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Root and Branch

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James Rawn has written an emotionally dramatic narrative of the historic facts and heroes surrounding the legal seeds of desegregation in the United States, culminating in the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education. Charles Houston preceded our current President of the United States as the first African American on the Harvard Law Review. A native of Washington D.C., he graduated from Amherst College, taught at Howard University, was a WWI army officer, then attended Harvard Law School. Houston was a man for all seasons when it came to opposing segregation. He began by revamping Howard University’s second-rate School of Law when he reluctantly accepted the position of Dean. Although his efforts to bring credibility to the law school were often derided as “Harvardizing Howard,” the school was no longer sought after by part-time students, but instead attracted some of the brightest African American students. Among them was his prize pupil, a young man named Thurgood Marshall.

It was Houston’s intent to go after the prevailing Jim Crow laws by doing battle in the courts, and he made sure the newer graduates of Howard University’s School of Law would be up to the task. He understood that “black attorneys with a blood-stake in their cases’ outcomes” was critical. Charles Houston and Thurgood Marshall became more than mentor and student. Theirs was a friendship that lasted until Houston’s death in 1950.

Rawn’s writing is compelling as he digs beneath the case names and headline-grabbing events we’ve all read about in our high school and college texts. As Houston and Marshall crisscross many states on fact-finding missions, we see the dilapidated schoolrooms of separate but equal facilities throughout the South. Our understanding of an impoverished education takes on new meaning and we begin to understand Houston’s thinking. He and Marshall return with their facts and, as part of the NAACP, they take to the courts to demand the equal part of a separate but equal education. Houston knows that such a demand is legally sound, but financially unfeasible. If Rawn’s book only covered the fight for the rights of African Americans to the same education as whites, it would be a strong and informative telling, but Rawn goes two better. First, he includes African Americans’ struggles against closed unions, inequality of pay for teachers, brutalization at the hands of the police, rampant racism in the U.S. Military, and the inability of African Americans to live in neighborhoods of their choice. Secondly, and new to many, he gives us a rich and moving biography of a friendship between two important Americans.

Between their brains and their hearts, Houston and Marshall empowered a fledgling NAACP with an almost unimagined legal prowess. Rawn’s civil rights history is enlightening, personal and exciting. It was Houston’s firm belief (a belief passed on to Thurgood Marshall) that African Americans were more than capable of taking their fight for civil rights through the American court system all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1938, a racist Supreme Court Justice turned his back on Houston as Houston argued before that Court. What irony that in 1967, Houston’s favorite student, Thurgood Marshall, came to sit on that same august bench. The story of Houston and Marshall, true American heroes, is not something to be brought out every February for Black History Month. Black history is American history and stories like this ought to be with us all twelve months of the year.

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