Black attorney laid groundwork for historic court decision on segegration

Friday, February 24, 2006
Debra Miles gestures during her lecture Feb. 22 at the Marshall Habilitation Center. Miles' talk, titled "Remembering The Road to Brown vs. Board of Education," featured a number of influential early civil rights leaders.

Posted on the podium were the words of Chief Justice Earl Warren from the Brown v. Board opinion: "In the field of education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unfair."

But Debra Miles, an attorney at the Missouri Department of Mental Health and a history scholar, began her presentation Wednesday at the Marshall Habilitation Center with a very different message from another influential leader.

"And I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!"

Miles showed a brief video clip of the late Alabama Gov. George Wallace delivering those words during his inaugural address in 1963 in order to illustrate the mindset the Brown decision was intended to counter.

Miles said Wallace's vision did not prevail, thanks to the efforts of early civil rights leaders who helped thwart it.

Her main subject was Charles Hamilton Houston, an influential attorney who died at age 54 four years before the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision outlawed segregation in education in 1954.

Houston laid much of the legal groundwork that his protégé Thurgood Marshall and others later built upon when they argued the Brown case before the U.S Supreme Court, according to Miles.

In fact, the existence of that group of black lawyers was due in part to Houston's efforts. Houston concentrated on opening up graduate and professional schools to blacks in the post-World War I period when Jim Crow laws still pervaded the land.

His purpose was two-fold, Miles said. He wanted equal opportunity for blacks to pursue professions and he believed that only by training black attorneys could segregation be defeated on a larger scale. He believed white lawyers had an inherent conflict of interest when representing blacks because they benefited materially from the system of segregation.

The quote from Houston that Miles emphasized most, reading it twice, was, "A lawyer is either a social engineer or he's a parasite on society."

Houston argued a number of important early civil rights cases, including two involving blacks denied entry to University of Missouri professional schools, Lloyd Gaines and Lucille Bluford.

Miles said Houston continues to inspire her. "Houston worked himself to an early grave so I could be a lawyer, so I could be where I am today," she said. "So whenever I feel a little tired I remember how hard he worked, and that motivates me."

Her talk was part of MHC's Black History Month celebration.

Contact Eric Crump at

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