Brown v. Board of Education: The Unwitting Contribution of Louis Armstrong

In 1954, a white professor of constitutional law, Charles L. Black, Jr. helped Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. to write the legal brief for Linda Brown, a 10-year-old student in Topeka, Kansas, whose historic case, Brown v. Board of Education, decided May 17, 1954, became the Supreme Court’s definitive judgment on segregation in American education.

Professor Charles Black

Professor Charles Black

Charles Lund Black, Jr. was born on Sept. 22, 1915, in racist Austin, Texas, one of three children of a prominent lawyer. In 1931, as a 16-year-old freshman studying Greek classics at the University of Texas at Austin, he happened to hear Louis Armstrong play. He later wrote in the Yale Law Journal, “He was the first genius I had ever seen. … It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen-year-old southern boy’s seeing genius, for the first time, in a black. We literally never saw a black then in any but a servant’s capacity. It was just then that I started toward the Brown case where I belonged.” (Armstrong himself, according to jazz critic Nat Hentoff, wrote in a September, 1941 letter: “I’d like to recall one of my most inspiring moments. I was playing a concert date in a Miami auditorium. I walked on stage and there I saw something I’d never seen. I saw thousands of people, colored and white, on the main floor. Not segregated in one row of whites and another row of Negroes. Just all together – naturally. I thought I was in the wrong state. When you see things like that, you know you’re going forward.”)

Louis Armstrong in 1934

Louis Armstrong in 1934

Professor Black taught generations of law students, first at Columbia from 1947 to 1956, then at Yale for 30 years, and then at Columbia from 1986 until his health began to fail prior to his death in 2001. Black was the first Henry R. Luce professor of jurisprudence at Yale, and in 1975 he became the Sterling professor of law, the highest academic rank at Yale. He also wrote more than 20 books and many articles on constitutional law, admiralty law, capital punishment, the role of the judiciary and other legal subjects, including Impeachment: A Handbook, that was widely praised in 1974, when President Richard M. Nixon resigned in the Watergate scandal, and also when reissued during the 1999 proceedings against President Bill Clinton. His last book, A New Birth of Freedom (1997), re-examined the Declaration of Independence and the Ninth and 14th Amendments to the Constitution as a basis for unwritten human rights.

[Sources for this post came from Columbia University, The New York Times (5/08/01), and The Wall Street Journal (1/15/09).]

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