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Feast of Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall (May 17)   Leave a comment

Supreme Court Building

Above:  The United States Supreme Court Building, 1980

Photographer = Carol M. Highsmith

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = LC-DIG-highsm-13879



Attorney and Civil Rights Activist

and his pupil


Attorney and Civil Rights Activist


With this post I add two essential civil rights attorneys to my Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days.  Their lives remind us that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has political and social dimensions.  The name of Thurgood Marshall comes to me via The Episcopal Church’s Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), which notes his affiliation with the denomination and assigns the feast day of May 17, the date in 1954 on which the U.S. Supreme Court announced its seminal and unanimous ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.  Adding Marshall’s mentor and colleague, Charles Hamilton Houston, to this post is logical.

This account begins with Charles Hamilton Houston, Sr. (1895-1950).  At his funeral attorney and colleague William Hastie said of him:

He guided us through the legal wilderness of second-class citizenship.  He was truly the Moses of that journey.

Our saint came from a Christian home in which he learned about selflessness and the imperative of justice.  His parents were former teachers.  William LePre Houston (1870-1953) attended the night school of the Howard University School of Law, Washington, D.C., from 1906 to 1909 then began to practice law.  Mary Ethel Hamilton Houston, who married William in 1892, worked as a hairdresser to prominent Washingtonians.  The parents sacrificed for the best interest of their son, thereby helping him to succeed.  Houston attended Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts, from 1911 to 1915, graduating as one of six valedictorians.  Then he taught at Howard University for two years.

Houston might have become an obscure university professor if not for World War I.  He served in the racially segregated U.S. Army from 1917 to 1919, encountering institutional and personal racism.  These negative experiences fixed his course; he resolved to become an attorney and fight via the courts for those who could not defend themselves from the racism of others.  He attended the Harvard Law School (LL.B., 1922; D.J.S., 1923), became the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review, and studied civil law at the University of Madrid in Spain.  He, admitted to the bar in 1924, joined his father’s law practice, which became the firm of Houston and Houston (1924-1939) then Houston, Houston, Hastie, and Waddie (1939-1950).

Houston influenced many people as well as American society via his work at the Howard University School of Law and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  He was the Vice-Dean of the School of Law from 1929 to 1930 then the Dean thereof from 1930 to 1935.  He reformed it and transformed it into a more rigorous institution that earned accreditation from the American Association of American Law Schools.  Among the students Houston mentored was Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993).

Marshall was a native of Baltimore, Maryland, and a descendant of slaves.  His father, William Marshall, was a Pullman porter, and his mother, Norma Marshall, was a teacher.  In 1929 Marshall married his first wife, Vivien Burrey, who died in February 1955.  After graduating from Lincoln University (in Pennsylvania) our saint attended the Howard University School of Law.  He had applied to the law school of the University of Maryland, but a segregationist admissions policy kept him out.  Marshall graduated  first in his class at the Howard University School of Law in 1933 then began to practice law in Baltimore.  In 1934 he began to represent the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, suing the University of Maryland to force it to abandon its segregationist admissions policy.  He succeeded in Murray v. Pearson (1936).

The method by which Marshall worked for civil rights was through the legal system.  This fact angered some radical activists, but, in the context of Jim-Crow dominated America, the efforts of Houston, Marshall, and others like them were relatively radical.  De jure segregation on the basis of skin color had been the law of the land since Plessy v. Ferguson (1896); the U.S. Supreme Court had said so, using the absurd argument that separate facilities were legal as long as they were equal.  They were inherently unequal, however.  Overturning that infamous ruling was a goal, one which took decades to accomplish.  Houston, who did not live long enough to witness Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), established the strategy that led to that seminal ruling.

From 1935 to 1940 Houston served as Special Counsel for the NAACP.  He deployed attorneys, including Marshall, to sue for the equalization of teachers’ salaries in the U.S. South, for White teachers made more than their African-American counterparts.  Houston also argued on behalf of Lloyd Gaines (1911-disappeared in 1939) before the U.S. Supreme Court in Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada (1939).  The court held that the law school of the University of Missouri had no legal right to deny Gaines admission because of his skin color.

Marshall argued 32 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and won 29 of them.  His first such case, which he won, was Chambers v. Florida (1940).  Authorities had denied four African-American suspects legal representation and used forced confessions to obtain convictions in the case of the murder of a White man.  The Supreme Court overruled those verdicts.

Marshall brought that passion for justice to the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which he founded in 1940 and led.  That year Houston became a member of the NAACP’s Legal Committee, of which he became chairman in 1948.  Both he and Marshall argued civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.  Houston argued Steele v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company et al. (1944) and Tunstall v. Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, Ocean Lodge No. 76, et al. (1944), in which the court ruled that railroad unions must represent African-Americans fairly.  He also argued Hurd  et al. v. Hodge et al. (1948), in which the court ruled against racially discriminatory housing covenants.

Houston worked long hours routinely.  This hurt his family life and damaged his health.  His childless marriage (1924-1937) to Margaret Gladys Moran ended in divorce.  The marriage (1937-1950) to Henrietta Williams, his father’s former secretary, was happier.  It produced a son, Charles “Bo” Hamilton Houston, Jr., who became the apple of his father’s eye.  The birth of a son (in 1944) gave Houston another reason to labor for civil rights.  Our saint died of a heart attack at Washington, D.C., on April 22, 1950.  He was 54 years old.  Houston’s last written words regarding his son were:

Tell Bo I did not run out on him but went down fighting that he might have better and broader opportunities than I had without prejudice or bias operating against him, and that in any fight some might fall.

Houston devoted his professional life to the service of his society.  Not only did he pursue a legal strategy for civil rights but he also served in other capacities.  He sat on the District of Columbia Board of Education from 1933 to 1935, the American Council on Race Relations from 1944 to 1950, and the Fair Employment Practices Committee from 1944 to 1945.  Houston was indeed like Moses, for he worked hard for an important goal yet did not live to see it come to fruition.  The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) via Brown v. Board of Education (1954).  That was a landmark case, one which Marshall argued, but it was, in a way, just a beginning, for massive resistance and calls for the impeachment of “activist” federal judges ensued.

Houston received much posthumous recognition, which he deserved.  The NAACP awarded him its highest honor, the Spingarn Medal, in 1950.  The Howard University School of Law eventually named its main building after him.  The Washington Bar Association created the Charles Hamilton Houston Medallion of Merit.  And the Harvard Law School established the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice as well as the Charles Hamilton Houston Professorship.

Marshall’s career led to him becoming a federal appellate judge (1961-1965), the Solicitor General of the United States (1965-1967), and an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court (1967-1991).  He advocated for individual rights, civil rights, and women’s rights.  He also considered the death penalty unconstitutional.

Marshall died of heart failure at Bethesda, Maryland, on January 24, 1993.  He was 84 years old.  President William J. Clinton awarded him a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Marshall’s legacy continues in various forms, including his family.  Via his second wife (from December 1955), Cecilia Suyat, are two children.  Thurgood Marshall, Jr. (born in 1956), is a prominent attorney who served as the secretary of the presidential cabinet during the Clinton Administration.  John William Marshall (born in 1958) has had a distinguished career in law enforcement, having served as, among other things, as the Director of the U.S. Marshals Service and as Virginia’s Secretary of Public Safety.

Whenever the consensus of a society is to restrict the range of opportunities of a large portion of its members, that society agrees to curtail its potential and lower its horizons.  This has occurred frequently, unfortunately.  It also continues, unfortunately.  The reality of life together in society is that each of us depends upon the labor of others.  Whatever we do to others, we do to ourselves.

No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thy friend’s

Or of thine own were:

Any man’s death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in mankind,

And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.

–John Donne

Houston and Marshall understood this well.





Eternal and ever-gracious God, you blessed your servants

Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall

with exceptional grace and courage to discern and speak the truth:

Grant that, following their examples, we may know you

and recognize that we are all your children, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ,

who teaches us to love one another; and who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Amos 5:10-15, 21-24 or Amos 5:10-15a, 24

Psalm 34:15-22

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Matthew 23:1-11

–Adopted from Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 375