Nobler Tradition of the Harvard Law Review

As Ken Bamberger observes, the Harvard Law Review has two traditions. One exemplifies the highest ideals of our profession. The other sadly reminds us that those ideals have often been honored in the breach.

Of course, what is true of the Review is equally true of the profession as a whole. American lawyers are justly proud of their role in protecting individual rights and championing the cause of equal justice under law. But the profession must also face up to the fact that black Americans have too often been denied the protection of these allegedly inalienable rights by the very legal institutions sworn to ensure their preservation.

It is often said, most often, of course, by Review editors, that what happens inside Gannett House has important implications for what happens in the world at large. What is often not said, mostly because it is not known, is that the example that best illustrates this connection stems from the occasion we celebrate today. For the event that began the best of the Law Review’s two traditions—Charles Hamilton Houston’s admission to membership—is inextricably linked to Brown v. Board of Education, the decision that began the long process of rescuing the best of America’s constitutional tradition from the worst of our nation’s heritage of bigotry and injustice.

Too few people know that Charles Hamilton Houston was the architect of the legal strategy that culminated in Brown. As his most famous protégé, Thurgood Marshall, remarked, "[W]e wouldn’t have been anywhere if Charlie hadn’t laid the groundwork for it." Houston did so by transforming Howard Law School, where as vice-dean he was in charge of all aspects of the curriculum, from a part-time country club for the aspiring black bourgeoisie into a rigorous training ground for black legal "social engineers" committed to eradicating the existing system of de jure segregation. Houston was determined to apply what he learned at Harvard Law School—Pound’s "sociological jurisprudence," Frankfurter’s vision of due process—to the struggle to achieve equal rights for blacks. And he required that all of his aspiring black social engineers adhere to the same exacting standards that he had been held to during his year editing volume 35 of the Harvard Law Review.

William Henry HastieHouston, however, was not the only Harvard Law Review editor to play a crucial role in the events leading up to Brown. In 1931, Houston hired William Henry Hastie ’30 S.J.D. ’33 as a lecturer at Howard Law School. Hastie, like Houston, was a magna cum laude graduate of both Amherst College and Harvard Law School, where he had become the second black to gain admission to the Review. During the next decade, Houston and Hastie worked tirelessly together, at both Howard and the NAACP, to create the blueprint for the assault on Plessy v. Ferguson and to train the cadre of lawyers who would carry this battle plan into action. In 1938, Houston turned the reins of this campaign over to Thurgood Marshall. By now it is common knowledge that as Houston’s star pupil at Howard, Marshall was well prepared to continue both elements of his teacher and mentor’s plan: bringing—and winning—a succession of landmark cases designed to lay bare the inherent inequality of "separate-but-equal" at the same time that he recruited and trained the next generation of social engineers.

What is less well known is that before Marshall followed in his mentor’s footsteps at the NAACP, he seriously considered following Houston and Hastie to Harvard. Shortly after Marshall graduated from Howard and returned to Baltimore to pursue a private civil rights practice, HLS Dean Roscoe Pound called to ask if he would be interested in coming to Harvard for a year or more of post-graduate study. Anxious to continue the work for which Houston had trained him, Marshall declined. Many years later, Marshall told my colleague Randall Kennedy that turning down Pound’s offer was one of the few things he regretted about his legal career.

Although Marshall never went to Harvard, he frequently called on the expertise of those who did. Of all of the Harvard lawyers whose counsel Marshall sought in the years leading up to Brown, arguably none was more important than William T. Coleman, Jr., a magna cum laude graduate and the third black editor at the Harvard Law Review. After graduating first in his law school class in 1946, Coleman clerked for Justice Frankfurter ’06, becoming the first black to hold such a position. When Marshall met him in 1950, Coleman had once again broken the color line, becoming the first black associate at New York’s Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, and Garrison. In the years that followed, Coleman became one of Marshall’s principal advisers, eventually signing the brief in Brown.

Wilkins familyHastie, meanwhile, was breaking historic ground on his own. In 1937 Hastie was appointed U.S. District Judge for the District of the Virgin Islands, making him the nation’s first black federal judge. After resigning that appointment to serve as Howard’s dean and Marshall’s confidant, Hastie was again appointed to the federal bench in 1949, this time to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Once again, Hastie was the first black to hold such a position. When it came time to look for an assistant, Hastie turned to Harvard Law School, selecting John Robinson Wilkins as his first law clerk. Wilkins was a magna cum laude graduate of the Class of 1947 and the fourth black to gain admission to the Harvard Law Review. His brother, Julian Wilkins, also attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1949.

Julian Wilkins, who died in 1984, was my father; his brother John, my uncle. John Wilkins was also the last black to become an editor of the Review for almost four decades.

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