In the summer of 2020, the statute of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue became a rallying point of Richmond’s Black community seeking to challenge entrenched White supremacy and demand justice and equality that had never fully embraced them.  The protesters in the summer of 2020 were the latest in a long line of protesters who have fought for the civil rights of Black Americans in Richmond and elsewhere in the United States.  Some of the most significant battles of the modern Civil Rights era, such as Brown v. Board of Ed., arose in or had a connection to Richmond.

Professor Jonathan K. Stubbs, who writes at the intersection of race and civil rights, recently spoke about Black legal figures in the civil rights struggle that students should know about, and three essential works for anyone interested in understanding the long legal fight to secure de jure civil rights in the middle of the last century.

  1. Oliver W. Hill, Sr., The Big Bang: Brown vs. Board of Education and Beyond: the Autobiography of Oliver W. Hill, Sr. (Jonathan K. Stubbs ed., 2000)

Oliver W. Hill Sr., after whom the Richmond Law chapter of BLSA is named, is known for his long career in civil rights litigation.  His work with the NAACP on school desegregation cases in Virginia included his representation of a group of students who protested substandard conditions in their school in Farmville.  The case, Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, became one of the five cases decided by the Supreme Court as Brown v. Board of Ed. in 1954.

Oliver Hill got his start at Howard University’s law school, as one of the members of the first class to enroll in the full-time program overseen by Charles Hamilton Houston. “Every law student should know the name Charles Hamilton Houston,” says Professor Stubbs, “but few do.”

A 1915 graduate of Amherst College, Houston returned to his native Washington, D.C. to teach English at Howard University until he joined the Army in 1917, serving as a First Lieutenant in the Infantry at Fort Meade in Maryland until 1919.  The hatred and contempt shown by the White officers and soldiers toward the Black officers made him determined to study law so he could change the laws that allowed White men to rule over others.  In 1919, he entered Harvard Law School, graduating with a Doctor of Laws in 1923 and becoming the first Black editor to serve on the Harvard Law Review.

After practicing law for a few years, Houston was recruited to Howard Law, serving first as vice dean, and then as dean of the law school from 1929-1935. At the time Houston started, Howard had only a part-time night program. Professor Stubbs says that Justice Louis Brandeis urged Howard Law to create a full-time program, because the records of Negro lawyers who came before him were poor and an institution that could offer first-class training was desperately needed.

And what a first-class first class: The valedictorian of the Howard Law Class of 1933, the first class to matriculate in the new full-time program, was Thurgood Marshall.  The salutatorian was Oliver W. Hill.

Houston left Howard in 1935 to become the first special counsel for the NAACP, where he became involved in most of the major civil rights cases for the next 20 years. After the NAACP experienced several setbacks in their legal strategy to dismantle Jim Crow laws and segregation in the courts and legislatures, Houston was the one who came up with the strategy of targeting school segregation as the vehicle for dismantling Plessy v. Ferguson‘s “separate but equal” holding.  He did not live to see the strategy come to fruition in Brown — he died in 1950 — but his former students carried on his legacy.

In 1942, Hill became the president of the Old Dominion Bar Association, which had had its genesis in 1940 when an attorney named Frederic Charles Carter of Richmond was told to move to a different area of the law library of the Virginia Supreme Court Library of Appeals because of a new policy.  He refused, and received no response to his request to the Supreme Court for clarification of the policy.  He realized that Negro attorneys in Virginia needed to have a bar association.  Hill spread the word statewide, and the ODBA was born. Professor Stubbs is working with Professor Fallon Speaker and Richmond Law alum Danielle Wingfield-Smith on a history of the Old Dominion Bar Association.

2. Pauli Murray, Song in a Weary Throat: Memoir of an American Pilgrimage (2018)

Pauli Murray was born in Baltimore in 1910 and grew up in Durham, North Carolina, raised by childless aunts after her mother died.  She did what she could to avoid Jim Crow laws, opting to walk or ride a bike rather than take a segregated streetcar, or skipping the movies rather than sit in the segregated balcony.  When she graduated high school, she wanted to go to college, but given that she would not go to the North Carolina College for Negroes.  She headed North, discovering that she could attend schools as long as she attended an extra year of high school.  She attended Hunter College and began working for the Works Progress Administration.

While with the WPA’s Worker Education Project, she developed an interest in sociology and issues of justice.  She applied to grad school at the University of North Carolina, but was rejected on the grounds of her race.  She was incensed, in part because she had recently heard President Franklin Delano Roosevelt praising UNC for its liberal attitudes, and fired off a letter to him, his wife Eleanor, and Walter White of the NAACP.  Eleanor Roosevelt began a correspondence with Murray that lasted until Eleanor’s death, and White forwarded the letter to Thurgood Marshall, who ultimately decided not to take her case due to residency complications, as she’d been living in New York.

Murray was working in Virginia with the Workers’ Defense League in an unsuccessful effort to save the life of Odell Waller, an African-American sharecropper who’d shot and killed a white landowner during a dispute, when she met Leon Ransom, a Howard Law professor and civil rights activist.  Ransom was impressed with the passion that Murray brought to her work on behalf of Waller and to expose the system of peonage that kept sharecroppers in a perpetual state of debt servitude.  He convinced her to apply to law school, and she enrolled at Howard in 1941, the only woman in the class.

Murray’s experiences as the only woman in her class at Howard began to shape her thinking about the “twin bias” of discrimination on the basis of both race and gender that she dubbed “Jane Crow.”  She advocated for legal strategy to desegregation of using the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause to take on “separate but equal” head on rather than the NAACP’s more incrementalist approach, but she was considered radical at the time. As the only female student in her class, she was routinely excluded from law school events, and when nonetheless graduated first in her class in 1944 and applied to Harvard Law for an LLM degree, she was rejected because Harvard did not admit women. Berkeley, however, did.

In 1962, Murray was invited by Eleanor Roosevelt to serve on the Commission on the Status of Women’s Committee on Political and Civil Rights. As part of her work on the committee, Murray fought to keep sex in the final version of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, ensuring that discrimination would be banned not just on the basis of race, but also on the basis of sex.

Dorothy Kenyon of the ACLU was also on the committee, and she and Murray shared a belief that the Equal Protection clause was the way to dismantle discriminatory laws.  Kenyon drafted Murray to work with her on White v. Crook, a case challenging the exclusion of African-Americans and women from juries.  They put their Equal Protection theory to the test in that case, arguing for “skeptical scrutiny,” and won. Alabama did not appeal.  This ruling became the foundation for Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s argument in Reed v. Reed that discrimination on the basis of sex violates the Equal Protection clause.

Murray, who was believed to be queer, became one of the founding mothers of the National Organization for Women, and the first woman to become an Episcopal priest. Professor Stubbs calls her an “underappreciated” figure in legal history.

3. Henry L. Marsh III, The Memoirs of Hon. Henry L. Marsh III: Civil Rights Champion, Public Servant, Lawyer (Jonathan K. Stubbs & Danielle Wingfield-Smith eds., 2018)

The Hon. Henry L. Marsh III is another significant figure in the civil rights movement hailing from Richmond, who has had a major impact across the state of Virginia and the nation.  Born in 1933 and educated in a one-room schoolhouse, Marsh was a college student at Virginia Union University in 1954 when Brown v. Board of Ed. desegregated schools in the United States. The Commonwealth of Virginia, along with many other Southern states, announced a policy of “massive resistance” to desegregation; Marsh joined the fight against massive resistance, testifying to the all-White Virginia legislature on behalf of the VUU student government.  While he was there, he met Oliver Hill, who urged him to go to law school.  When Marsh graduated in 1956, he headed to Howard Law.

After graduating from Howard, he formed the civil rights firm of Tucker & Marsh with Samuel W. Tucker in 1961.  They were joined by Hill in 1965.  Marsh successfully litigated the first case challenging racial discrimination in employment, Quarles v. Philip Morris, which prohibited departmental seniority systems and set the precedent for equal pay for equal work.  Marsh litigated over 20 employment-discrimination cases involving racial and gender discrimination, 50 school desegregation cases (beginning with Brewer v. Sch. Bd. of Norfolk as well as Gravely v. Robb, a voting-rights case that forced Virginia to adopt single-delegate districts for the legislature, resulting in representation that better reflected the population.

In 1977, Marsh became the first African-American mayor of Richmond, serving until 1982, when he became a Council member.  In 1991, he ran for state Senate, where he served until 2014, when he was appointed to the Virginia Alcohol and Beverage Control Board.

If you want to read more about these figures in the civil rights struggle, or about other significant Black civil rights and human rights lawyers and civil rights history, click the links above, see the library catalog, or check out some of the resources in the carousel below.

Please click a book cover image to view the record in the library catalog.

Three Essential Figures of Black Civil Rights Legal History

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