Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 93: How did black justices break the color barrier at the federal court level?
The U.S. Supreme Court opens its fall term today with a conference soon to give way to another round of cases steeped in intense national debate. For the past 22 years and 11 months, Clarence Thomas has been the court’s sole African-American justice, having missed by three weeks the only other African American to occupy the top bench, Thurgood Marshall. Marshall, of course, had been the hero of Brown vs. Board of Education and went on to serve on the court from Oct. 2, 1967, until he retired on Oct. 1, 1991. Since 1790, 112 justices have served on the Supreme Court. These are its only two black members.
But here’s what you may not know: Thurgood Marshall was not the first African-American judge to sit on a federal court. And, awesome as his career was (I mean, his nickname was “Mr. Civil Rights,”and he served as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and as solicitor general), Marshall wasn’t the only black judge of his generation qualified to accede to the highest court. He may have been the best of the best, but after him there was a cadre of brilliant African-American legal minds who could have answered the call—if it had come. After all, each was a judge, a federal judge at that, and having overcome the long odds against any African-American man or woman aspiring to a legal career in the Jim Crow era, each cherished every right under the U.S. Constitution and took none of its 4,543 words for granted.
Let me tell you about four: William Henry Hastie, Constance Baker Motley, A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. and Spottswood W. Robinson III, all pioneering federal judges who deserve an exalted place in our history for upholding the rule of law after it had held them and our people down.
Judge William Henry Hastie (1904-1976)
In 1937, William Henry Hastie became the first black federal district court judge. In 1950, he was confirmed as the first black federal appellate judge. And he was a top contender for the Supreme Court when President John F. Kennedy took office in 1961. Although that vacancy would fall to Byron White, Hastie was, without a doubt, one of the most respected jurists of the 20th century.
Born in Knoxville, Tenn., and raised in Washington, D.C., Hastie graduated magna cum laude from Amherst College in 1925. After teaching for two years at the Manual Training and Industrial School for Colored Youth in New Jersey, Hastie punched his ticket to Harvard Law School, where, following in the footsteps of civil-rights crusader Charles Hamilton Houston, he became the second black law student to serve on the Harvard Law Review. Hastie graduated with a bachelor of laws degree in 1930 and earned a research doctorate in law in 1933, both from Harvard.
Later, balancing professorial duties at Howard University Law School with his work at Houston’s firm, Hastie helped architect the pro-integration legal strategies that would culminate in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Specifically, Hastie galvanized the NAACP’s legal struggle for equal pay for black teachers in North Carolina, including hiring one of his former law students at Howard, Thurgood Marshall, to assist on the case.
It was while serving as solicitor for the U.S. Interior Department during the New Deal administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Hastie was nominated and confirmed, on March 19, 1937, to a federal district court judgeship in the U.S. Virgin Islands. “Roosevelt II [FDR] made the most outstanding appointment of any President last week,” Adam Clayton Powell Jr. wrote in the “Soap Box” column in the New York Amsterdam News on Feb. 20, 1937.