Charles Hamilton Houston’s Heroism Gives Glow To Our Civic History
“[Houston]was an egalitarian elitist …like Duke Ellington and Mary Lou Williams…” — Harvard Divinity School Prof. Cornel West
“[In describing Houston that way] I think you are trying to have your cake and eat it too…” — Harvard Law School Prof. Randall Kennedy
By Kevin C. Peterson
The current problem with American civic culture is that it persist under the unseemly sway of postmodernism where most people are prey to highly narcissistic impressions of who they are and how they operate within the world.
Amidst this crisis of national identity, our collective public life is truncated. Our past and present sense of community are distorted through the dark lenses of selfishness. All leadership is suspect. Citizenship is atomized and has turn inward on itself. Forms of civic heroism are reduced to narrow, egotistic preferences that are unsharable in the public square.
Yet, the chore of sustaining American democracy calls us to recognize those whose work and public effort give meaning to the contours of our public life. Establishing reviving narratives of civic meaning that give deep context to what it means to be an American — to share its values and common destiny — is vital.
Charles Hamilton Houston, whose birthday was celebrated last week at the Harvard Law School, was a person who did this for us.
Houston lived a short life. He was born in 1895, just a little more than a generation removed from the end of slavery. He died at the age of 54 in the spring 1950. During his career he was powerfully productive as a civil rights lawyer. Those who know about his life readily admit that he contributed tremendously to our nation by challenging racism by way of fastidious inquiry and unremitting legal activism. Houston was ever mindful of critiquing the wayward state of our nation’s social condition with regard to race.
Houston, whose intellectual fire power was respected throughout his life, was a product of the famed Dunbar High School in Washington DC, class valedictorian at Amherst College and finished Harvard Law School with high marks. Upon being appointed dean of the Howard Law School, Houston promptly eliminated the historically black university’s night school division, claiming that it devalued the Howard law degree brand. This drew attention to him as being too high-minded and disconnected from the frey of common life for most blacks at the time.
As a result, Houston, prim and always dressed formally, was often accused of elitism — of being part of that coterie W.E.B. DuBois called the “Talented Tenth.” This was a special vanguard, DuBois thought, of highly trained academics, legal minds, doctors and black cultural sachems who would assume a “politics of respectability” as a way of transforming the nation’s racist sentiments. For many who knew him, Houston was ensconced neatly in this rarified world.
“He told everybody … that if you were not a social engineer, then you were parasite on society,” said Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy. Kennedy organized the event honoring Houston last week. The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute, led ably by David Harris, was founded on the campus by former law professor Charles Olgetree.
During the pre-Civil Rights Movement years of the 1940s Houston emerged as the principle legal architect who would fashion the assault on Jim Crow segregation, instigate battles with racially intransigeant unions and challenged housing and public accommodations laws that relegated American blacks to second class citizenship.
“ He was very much an advocate of black pride and of black institutions being led by black people. He was very much an advocate of standards…[H]is position was that you should get the highest grades possible, you should show up to court over prepared every day [and] that it was important for black people to be better at all the things…at all the rules…,” said Harvard Professor Kenneth Mack, responding to Kennedy’s talk on Houston.
But while Kennedy and Mack argued this point, some disagreed — saying that Houston was simply desirous of the highest standards as he orchestrated an assault against the ramparts of structural racism.
“There are egalitarian versions of elitism that says for these particular jobs [of litigation] we want the highest quality warriors at this particular moment on the battle fields. Houston was version of that. That’s why he was so tied to the credit union movement. That why he was so tied to left wing politics,” added Cornel West, professor of practice at the Harvard Divinity School.
Against this backdrop, what becomes abundantly clear was Houston’s civic heroism and willful capacity to slay racial dragons. His legal work and vision laid the foundation for the modern Civil Rights Movement, which would span from the 1954 Brown V. Board of Education school desegregation victory to the late 1960s, after the death of Martin Luther King Jr.
Genna Rae McNeil and A. Leon Higginbottham Jr. place Houston’s efforts on firm historical ground, clearly establishing his love for democracy in their book, “Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” published in 1983.
“Charles Houston’s life and work elucidate the stark reality of the second-class status of African Americans between 1894 and 1959. The difficulty he encountered while advocating human and civil rights for blacks particularly underscores historic oppression and repression. As an attorney, Houston found that the truths labeled as ‘self-evident’ and the rights labeled as ‘natural’ became arguable issues when he presented claims for African American.”
Still others claimed Houston’s was transcendent.
“Charles Hamilton Houston was more than a civil rights lawyer,” proffered Attorney Charles E. Walker, a nationally recognized civil rights lawyer, ativist, and Race and Law adjunct professor.
“Charles Hamilton Houston was the Heaven sent, bronzed-skinned, angel Gabriel in a tweed suit, charged to inspire a legion of lawyers armed with the U.S. Constitution, to dismantle every remnant of America’s hostory of enslavement and white supremamcy.
Houston possessed the brand of civic gravitas that seems to carry little weight in our bounded democracy. Perhaps, summoning his greatness will help break the logjam of our otherwise immobilized public existence.