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The Walter White Project

Randy Stakeman, Jackson Stakeman, Authors

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The NAACP Develops a Legal Defense Team

From its beginning the NAACP had a Legal Redress Committee which helped defend African Americans whose cases were based upon racial injustice, discrimination and segregation. This was key in raising the Association's profile as a champion for African American rights. Historian Patricia Sullivan has written:

The NAACP orchestrated a remarkably ambitious legal campaign during the 1920's, one that married the strength and expertise of its Legal Committee to the efforts being waged in communities around the nation to fight racial discrimination....The litigation process helped solidify the NAACP's reputation among black Americans and strengthen local branches. [Source note]

The effect was cumulative.  As Walter White wrote:

Every time an innocent man is means that even in the South, court officials will be less likely to railroad innocent Negroes...when they know a strong organization is both able and ready to defend [them.] [Source note]

Although the NAACP continued to defend individuals against unjust prosecution if the case involved racial discrimination and potentially set precedents, there legal campaigns came to focus on three main areas: voting rights, residential segregation in the North, and educational inequality.

The legal defense team that later developed came to be led by Charles Hamilton Houston.  Born in Washington, D.C. in 1895 to middle class parents he was an alumnus of the famed Dunbar High School in Washington and Amherst college in Massachusetts.  He served as an officer during World War I and graduated from Harvard Law School.  He began teaching part time at Howard University Law School.  He became vice dean of the Howard law school in 1929 and as Patricia Sullivan writes, "transformed Howard Law School from a nonaccredited night school into a full-time accredited program." Historian Mark Tushnet wrote that under Houston the Howard University Law School became a public-interest law school focusing on how the legal system affected the black community.

Houston concentrated the legal work of the Association on the South where 80% of blacks lived and yet with less than 100 black lawyers.  He felt that litigation should serve foremost as a tool to "arouse and strengthen the will of communities to demand and fight for their rights...the will to struggle must first appear in [the] local community. [Source note] 

Beginning in 1935:

Houston transformed the NAACP's National Legal Committee "pruning [the] dead weight" ad adding lawyers who were actively working with branches in different regions of the country.  Under his guidance, the committee became an active network of lawyers working at the provide assistance to black workers in various labor disputes...and [playing] a critical role in the development of campaigns for educational equality and voting rights.  [Source note]

By 1939 there were plans in motion to constitute the committee as its own separate organization called the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
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