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The Importance of Education to Black America and Black History Page 1
by Roger Smith

Frederick Douglass, at the twenty-third anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation stated that "Education, the sheet anchor to a society where liberty and justice are secure, is a dangerous thing to society in the presence of injustices and oppressions...." Douglass knew that in order for black people in America to survive, they had to be educated because it was the one area that could make the weak person strong and the black person equal.

By the time the modern day Civil Rights Movement started, its leaders already knew that education was knowledge, and that knowledge was power. In order for black people to gain their equality, they would have to have a solid foundation to stand on, and that foundation would be education.

William and Mary Houston understood this well and they made sure that their only child, Charles, received the best education they could offer him. Charles Houston would grow up to become a very important factor in the Civil Rights Movement by, indirectly, helping to desegregate American schools, giving black people the chance to achieve the same level of education that white people received. During his life, Houston had attended such institutions as Amherst College and Howard University, which is where he recieved his law degree and also worked part time as an instructor. However, it was in 1916, when he joined the Army as a lawyer in the Judge Advocate Group (JAG) that his life would take a dramatic turn. After seeing the many injustices done to black servicemembers, Houston stated in the book EYES ON THE PRIZE: America's Civil Rights Years, 1954 - 1965 that " '[He had] made up [his] mind that [he] would never get caught again without knowing something about his rights, that if luck was with [him], and [he] got through [the] war, [he] would study law and use [his] time fighting for men who could not strike back.' " And, that was the beginning.

After being discharged from the Army, Houston returned to Howard University where he resumed his teaching and eventually became vice dean of its law school. As dean, Houston required, states "Eyes", "that a thorough understanding of constitutional law ... be mandatory for all students.... [Because] [w]ithout a thorough understanding of the Constitution, a lawyer could not successfully argue civil rights cases in federal court." As he trained his students to become lawyers, Houston also assisted the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) with some of its civil rights cases. One in particular was the 1896 Plessy vs Ferguson, separate but equal doctrine, that the NAACP wanted to overturn. With Houston at the helm, it was decided that the first attack on segregation would be the schools, where they wanted to have black schools that were equal, or whose educational standards and facilities were up to the same level, as those that white children attended. Houston and the NAACP first focused on higher education institutions such as professional and graduate schools because their injustices were the most obvious and because change their would be the least threatening to the the white public. Their assumption proved to be correct, as they achieved success in many of their cases. However, Houston would never see the same victory achieved at the public education level. In April of 1950, Charles Houston died at the age of 54, leaving the lawyers he trained to continue the struggle. They did.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, led by former Houston student and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, had already turned their attention to the elementary and secondary levels of education. One of the cases the NAACP would try, Brown vs Board of Education, would turn out to be one of the most important victories, not only for them but also for the entire civil rights movement.

"Eyes" states that "[s]even year old Linda Brown, who lived in Topeka, [Kansas,] had to cross railroad tracks in a nearby switching yard and wait for a rickety bus to take her to a black school. It wasn't the worst that black children had to endure, but soft spoken Oliver Brown was fed up with his child having to go to the other side of town when there was a good school much closer to home - a white school." This was the case that the NAACP would take to the Supreme Court, this time in the hopes of overturning Plessy vs Ferguson all together.

In December of 1952, Brown vs Board of Education, finally went to trial but, by this time, other cases with the same theme; Briggs vs Clarendon County (an appeal), Davis vs Prince Edward County, Bolling vs Sharpe, and Gebhardt vs Bolton, were consolidated within it. On December 11, six days after the hearing began, the deliberations started and lasted for nine months, until the death of Chief Justice Fred Vinson. A month passed before Earl Warren was chosen as the new Chief Justice, and on May 17, 1954 the Supreme Court made a landmark decision. In his final remarks, Chief Justice Earl Warren stated that " We conclude, unanimously, in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

© 2004-2014 - Roger Smith; All Rights Reserved

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