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The Law of Equality

When we look back at the Civil Rights era, we often think in terms of public demonstrations and iconic figures such as Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. But these are only the most visible events and players in that long struggle. There was a major series of legal battles being waged behind the scenes that was no less dramatic. In We Face the Dawn: Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson, and the Legal Team that Dismantled Jim Crow, veteran journalist Margaret Edds tells the story of the NAACP attorneys who laid the groundwork for the pivotal Brown vs. Board of Education, and who eventually found themselves in the Supreme Court arguing for equality. Kirkus Reviews calls the book “a welcome contribution to the literature of the civil rights movement.” The Richmond Times-Dispatch says: “Vivid and vital, We Face the Dawn lays out the lessons of the past, warns of the dangers of the present and illuminates the times of two stalwart men and the splendor of their achievements.” Edds agreed to answer a few questions about her work on this heroic, and hugely productive, legal team.

Q: Hill and Robinson attended Howard Law School (as did Thurgood Marshall, a major character in your book). Can you say something about the scene at Howard and how it fostered such exceptional legal talent?

Edds: The fact that both Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson wound up at Howard Law School says something about the law school and something about the times. In the 1930s many law schools did not accept black applicants, so Howard was the primary training ground for qualified scholars who aspired to a legal career. That also was the era when Charles Hamilton Houston, Howard Law’s legendary former vice-dean, was transforming the school. Houston envisioned a first-rate academic institution whose graduates would become the architects of social change in America. Hill and Thurgood Marshall were among the first graduates of that altered program; Robinson followed six years later.   

Q: Your subjects and their colleagues were not attacking racist policies on a random, case by case basis; they had developed a very deliberate strategy. What areas did they isolate for special attention, and what was their approach to the larger problem of “separate but equal”?

Edds: Hill and Robinson’s importance stems not just from their legal portfolio but from their membership in a small brotherhood of lawyers—led by Marshall and centered largely around Howard Law—who designed and spearheaded the legal assault on Jim Crow segregation throughout the 1940s and ‘50s. At various times, transportation, housing, or voting rose to the forefront of the campaign, but a focus on education remained constant. Fearing a setback if they mounted a direct assault on “separate but equal” before the Supreme Court was ready for change, the lawyers first focused on demonstrating that southern schools met only the “separate” part of the equation required under Plessy v. Ferguson. Robinson, Hill, and their Virginia associates led the nation in proving educational inequity. Their efforts provided an essential underpinning for the courts’ 1954 school desegregation order. 

Q: Hill and Robinson had a common cause but were very different people. What role did each play in their partnership, and how did they complement each other?

Edds: Robinson was the legal technician, the craftsman who constructed elegant, intricate arguments and briefs.  For instance, prior to the 1954 Brown v. Board decision, there were two major Supreme Court hearings, first in 1952 and then 1953. Preparing for those sessions was a massive undertaking, involving scores of lawyers. In both cases, Marshall assigned Robinson the pivotal task of refining and perfecting the language in the briefs. Far more extroverted, Hill was the public face and voice of the civil rights in Virginia for many years. He brought a combination of passion, reason, and charisma that drove the movement. His depth of courage and character were consistent with what Martin Luther King Jr. called “soul force.” 

Q: Although they died before you began work on the book, you did meet both Robinson and Hill. Can you share your impressions of them?

Edds: My only personal contact with Robinson was a couple of telephone conversations in 1994 at the 40th anniversary of the Brown decision. I was requesting an interview; he declined due to his position as a senior judge. But even in that brief exchange, he came across as gracious, thoughtful, and principled.  I had several interviews with Mr. Hill prior to his death in 2007. I was struck, both then and in reviewing his papers, by his generosity and his wisdom. One of the highlights of my journalistic career was interviewing him in the Richmond courtroom where he helped argue Davis v. School Board of Prince Edward County, one of five cases that combined into Brown. He was still riled at the memory of some of the defense arguments!

Q: What do you see in this story that is particularly timely for readers in 2018?

Edds: In troubled political times, I think Mr. Hill and Judge Robinson offer an estimable model of citizenship. They persevered year after year against daunting odds and against a white power structure that wanted literally to destroy them. They did not give up. Yet, somehow they managed to emerge without discernible evidence of bitterness or hatred. They had great faith in American institutions. They also understood that progress is not inevitable, and that every generation has to pick up the torch. We have only to look at the growing re-segregation of America’s public schools and the resurfacing of racial hate groups to see how much remains to be done. 

We Face the Dawn: Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson, and the NAACP Legal Team that Dismantled Jim Crow is available now.

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