Admiring double biography of the two NAACP lawyers—Charles Hamilton Houston (1895–1950) and Thurgood Marshall (1908–1993)—who led the long legal battle to end segregation in the United States.
James, a practicing attorney, draws on letters between the principals, contemporary newspaper coverage of events and earlier biographies of Houston and Marshall to create a narrative that is both rich in personal details and revealing of legal strategy. As dean of Howard University Law School, Houston turned the institution into a major training ground for civil-rights lawyers. When Marshall graduated as valedictorian of the class of 1933, Houston invited his star pupil to join him on an NAACP-sponsored fact-finding mission in the South. Their alliance thus begun, Houston subsequently became special counsel to the NAACP, and young Marshall began providing free legal assistance to its Baltimore branch. The struggle to end discrimination continued in the areas of education, employment, housing, transportation and the military, but education takes center stage here. James details how their legal careers with the NAACP evolved and how their strategy to end segregation took shape. Their success in Murray v. Maryland (1936) led to the graduation of the first African American at the University of Maryland law school in 1938, and was followed by suits against other universities’ graduate schools. These suits formed the underpinning for subsequent decisions, including Brown v. Board of Education, which would impact the lives of millions of ordinary African Americans. In 1950, shortly after Houston’s death, Marshall gathered lawyers from the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund and the National Legal Committee to plan their future strategy, which aimed at school integration. James also includes anecdotes about the two men’s very different personal styles and the tribulations of their private lives.
Despite occasional lapses into purple prose, a generally informative, readable account of the struggle, in Marshall’s words, “to eliminate root and branch all vestiges of racial discrimination.”