Barack Obama's Legal Predecessor was Charles Hamilton Houston
In the coming weeks, publishers will release several biographies of Barack Obama. The work of accomplished writers such as David Remnick and Bob Woodward surely will add to our collective understanding of the man who famously told a New York Times reporter, “I am like a Rorschach test.”
To better understand Obama, who was the first black editor-in-chief of the Harvard Law Review, however, one would be well served to explore the life of Charles Hamilton Houston, who was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. This is because Houston, the attorney who devised the legal strategy that succeeded in outlawing segregation, was the intellectual, racial and ideological forebear of Barack Obama. Houston died 60 years ago, not far from where he was born in Washington, D.C., but his life’s work affects the lives of all Americans even today.
Both men enjoyed childhoods largely shielded from the scourges of racism. Obama was raised by his white grandparents in Hawaii and while Houston came of age in the segregated nation’s capital, his parents confined his world to the affluent all-black Strivers’ Section of Washington. The result was that each boy grew to be a man who actively resisted America’s traditional racial confines.
Like Mr. Obama, Houston thrived in elite academic environments. He graduated from Amherst College and, after serving in the Army during World War I, entered Harvard Law School, where he excelled under the tutelage of future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. After graduating Houston, like Obama, became a law professor.
Professors Houston and Obama were legal realists in the tradition of Justice Louis Brandeis. They encouraged their students to consider the effects that laws and cases have on those compelled to abide by them. Houston took his students to visit courtrooms and jails so that they would better understand law as a force in people’s lives as opposed to a stilted collection of theories. Professor Obama took his students to watch legislative sessions while a state senator.
Houston also served as dean of Howard University School of Law, which he turned into a veritable West Point for civil rights advocacy. He instilled in his students that, as lawyers, they had to be “social engineers” or they were mere “parasites on society.”
Barack Obama is nothing if not a social engineer, but he is not the leftist sort that some of his conservative critics have accused him of being. First, engineering society—pushing legislation, advocating a national agenda—is part of his current job description; Bill Clinton “ended welfare as we know it” with the Welfare Reform Act and George W. Bush signed “No Child Left Behind” into law. Each bill was intended to shape American society for the better by addressing the needs of the poor and children respectively.
President Obama differs from his two immediate predecessors in that his engineering professes to help all Americans and thereby aid the most vulnerable. He insists on addressing large issues in as large a manner as possible. For this he is criticized by the right and the left. Conservatives continually attacked his health care reform efforts by noting that 85% of Americans already had health insurance. Some members of the mostly liberal Congressional Black Caucus have expressed concern with his refusal to push for federal programs specifically designed to help African Americans weather the Great Recession. Commentator Tavis Smiley said, “because black people are suffering disproportionately, it requires a disproportionate response.” President Obama disagrees, having stated that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
In a similar vein, Charles Houston believed that what was then commonly called “the Negro problem” was in fact an American one. He testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that lynching “brutalizes the white population” as well as the black and encouraged black and white Americans to “redouble your efforts toward interracial understanding.” Segregation and racism did not just hinder black children, it injured all of “young America.”
Obama wrote that he “loved the law school classroom,” but eventually he left it to run for the United States Senate. In 1935 Houston likewise left the shelter of academia to become special counsel for the NAACP. He later hired one of his favorite former students, a lanky Baltimore native named Thurgood Marshall, and the two traveled the country trying cases, rallying the faithful at NAACP membership drives and, with a small band of fellow attorneys, repeatedly winning cases before the Supreme Court of the United States. As President Obama stated in a speech to the NAACP last summer, these decades were a time “when Charles Hamilton Houston and a group of young Howard lawyers were dismantling segregation case by case across the land.”
Their belief that problems disproportionately affecting black Americans were best addressed by changing the hearts, minds and lives of all Americans connects Charles Hamilton Houston and Barack Obama across the ages. “Law suits mean little,” Houston wrote, “unless supported by public opinion.” By traveling across the country to rally support for the health care reform legislation he recently signed into law, President Obama is tacitly acknowledging that the same holds true for laws themselves.
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