Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Legacy of Brown

BOND: Now, looking back on it, almost fifty years from that time, what has it meant? How did it work itself out? What does Brown mean today?

HOOKS: I think that, in the largest sense, every advance we've made has been based on Brown. Every single advance. Nobody would have thought about doing some of the things we've done -- not SNCC, not SCLC, not NAACP, not the Freedom Riders -- had it not been bolstered by Brown. Because it took a while for the consciousness to spread through the community that this was the death knell of segregation. It could no longer exist. The question then became How long? Under what circumstances? What steps must be taken to speed it along? But the decision that the -- you know, remember the NAACP had been going through a series of things -- restrictive covenant cases we'd won, the -- in order to understand Brown and to understand the whole integration movement, and the whole civil rights movement, you've got to look at the NAACP as a bellwether, that organization that had a vision, a philosophy, a message starting in 1909. And nothing they did was done by happenstance. Sometimes they had to change their method of operation because of a resistance, but every step was a legal step.

And there's one of the things that bothers me -- that the larger white community seemed to put more emphasis on marching feet that thinking brains. The fact that black lawyers conceived, conceptualized and carried into being a plan to eliminate segregation in this country. That a group of black lawyers led largely by Charlie Houston -- others, of course, were involved -- had to sit down and [ask], "How can we do this?" And step by step. And, as an NAACP lawyer going to the seminars with many people, I had become very well aware that they didn't teach it in my law school. I learned this at the table with Thurgood Marshall and with Constance Baker Motley and Robert Carter and other NAACP lawyers what that strategy had been long before I had started practicing law. And it was to hit the weak points. One was interstate commerce, which the federal government regulated. And that meant that if you were traveling on a railroad car from Virginia to West Virginia and had to pass state boundaries, the federal government was involved and we ought not to let them segregate us in the dining cars and so forth. And it was that kind of philosophy. You know, step by step. Now originally -- and it's strange when you look at Brown v. Board of Education -- originally the NAACP adopted another methodology, and that was they decided to attack the South at its weakest point. The Brown -- the old decision in 1898, Plessy v. Ferguson --

BOND: Plessy v. Ferguson.

HOOKS: -- said separate, but equal. So the NAACP lawyers said, "All right. We'll now start on medical schools and law schools and schools of engineer and architecture. If we go to Tennessee and Mississippi, we know they don't have enough money to build a separate but equal law school, so we'll demand that black students be admitted to the law schools, to the engineering schools." All of these were closed state schools. That was the legal strategy that most people are not aware of at this point. When they did that, the -- the southern states reacted in various ways. You know they didn't admit us. But they also created a fund. So they would say to a Julian Bond that wants to go to medical school, "Look, we'll pay your way to Harvard, Yale, anywhere you can get in. We'll pay your -- your plane fare, your tuition, your room and board." Well, for a student who was really serious, it was fairly hard to turn down an immediate education for an eight-year fight that may or may not result in something. It was after the failure of that approach that in the case that originated not in Kansas called Brown, but the case in South Carolina where black people were asking simply that they have buses --

BOND: In Clarendon County.

HOOKS: Clarendon County, South Carolina. And in that case, it was very strange because that's all they were asking for. When the superintendent of the school system turned them down and said, "No buses for black children, they are for white children," it went to the NAACP. Well, NAACP had an uncompromising policy. We were not asking for alleviation, we were asking for elimination. And they made it clear, "We'll not take this case unless you go to the root of it." Most people don't recognize that in the first SCLC case in Montgomery that originally they asked for black bus drivers on the black districts. You know, that they asked for an alleviation of segregation. The NAACP had adopted the uncompromising policy, "We will not retreat. We are going to go the root of the issue." So in the Clarendon County case, when NAACP took it, it then went to education.

So many people have asked me, "Why'd you start at the primary level instead of at the top?" Well, they did not know we did start. When I say "we," obviously I was not personally involved, but using the term of NAACP, we did start at the top level and went to the bottom level in Clarendon County because it was a decision -- and, by the way, that decision of NAACP was momentous and fraught with much peril. And there were hundreds of hundreds of black intellectuals who thought the NAACP was making the wrong step and told them. It has always amuses me when I hear people say NAACP is Uncle Tom and this -- and the this and the that. When they made a decision, that in the opinion of many of our critics could have been fatal, they said, "You make great progress going step-by-step. Now you're going all the way. If the Supreme Court does not rule with you, then much of our progress has been negated and the path to the future will be very cloudy. Can we ever overcome it?" And there were serious discussions about whether or not the NAACP should proceed in that way.

Now look at it just for a moment, and I hope I don't take too long with this, but if you look at the composition of the Supreme Court and what happened, it becomes very obvious that the critics of NAACP -- and I give them credit for moving in good faith. They were not saying, "Don't go forward," but "Don't take this great step at one time and lose everything." You know about the dog with the bone in his mouth? Don't lose it all. Because the Supreme Court at the time we went was not necessarily a great Supreme Court. It was only the addition of Warren to the Supreme Court and some changes that made the real difference. And I can never give enough credit to Earl Warren as the Chief Justice who very carefully crafted a decision which got us a unanimous opinion. And it was it important that it be nine to zero because it gave an uncompromising message. As you go back and read the history as I've had to do as a lawyer, over and over again, I've been fascinated by all the things that happened. The death of, I think it was [Fred M.] Vinson, the other judges who sort of moved and changed their mind.

And there was a movie made -- I forget the name of it -- in which Warren is portrayed as coming to Virginia after he had been appointed and had a black chauffeur. And the next morning when Warren came down, he asked his chauffeur, "Why'd you spend the night in the car?" And the chauffeur said, "Why'd I spend the night in the car? Because there's no place here that I can sleep." And I know people marvel at that as if it were not true, but it's quite possible that a governor of California had never been exposed to the rawness of segregation where a chauffeur who had driven him all day, weary and tired at night, did not have a place to sleep. And something clicked in Warren's mind at that point -- "This is wrong." It's interesting. I've taken much too long on that, but in my judgment, when you read the history and understand that, as far as I am concerned, nothing else that happened would have been in place had it not been Brown first. That was the building block. It would have been like trying to build the Empire State Building on no foundation. The movement that you led so well, the movement that Dr. King led, the Freedom Rides, the later movements of NAACP, the sit-in movement, were all predicated on the fact that the decision that had been rendered that integration was the order of the day or at least segregation was dead and, therefore, that gave all of us who were interested a chance to pursue our individual mechanism to try to speed up that day.