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
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, www.naacpldf.org