Cover Story

Brown at 50


“And that,” Motley told a conference on Brown this win­ter, “is when I knew it was 25 years after Brown.”

Another quarter century has passed, and yet another generation is primed for a refresher course on the landmark case that added fire to the civil rights movement by ending legal segregation in public schools.

“Brown was a catalyst for forms of change in American life and legal structures,” says Louis H. Pollak, a federal judge in Philadelphia who was part of the LDF staff in the 1950s. “It went beyond simply telling the government not to enforce racial segregation. It put the force of law affirmatively on the side of the promotion of equality. Without Brown, it’s hard to see that we could have moved even as far as we have.”

Brown came at a watershed moment in American society. By the 1950s, the United States had beaten fascism and was grappling with the communist world. The great migration of African-Americans from the rural south led to the formation of new neigh­borhoods in the industrial, urban North. The Brooklyn Dodg­ers’ Jackie Rob­­inson had integrated baseball, and President Truman had desegregated the armed forces—a key moment, according to Motley.

“That signaled a change in our nation’s public policy,” Motley told an audience at Columbia University this winter. “I feel the Supreme Court got its inspiration from Truman in 1948.”

The grass roots were already pushing for change. “Teachers organized them­selves in Virginia,” says Rich­mond, Va., lawyer Oliver Hill, also an LDF staff member.

“Prior to Brown, the impact of apartheid America was felt by many of us,” says LDF president Elaine Jones, who will step down from that post in May. “I knew what the back of the bus was like. I knew about the water fountains—one marked white, the other marked black. The segregation in the cafeteria, the auditoriums, even in the courtrooms, it was a part of our natural fabric. It was seismic. It ushered in the era of massive resistance.”

Presiding over the band of LDF lawyers was Thur­good Marshall, who masterminded the Brown litigation. A larger-than-life figure, Marshall came to the National Associ­a­­tion for the Advancement of Colored People as a protégé of pioneering civil rights lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston.

Marshall was one of the lawyers who argued the case before the Supreme Court—which he later joined, becoming the first black justice.

Motley and Pollak were among the foot soldiers. They burned the midnight oil at LDF’s Man­hattan headquarters, dodged defiant law enforcement officers in the South, and pressed their cases before reluctant judges. Other LDF colleagues included Hill; Rob­ert L. Carter, now a federal judge in New York City; Wil­­liam T. Coleman, now a Washington, D.C., attorney; Jack Greenberg, now a Columbia law professor; and the late James Nabrit Jr. and Spottswood Robinson.

“There could not have been anything more challenging than working with Thurgood and that group of extraordinary people,” Pollak recalls. “Not only were they fine lawyers, they were fine citizens.”

Volumes have since been written about Marshall, but to the young lawyers in his charge, Marshall provided focus, inspiration and leadership.

“He was an able lawyer, a leader with the most marvel­ous spirit about life and an extraordinary sense of humor that could deflate every pomposity,” Pollak says.

“There were serious problems, both tactical and strategic,” Pollak continues. “When we needed to make a decision, Thurgood made it. It taught us a lot about life.”

In arguing the case before the high court, Mar­shall also had the task of going up against one of the most respected lawyers in his­tory. John W. Davis was a master appellate litigator who had just scored a prom­­inent victory in 1952 over President Tru­man in Youngs­­town Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579, the steel sei­zure case.

Davis “was a marvelous lawyer who had to rely on the desirability of adhering to stare decisis,” says Earl E. Pol­lock, who was a law clerk to Chief Justice Earl Warren. “That does not exactly get people’s juices flowing.”

“Marshall was very effective,” Pol­lock adds. “To some extent, he had the advantage of being able to make a more emotional argument based on fairness and morality.”

When the Supreme Court opinion was announced on May 17, 1954, the LDF lawyers were jubilant. But, at the same time, they realized how much of the battle was left to fight.

“The day it was announced, I was in New York,” Judge Pol­lak says. “It was glorious news, perfectly terrific.” But, he adds, “Many of us kind of naively thought the world would be transformed. We underestimated the resis­tance to change.”

Carter, too, remembers when Brown was decided.

“Everyone thought [the civil rights battle] was over,” Carter says. He soon realized, though, that “the problem was white supremacy” and the task to “remove the government mandate of segregation” would continue.

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