Charles Houston and the “Separate but Equal” Doctrine


By Hasan Kwame JeffriesThe Ohio State University

The Scottsboro boys trial set into motion a series of legal challenges to the separate-but-equal doctrine. Overturning Plessy v. Ferguson was an essential step in ending what masqueraded as courtroom justice in Jim Crow America. The Supreme Court was stubborn and inflexible when it came to the separate-but-equal precedent established in Plessy v. Ferguson.

A “colored” waiting room in a bus station in 1940.
Attempts to free the Scottsboro boys paved the way for challenging the separate-but-equal doctrine. (Image: Jack Delano/Public domain)

Charles Hamilton Houston

Plessy did not start Jim Crow; it only affirmed it. But getting the Court to walk back the ruling was essential to ending all forms of legal discrimination, including the various kinds that manifested themselves in the Scottsboro case. Charles Hamilton Houston understood this.

When Houston returned from World War I, he followed through on a promise he made to himself to use the law to change society by enrolling at Harvard Law School, where he earned a Bachelor of Law degree in 1922 and a JD in 1923. The following year, he was admitted to the Washington DC bar.

Lieutenant Charles Houston in 1919.
After returning from the Great War, Charles Houston enrolled at Harvard Law School. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Charles Houston and NAACP

In 1935, Houston became the special legal counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

As the first salaried lawyer on the NAACP’s national staff, Houston was responsible for identifying legal cases that the organization should take up. Houston was also put in charge of carrying out the NAACP’s legal campaign against segregated education, an area he identified as especially harmful and unfair. 

Houston also viewed segregated education as especially vulnerable to legal scrutiny. It would take time to dismantle, but he insisted that it could be done.

A Strategy against the Separate-but-equal 

Challenging Jim Crow in the court, however, created a conundrum. The NAACP refused to accept segregation in any form, out of concern that doing so would legitimize it. But any lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of separate-but-equal was sure to lose. The Supreme Court just wasn’t budging on Plessy v. Ferguson.

Houston helped devise a plan that approached the issue indirectly. A skilled legal strategist, he understood that separate would never be equal because segregationists didn’t want it to be. He also knew that Southern states did not have the financial resources to provide truly equal accommodations to African Americans. And herein lay the key to the strategy.

The NAACP would take on cases in which separate was not equal, seeking judgments that required equalization. With patience and persistence, they might be able to secure enough precedent-setting wins to demonstrate that separate could never be equal, thereby weakening the Plessy doctrine to the point that it would fall under a direct attack.

This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim CrowWatch it now, on Wondrium.

First Attack on Jim Crow

Houston fired the opening salvo in the attack on Jim Crow in 1936 when the NAACP sued the University of Maryland School of Law on behalf of Donald Gaines Murray, an African American who had twice been denied admission to the law school solely because of his race.

When University of Maryland v. Murray reached the Supreme Court, Houston’s protégé, Thurgood Marshall, argued that, “Since the State of Maryland [has] not provided a comparable law school for blacks, Murray should be allowed to attend the white university.” 

A Victory?

The high court agreed, affirming an earlier ruling by the Maryland Supreme Court ordering African American students admitted to the law school. It was a precedent-setting victory, a chink in Jim Crow’s armor.

The state of Maryland did not have a specific statute on the books banning African Americans from attending its flagship law school. Jim Crow was maintained through admissions decisions. The state of Missouri, however, did have a law segregating education. However, it had failed to provide a law school for African Americans. As a result, African Americans had to leave the state to obtain a law degree.

Challenging Segregation in Education

In 1936, Houston filed suit. When Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada reached the Supreme Court two years later, the justices sided with Houston. Although the court upheld the separate-but-equal doctrine, it ruled that forcing African Americans to leave the state to obtain a law degree violated their constitutional right to “equal protection under the law.” 

In essence, the court said that separate had to be equal—an untenable position for states with blanket segregation laws.

The strategy was working. They were inching closer to having the case law they needed to overturn Plessy on direct challenge. To focus their efforts, Houston helped found the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) in 1940. The fund, which operated independently but alongside its parent organization, named Thurgood Marshall its first Director-Counsel. Under Marshall’s leadership, the LDF continued to take on cases challenging segregation in education.

Houston’s work didn’t make overturning Plessy inevitable; it only made it possible. It also touched just a handful of Black lives directly. But its indirect impact would be profound.

Fighting Illiteracy

One of the shared characteristics of the Scottsboro Boys was illiteracy; very few could read and write more than their name, which said less about them and more about the poor quality of segregated education. 

Houston wanted to overturn Plessy in part to provide the advantages of education to African Americans, to give young people like the Scottsboro Boys a fighting chance in life before they faced a criminal justice system that routinely punished innocent Black people.

The same thinking motivated those who organized to help African Americans weather the first few years of the Great Depression. They wanted to give African Americans hit hardest by the economic collapse an opportunity not just to survive, but to thrive. Being able to work where they shopped would be a good thing. Being able to own where they shopped would be even better.

Common Questions about Charles Houston

Q: Who was Charles Houston?

An African American lawyer, Charles Houston followed through on a promise he made to himself, trying to use the law to form a move against the Separate-but-equal doctrine.

Q: What was the strategy that the NAACP would take against the separate-but-equal?

Although the NAACP refused to accept segregation in any form, any constitutionality of separate-but-equal was condemned to lose. So they would take on cases in which separate was not equal, and sought judgments that required equalization, and this actually worked.

Q: Why did Charles Houston want to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson?

Charles Houston partly aimed to provide the advantages of education to Black people, to give them a fighting chance in life before they faced the US justice system that routinely punished African Americans, even if they were innocent.

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