Brown-Nagin: Engaging Civil Rights and Pursuing Public Service Through Scholarship

By Tomiko Brown-Nagin (SC ’91)

brown-nagin

As an elementary school
student, I planned to serve the public as a civil rights lawyer.  I was born in Edgefield County, South
Carolina, a place of racial extremes and the home of the plantation rich and
poor.  U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond—known
for his record-long filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964—James
Longstreet, the Confederate General—and Governor Ben Tillman, the architect of
Jim Crow laws—also hailed from Edgefield County. Within this context, my keen
interest in civil rights took root.

Happily, the Truman Foundation
awarded me a Harry S. Truman scholarship. It pleased me to be associated with
the president who desegregated the U.S. Armed Forces and campaigned on a
platform that endorsed civil rights.  I
intended to use the Truman scholarship to defray the costs associated with law
school.

Over the years and for a
variety of reasons, however, my career goals changed, and my conception of
public service broadened. I did obtain a law degree and have devoted time to
civil rights practice.  But the chief way
that I now honor Truman’s commitment to equality—and pursue my own abiding
interest in the subject—is through scholarship on constitutional law and
history.  

This
past month, I published Courage to
Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement
 (Oxford University, 2011).  Courage
to Dissent
moves the historical lens away from familiar actors of the civil
rights era such as the legendary lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, who famously
prevailed in Brown v. Board of Education,
and the inner workings of U.S. Supreme Court. 
The book shifts the focus to lesser-known, but no less important, lawyers
and grassroots activists.  It discusses
the careers of attorneys on the political Right and the Left—called “pragmatic”
and “movement lawyers”—who sometimes disagreed with Thurgood Marshall’s
conception of equality. These lawyers and their clients sought something
different from, or more complicated than, “integration.”  The book argues that these figures shaped
constitutional law and the path of civil rights in powerful, yet unacknowledged
or largely forgotten, ways.

Courage to Dissent adds to the pantheon of historic
public interest lawyers three pioneering lawyers from distinct eras.  A.T. Walden, one of the South’s first
African- American lawyers and the elder statesman of civil rights, courageously
challenged barriers to black voting. But, the book shows, Walden never fully
embraced Marshall’s school desegregation strategy.  Donald Hollowell, a skilled legal craftsman
and ally of student activists during the 1960s, earned the title “Mr. Civil
Rights” for his clever tactics. He also mentored a new generation of activists.
Howard Moore, Jr., Hollowell’s protégé, represented clients in three
social movements.  He labored for the civil rights,
anti-poverty, and peace movements, changing his practice as the concept of
“equal rights” evolved during the 1960s and 1970s.   

Each of these attorneys—like so many other African America
men across time who sought opportunity and hoped to prove entitlement to
first-class citizenship—served in the U.S. Army.  Their experiences in the armed forces tell us
much about racial change and stasis
in postwar America. Walden, who attended a segregated officers’ training school,
served the Army with distinction during a tour of duty in WWI-era France. He
rose to the rank of captain.  Hollowell
served in an all-black “Buffalo Soldier” regiment during the 1930s; during
WWII, after fighting in the European theater, Hollowell also rose to the rank
of captain.  Moore, the youngest of the
three attorneys, served in the U.S. Army, as well.  But Moore served during the 1950s, in a
desegregated armed forces—the army that Harry S Truman built.  Moore served on desegregated posts at Ft.
Jackson, South Carolina and Ft. Gordon, Georgia—apparent oases of equity
surrounded by segregation.  Nevertheless,
like Walden and Hollowell before him, Moore experienced instances of
discrimination—both before and after he mustered out of the Army. Hence,
whatever the era, each man’s experiences as an African-American solider
fortified his pursuit of equality through law.

In his own way, these unsung
lawyers—Walden, Hollowell, and Moore—veterans of the Army and soldiers for freedom—together
with cooperative members of the Court, Congress, and the Executive Branch, such
as President Truman—remade the social and legal orders. Local people, banished
from citizenship, nevertheless gave new meaning to the U.S. Constitution. These
architects of a more perfect union teach us a lesson about human agency that
should endure: it speaks to the issues of our times.

Tomiko Brown-Nagin (SC ’91) is Justice Thurgood Marshall Distinguished
Professor of Law & Professor of History at the University of Virginia.

Comments are closed.