Beyond Brown: Pursuing the Promise Image Strip of Linda Brown walking to school, girl taking test at desk, Nettie Hunt and daughter with newspaper headline on steps of Supreme Court, present day children raising hands, children at computers
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The History of Brown v. Board of Education Cases and Lawyers
Thurgood Marshall | Oliver W. Hill | Charles Hamilton Houston | Spottswood W. Robinson III | The 5 Cases | Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court text | 14th Amendment text

Spottswood W. Robinson III
(1916- )

Spottswood W. Robinson III, a slender, bespectacled man who could have been mistaken for a teacher, was one of the nation's warriors against the Jim Crow laws that made African Americans second-class citizens.

Robinson taught law at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and later was Dean there. But he made his mark in courtrooms as a civil rights lawyer and, later, as a federal judge. His brilliant legal mind helped win numerous Supreme Court decisions that gave all Americans the right to buy property where they wanted; to travel equally on public transportation; to enjoy equal access to public education; and to use public recreational facilities.

Robinson was born in Richmond on July 26, 1916, the son of lawyer-businessman Spottswood William Robinson Jr. and Inez Clements.

Young Spottswood attended Armstrong High School and Virginia Union University. In 1936 he entered law school at Howard. Howard law students, at that time, were told that their legal education was for everyone, so they should put it to good use after graduation. Robinson did just that, crisscrossing Virginia with law partner Oliver W. Hill and others in the late 1940s and '50s, battling county-by-county, city-by-city against the anti-black laws. At one time, they had legal actions in 75 school districts.

Robinson was part of the inner circle of the The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), which coordinated the court battles for racial equality beginning in the 1930s. He was a valued adviser to Thurgood Marshall, LDFís director and lead attorney who later became a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The most famous victory won by LDF was the landmark decision outlawing segregated public schools, Brown v. Board of Education. In that lawsuit, cases from Virginia and four other locations were argued and decided together.

The Virginia case began when African-American students at R.R. Moton High School in Prince Edward County went on strike in spring 1951, complaining about leaking, poorly heated classrooms. Robinson and Hill met with the students, hoping to persuade them to return to class. However, the students convinced the lawyers of their cause.

Robinson and Hill told the students that if enough of their parents would join a lawsuit — an action that could cost those parents their jobs or their bank loans or their farms — the LDF lawyers would file it. The parents proved to be as committed as their children. On May 23, 1951, one month after the strike started, Robinson filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Richmond.

The case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where the plaintiffs prevailed in the landmark Brown decision in 1954. The war for equal civil rights was far from over, but the Brown decision turned the legal tide.

Excerpted with permission from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund,

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