Book review of 'Root and Branch' by Rawn James

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By Kevin Boyle
Sunday, February 14, 2010


Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and the Struggle to End Segregation

By Rawn James, Jr.

Bloomsbury. 276 pp. $28

On Nov. 9, 1938, Charles Hamilton Houston came before the U.S. Supreme Court to represent the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in one of its earliest challenges to the Southern system of segregated education. Houston was a distinguished man: Amherst Class of '15, Phi Beta Kappa, Harvard Law Review, the legendary dean of Howard University's law school, which he single-handedly transformed from a second-rate institution into a laboratory for cutting-edge litigation. But when he rose to begin his presentation that day, Justice James McReynolds, the Court's most fervent white supremacist, swiveled his chair completely around so that Houston had to speak to his back.

Maybe McReynolds couldn't stand to see what was coming.

The NAACP was already the nation's foremost civil rights organization when it hired Houston to head its newly formed legal office in 1934. He gathered around him a brilliant group of young attorneys, foremost among them a promising recent graduate named Thurgood Marshall. Together they launched a sweeping campaign designed to destroy the legal underpinnings of America's racial regime. Gradually the victories piled up: In the 1930s and '40s the NAACP convinced the Supreme Court to invalidate pivotal portions of the discrimination that poisoned the criminal justice system, the electoral process, the real estate market, and higher education. The relentless work eventually shattered Houston's health; he resigned from the NAACP in 1949, shortly before the first in a series of heart attacks that killed him at 54. Marshall took his place, guiding the campaign to its greatest victory, the monumental 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that toppled the "separate but equal" doctrine upon which Jim Crow had come to depend.

The NAACP's crusade has no shortage of historians: Richard Kluger's brilliant book on Brown, "Simple Justice," appeared 35 years ago; Mark Tushnet has written a monumental two-volume biography of Marshall; and late last year Patricia Sullivan published a marvelous new history of the NAACP, with Houston and Marshall among its central figures. In "Root and Branch," Rawn James, Jr. isn't trying to add to that imposing scholarship as much as he's trying to give it a popular spin. A Washington lawyer, he moves nimbly through the complex legal issues Houston and his team raised. To add a poignant touch, he interweaves Houston's and Marshall's powerful personal stories. And he gives their campaign a stirringly triumphal arc, the story of a whole nation being forced -- by the fierce will of two learned men -- to overcome.

That approach comes at a cost. In his determination to infuse his story with dramatic flair, James sometimes lets his prose run away from him. "Pennsylvania Avenue chortled its traffic and bustle," reads one unfortunate passage, as a "Washington winter was yielding to spring, returning sun and breeze like jewels to a lock-picked box." More important, James's understandable commitment to celebrating the NAACP's victories prevents him from grappling with some hard truths about the campaign's ability to right America's racial wrongs. It has been 57 years since Marshall argued Brown before the Supreme Court. Still, three-quarters of all African American students attend majority black schools, while most white students attend overwhelmingly white schools. It has been 62 years since the Court sided with the NAACP in its case against residential segregation, yet the nation's major metropolitan areas remain split along the color line. It's been 78 years since Houston won his first major civil rights case, in defense of an African American trapped in a criminal justice system that treated African Americans with disproportionate severity. Today black men are almost six times likelier to be imprisoned than white men. To acknowledge discrimination's enduring power wouldn't have drastically altered the story James wanted to tell. But it would have tempered it. The law is fundamental, of course. But it isn't enough.

Houston understood the limits of his achievements. "So far as our struggle for civil rights is concerned, I'm not worried about that now," he said shortly before his death in 1950. "The struggle for civil rights in America is won." But that was only the beginning, he insisted. The far greater challenge was to use the legal principles he and his colleagues had secured to build a nation "which guarantees justice and freedom for everyone." It was the most American of goals, a vision rooted in a political heritage that Houston and Marshall defended with extraordinary courage. And half a century later, we continue to turn our backs on it.

Kevin Boyle teaches history at Ohio State University. His book "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age" received the National Book Award for nonfiction.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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