James M. Nabrit Jr., dean of the Howard University Law School during the early 1950s, had a story to tell yesterday about the long crusade against legal segregation.
Nabrit, 77, headed the law school when it was a virtual think tank and civil rights law firm, directing its energies against the laws of segregation. At a luncheon commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education school cases, Nabrit told the 400 persons attending of the depth of racism that had existed before.
" . . . I was handling a criminal case in Texas in the 1930s," said Nabrit, who later become president of Howard after his tenure as dean of the law school. "And the courts, you have to understand, were the same as a prison. There was no respect. The judge didn't listen to you. Your client was boy this and boy that. Through the whole case the judge misinterpreted, misconstrued and ignored everything I said or anything my client said.
"Afterward I went over the judge and I told him that he had done that. 'Was that your nigger I found guilty, Nabrit?' the judge said," Nabrit recalled.
Bring Nabrit's nigger over here.' Now everybody has told me that this judge was a friendly judge. And right there he said, 'Let Nabrit's nigger go.'
"I say that," Nabrit said, "to say that this day is a far cry from that."
A silence hung over the integrated crowd consisting mainly of lawyers, as they sat in the simple elegance of the Washington Hilton's Crystal Ballroom eating fancy fruit salads.
Earlier, Robert L. Weinberg, president of the D. C. Bar, reminded the group that the Bar Association of D. C. had been segregated until 1959. And Nabrit recalled the small number of black lawyers in the Southern states: "There were five in Texas, three in Louisiana; four in Arkansas; three in Tennesse, I believe."
After Nabrit spoke, William T. Coleman, chairman of the NAACP's legal Defense Fund and former secretary of transportation, spoke to the crowd. Coleman was one of the major strategists behind the Brown case, coordinating legal research, and the timing of the cases.
"The Supreme Court's decision on May 17, 1954, stands as an example of the strength of the judicial system when it works," Coleman said. "The battle for desegregation may be the only instance in history where a clearly visible minority without the ballot, without bayonets, and without great financial resources, was able to work within the laws to bring about a basic social change . . . "
Coleman said that in the 25 years since the Brown decision, there has been progress towards integration and equality. But he cited unemployment statistics for blacks, showing that far more blacks are unemployed than whites and he noted that black Americans on the average make only 65 percent as much in wages as the average for white Americans.
Coleman said the Bakke decision and the Milliken vs. Bradley decision by the current Supreme Court "rank as major setbacks."
"The Bakke case turns the 14th Amendment on its head," Coleman said. "It invokes an amendment, which was adopted primarily and principally to benefit blacks, to overturn state action which does just that-benefits blacks . . . "
"In Milliken," Coleman said, " . . . the court held that the broad Detroit metropolitan plan, which integrated inner city and suburban school children, was not justified. The only remedy left to Detroit was to integrate its dwindling white pupil population with its city blacks. Of course, this hastened the flight of whites to suburbia . . . "
Saying that he hoped the court would not continue "this backward retreat," Coleman said, "there is as much need for social reform today as there was in 1954 . . . "
"The injustices and inequalities are still there though they may not be cast in the same framework as Brown was," he said. "It is for us as lawyers, within our system of laws, to confront the residual vestiges of 'man's inhumanity to man,' to grapple with them and to overcome them."
Coleman ended his speech by apologizing for his pessimism. CAPTION: Picture, James M. Nabrit Jr., left, William T. Coleman at D.C. Bar luncheon yesterday. By Douglas Chevalier-The Washington Post