jim Crow. A few years later, a 27-year-old Greenberg became the youngest member of the team of lawyers that brought the Brown school desegregation cases to the Supreme Court.
At LDF, Greenberg served as an assistant counsel from 1949-61 under the aegis of Thurgood Marshall. He litigated the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine. In total, he argued some 40 cases before the Supreme Court, including Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education which mandated segregated school systems to desegregate “at once” and Griggs v. Duke Power Company, which prohibited relying on employment and promotion decisions on the results of tests with discriminatory impact. He scored a major victory in Furman v. Georgia in which the Supreme Court held that the death penalty violated the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause of the Eighth Amendment. He also litigated Meredith v. Fair in 1961, which resulted in James Meredith’s integration of the University of Mississippi.
Oliver Hill, born in Richmond, Virginia, attended Howard University and Howard University Law School where he graduated salutatorian in the same year that his close friend Thurgood Marshall graduated as valedictorian. As a lawyer in Virginia, he allegedly filed more civil rights lawsuits in that state than the total filed in all other Southern states during the Jim Crow era. Additionally, The Washington Postestimated that Hill’s team was responsible for winning more than $50 million for African American students and teachers in higher salaries, new buses and better schools. In 1940, Hill secured his first civil rights victory in Alston v. School Board of Norfolk, Va. that mandated equal pay for African American and white teachers. In 1948, Hill and Spottswood Robinson filed dozens of cases against school districts throughout the state, with as many as 75 pending at one time. Hill also argued Davis v. School Board of Prince Edward County a lawsuit on behalf of students protesting terrible conditions at their segregated high school. This became one of five cases decided under Brown.
On August 11, 1999, President Clinton awarded Hill the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Upon presenting the award, President Clinton said:
Throughout his long and rich life, he has challenged the laws of our land and the conscience of our country. He has stood up for everything that is necessary to make America truly one, indivisible and equal.
Charles Hamilton Houston played an invaluable role in dismantling segregation and mentoring the crop of civil rights lawyers who would ultimately litigate and win Brown v Board of Education. At Howard Law School, he served as Thurgood Marshall’s mentor and his eventual employer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Mordecai Johnson, the first African American president of Howard University, named Houston to lead the law school in 1929. Houston was involved in nearly every civil rights case before the Supreme Court between 1930 and 1954. He is credited with designing the strategy that ultimately ended Jim Crow. Starting by attacking segregation in law schools by forcing states to either create costly parallel law schools or integrate the existing ones, he chipped away at the facade of Jim Crow. Houston famously described the role of a lawyer as “either a social engineer or a parasite on society.” He died in 1950.
Known colloquially and affectionately as “Mr. Civil Rights,” Thurgood Marshall was the leading architect of the strategy that ended state-sponsored segregation. Marshall founded LDF in 1940 and served as its first Director-Counsel.
Marshall was the key strategist in the effort to end racial segregation, in particular meticulously challenging Plessy v. Ferguson, the Court-sanctioned legal doctrine that called for “separate but equal” structures for white and blacks. Marshall won a series of court decisions that gradually struck down that doctrine, ultimately leading to Brown v. Board of Education, which he argued before the Supreme Court in 1952 and 1953, finally overturning “separate but equal” and acknowledging that segregation greatly diminished students’ self-esteem. Asked by Justice Felix Frankfurter during the argument what he meant by “equal,” Mr. Marshall replied, “Equal means getting the same thing, at the same time, and in the same place.”
Marshall constantly traveled to small, dusty, scorching courtrooms throughout the South at one point, overseeing as many as 450 simultaneous cases. Among other major victories, he successfully challenged a whites-only primary elections in Texas in addition to a case in which the Supreme Court declared that restrictive covenants that barred blacks from buying or renting homes could not be enforced in state courts. He eventually became the first African American Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States.
Constance Baker Motley, who became the first black woman to serve as a federal judge, earned her reputation as the chief courtroom strategist of the civil rights movement. In addition to successfully litigating cases that ended segregation in Memphis restaurants and at whites-only lunch counters in Birmingham, Alabama, Motley defended Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s right to march in Albany, Georgia.
In addition, Motley played an important role in representing blacks seeking admission to the Universities of Florida, Georgia Alabama and Mississippi and Clemson College in South Carolina; she claimed her greatest professional achievement was the reinstatement of 1,100 black children in Birmingham who had been expelled for taking part in street demonstrations in the spring of 1963. Motley directed the legal campaign that resulted in the admission of James H. Meredith to the University of Mississippi in 1962. She argued 10 cases before the United States Supreme Court and won nine of them. Motley was the first black woman to serve in the New York State Senate, as well as the first woman to be Manhattan borough president.
James Nabrit Jr. graduated from Morehouse College and Northwestern University Law School. He taught law at Howard University Law School and was credited with creating the first formal civil rights course in any law school in the country. Among many other accomplishments, Nabrit most substantial legal victory was Bolling v. Sharpe, which challenged Washington D.C.’s public school segregation.
After losing the case before the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, NAACP LDF appealed the case to the Supreme Court as it simultaneously heard the Brown cases. The court issued its decisions in Bolling v. Sharpe on May 17, 1954. The Supreme Court ruled that segregation in Washington D.C. public schools was unconstitutional based on the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment, instead of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.
Nabrit also won two major voting cases before the Supreme Court, Lane v. Wilson,an Oklahoma voter registration case and Terry v. Adams, a case about the right of African Americans to vote in primary elections in Texas.
Spottswood Robinson was born in Richmond, Virginia and attended Virginia Union University and Howard University School of Law where he graduated as valedictorian. At LDF, Robinson was involved in Brown litigation, and Chance v. Lambeth, which challenged racial segregation in interstate transportation in addition to spearheading the Virginia desegregation case in Brown.
After complaining about inadequate facilities, Black students at R.R. Moton High School in Prince Edward County, Virginia went on strike in 1951. Robinson informed the students that if a critical mass of parents would join a lawsuit, LDF would file the case. Nearly a month after the strike started, Robinson filed the case in the U.S. District Court in Richmond. Many of the parents ultimately lost their jobs, bank loans, or farms as a result of joining the lawsuit.
Notably, Prince Edward County closed its public schools for a number of years in defiance of orders to integrate as stipulated by the Supreme Court’s Brown decision.
Robinson became Dean of Howard University School of Law and a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights from 1961 to 1963. In 1964, Robinson was appointed to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia and was elevated two years later by President Johnson to the D.C. Circuit Court. He eventually became chief judge of the D.C. Circuit Court. He was the first African-American to hold each of these positions.