BHM 2017 – Day 4: Civil Rights Lawyers Across America

I hope to make these interesting. And if not, to show just how many lawyers were involved in the civil rights effort. Aside from Marshall and Motley, I haven’t heard of Any of them. So again, I hope their stories are compelling, even if I can only share a piece of who they were.

Arthur Shores (1904 – 1996) was considered Alabama’s “drum major for justice”. A member of Alpha Phi Alpha, he graduated from Talladega, spent one year at the law school of  U Kansas, then did the rest of his law training by correspondence school, passing the bar in 1937. He went straight into civil rights law, fighting for the right to vote, fighting to open unions to black firemen, fighting for equal pay. He fought before the Supreme Court for Autherine Lucy to be able to attended U Alabama in 1955. His hope was fire-bombed twice, in 1963 when he was trying to integrate Birmingham public schools, 11 days before the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church.

Spottswood Robinson III (1916-1977) joined the NAACP LDF in 1947. Previously he went to school at Virginia Union University and graduate from Howard Law School in 1939. He was part of the team that argued Brown v. Board of Education. Robinson was initially involved in the case when in 1951, a group of Virginia students wanted to obtain equal facilities in their school (Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County)  He convinced them instead to argue for integration. Robinson returned to Howard University School of Law to become dean from 1960-1964. He left to become the first African American to be appointed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In 1966, Judge Robinson became the first African American appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals. He retired from the bench in 1989.

Oliver Hill (1907 – 2007) was another NAACP LDF lawyer. He was a student of Charles Houston at Howard, having attended undergraduate and graduate school there. He graduated 2nd in his class behind Marshall in 1933. He worked with Robinson on the Davis case, ending up on the team of lawyers working on the Brown case in front of the Supreme Court. He continued practicing law up to 1998 and was honored with the NAACP Spingarn Award as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Jack Greenberg, (1924- ) was the first white and youngest lawyer on the NAACP team. He did his undergraduate and graduate work at Columbia University, graduating in 1948 and went straight into the NAACP LDF in 1949. The piece of the Brown case that Greenberg worked on was the Delaware case, Gebhart v. Belton. Delaware was one of the 17 states with segregated schools, in fact, it was written into the state constitution, and while the schools were supposed to be equal, African-American schools in Delaware were generally decrepit, with poor facilities, substandard curricula, and shoddy construction.  Delaware had a special court system, with a Court of Chancery for deciding cases involving equity vs. money.  The court ruled that segregation was untenable, but since it would overrule the original Plessy v. Ferguson case (separate but equal – 18xx), it needed to be argued in the supreme court. After the Brown case, when Marshall went on to the Supreme Court, from 1961 to 1984, Greenberg served as director-counsel. In 1984, he became a member of the faculty at Columbia University Law School. He was the dean of Columbia College from 1989-1993, after which he remained on the faculty of the law school.

John (1919–1984) and Charles(1921–1989) Scott. John Scott received his formal education at Topeka High School and the University of Kansas. After graduation, John followed in his father’s footsteps and in 1942 entered the law school at Washburn University. He completed only two years before he was called for active duty in World War II. In 1946 John Scott returned to Washburn University to complete his law degree. He graduated on June 8, 1947, and joined the family law firm. Charles Scott attended Topeka Public Schools and graduated from Topeka High School. In 1940 he began pursuing a career in law by enrolling at Washburn, only to be interrupted by World War II. During the war he was assigned to the all-black Second Calvary Division and served in southern France.. In 1946, after the war, Charles Scott reenrolled in Washburn University and acquired his law degree in 1948. From there he joined the family practice where he, his father and brother were successful in securing the racial integration of elementary schools in South Park, Johnson County, Kansas as well as several cases that sought to allow blacks access to swimming pools, theaters, and restaurants in Topeka. In 1951 Charles and John Scott were among the attorneys who represented the NAACP in filing their landmark case, Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka. Only in their early thirties, Charles and his brother had gained national attention as a result of the Brown case. Charles chose to stay in Topeka to pursue civil and human rights issues, while John relocated to Washington dc, where he took a position in the Department of the Interior as assistant solicitor.

James Nabrit Jr. (1900 – 1997) was born in Georgia, attended Morehouse and went on to school at Northwestern U Law School in 1927. He then taught colleges in Louisiana and Arkansas and had a private practice in Texas. Nabrit began teaching law at Howard in 1936, served as dean of the law school in1958 and became Howard’s president from 1960-1965. During the 1940’s – 1950’s he helped with NAACP LDF cases. He handled the Bolling vs. Sharpe case around desegregating DC public schools, which went forward to the Supreme Court as part of the Brown case.

James Nabrit III (1932 – 2013), son of Nabrit Jr., was educated in the then-segregated public schools of Washington, D. attended, Bates College in Maine and Yale Law School.  Prior to joining LDF, Mr. Nabrit was in private practice was in active duty service for two years in the United States Army Signal Corps. Nabrit joined the LDF in 1959. He was a quiet, but forceful presence at LDF.  He was known for his meticulous preparation of briefs and brilliant appellate advocacy.  During his long tenure at LDF, Nabrit played a critical role in the series of cases involving issues that helped transform American society, including school desegregation, public accommodations, prison conditions and criminal defense.  He argued on twelve occasions in the United States Supreme Court, prevailing in nine of those cases. Nabrit was part of the team that wrote the plan presented to Judge Frank Johnson in Alabama in 1965 for the final Selma to Montgomery march that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  He served on the team that litigated the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, represented civil rights activists arrested during sit-ins in Louisiana, and was a key figure in the litigation desegregating schools in Northern Virginia.  He played a seminal role in the Keyes v. Denver School District No.1 school desegregation litigation.  Nabrit’s Supreme Court and appellate practice also included the representation of inmates on death row, and he recalled these cases as the ones of which he was most proud.

Frank D. Reeves (1916-1973) Reeves was born in Montreal, Canada. He earned undergraduate and law degrees at Howard University. After receiving his law degree in 1939, Reeves worked for the NAACP in New York City. In the 1950s he worked with Thurgood Marshall, James Nabrit, and others on the battle to desegregate public schools. He was the first African American chosen to sit on the DC Board of Commissioners, the three-man panel that ran the city from 1874 until limited home rule was instituted in 1967. Reeves helped argue the Brown case in 1954. In 1960 Reeves became the first African American member of the Democratic National Committee. He served as an advisor on minority affairs to Senator John F. Kennedy during his campaign for the presidency.

Reeves taught at the Howard University School of Law during the 1960s. At the same time he was legal counsel to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and helped negotiate the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom as well as the Poor Peoples Campaign in 1967.

Louis Lorenzo Redding (October 25, 1901 – September 28, 1998) was born in Alexandria, VA, attended Brown U graduating with honors, taught at Morehouse and then attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1928. He passed the Delaware bar in 1929 and became the first black lawyer in Delaware, and the only one in the state for 25 years. Before the Brown case, Redding argued a successful case to integrate the University of Delaware. In 1952, he brought a case to Delaware’s Chancery court to integrate the public schools. The judge wanted to rule in favor, but did not want to contradict the Plessy v. Ferguson “separate but equal” doctrine, and pushed the case to the Supreme Court, where it was combined into the Brown case. Later in 1961, Redding argued a case upholding the Supreme Court decision that public accommodations be integrated. All totaled, Redding practiced law for 57 years.

Simpson Tate (1900 – 1968) was born in Alabama, attended Lincoln U for his bachelors and masters, then went on to Howard U for his law degree in 1947. In 1948 he moved to Texas and became the attorney for the Southwest Region of the NAACP. In 1949, he filed a legal challenge to improve a black public school in Arkansas,  alleging that the black high school was old and unsafe.  He also noted the omission of certain subjects at the African American school such as chemistry, physics, and the romance languages—courses that were available at the white high school. He then embraced the NAACP strategy to desegregate colleges, starting with Louisiana State University Law School. By 1954, 11 Texas junior colleges were integrated. He also filed against several institutions, including the University of North Texas College, Lamar College, Midwestern University, and the University of Texas, El Paso. Tate won dozens of lawsuits that desegregated schools, parks, hospitals, and other public facilities across the Southwest. Tate worked on other cases as well, including a 1951 challenge to voting discrimination in Harrison County, Texas. Tate also filed a successful lawsuit against the United Steelworkers of America which helped to end segregation in the steel industry in Texas. Tate died of a stroke in 1968 at the age of 68. Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP in 1955, remarked that “Mr. Tate rendered invaluable service not only to the NAACP but to the entire southwest region.”

 

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