Lawyers: social engineers or parasites?

Before Obama, before Marshall, Powell, King or X there was Charles Hamilton Houston.

“No tea for the feeble, no crepe for the dead.”

“I made up my mind that I would never get caught again without knowing my rights; that if luck was with me, and I got through this war, I would study law and use my time fighting for men who could not strike back.”

Suggestive of Houston’s values is his characteristically bold assertion, made to his students, that “a lawyer’s either a social engineer or he’s a parasite on society.” A good social engineer, as Houston saw it, was a lawyer who used his knowledge of the law to better the lot of the nation’s worst-off citizens. Houston became the very model of a good social engineer as by 1927 his professional focus shifted almost exclusively to issues of racial equality. As the director of a survey of Negro lawyers, Houston toured seventeen cities from Savannah to New Orleans, meeting with and interviewing practicing black attorneys. His study found only 487 black lawyers below the Mason-Dixon Line. In some states, the ratio of blacks to black lawyers was over 200,000 to 1. Houston drew from his study the conclusion that Howard should send as many of its graduates as possible to the South, where the need and antagonisms were the greatest. “Experience has proved,” he maintained, “that the average white lawyer, especially in the South, cannot be relied upon to wage an uncompromising fight for equal rights for Negroes.”

Bio: School of Law University of Missouri Kansas City