[On the 130th anniversary of the birth of Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, I’m posting here an adapted chapter from my recent book ALL YOU NEED IS MORE LOVE (Caroline Street Press, 2019).]
As we anticipate the celebration of the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday later on this month, and as we recall the momentous changes wrought in the world by the civil rights movement which Dr. King so nobly led, a flood of images and icons rushes to center stage: the determination of Rosa Parks, the unvanquished spirit of Sojourner Truth, the courageous fidelity of Harriet Tubman, the stirring righteousness of Frederick Douglass, the tenacity of Ida B. Wells, the magisterial presence of Paul Robeson, the sacred audacity of Fannie Lou Hamer, the scientific mastery of George Washington Carver, the legendary revivalistic preaching of Caesar A.W. Clark, the searing prescience of W.E.B. Du Bois, the lyricism of Maya Angelou, the theological genius of Howard Thurman, and, of course, the eloquent rhetoric and life of Martin Luther King. This year I’m also remembering another figure less well known but no less significant than all the other celebrated exemplars.
In 1926, Mordecai Wyatt Johnson became the first African-American president of Howard University. Johnson would go on to invite Dr. Thurman and his wife Sue Bailey Thurman to join the faculty and then, nearly a decade later, to encourage them to go on a Pilgrimage of Friendship to India where they would be among the first four African-Americans to meet and have deep discussions with Mohandas K. Gandhi. Thurman would then bear the tenets of nonviolence to the United States, where he would convey the Mahatma’s insights to generations of adherents who would lead the civil rights struggle toward its fulfillment.
When he began, however, Mordecai Wyatt Johnson had another primary concern: raising the standards of Howard’s law school, which was then little more than a night school. Supreme Court Associate Justice Louis D. Brandeis counseled Johnson, emphasizing that the foundation for overcoming racial discrimination was embedded in the Constitution. “What was needed,” Brandeis averred, “was for lawyers to be prepared to base their arguments before the Court precisely upon the guarantees in the document.”
Agreeing with Brandeis’ thesis and taking his counsel to heart, Mordecai Johnson secured Charles Hamilton Houston as vice-dean of the Howard University School of Law in 1929, and things got moving. An initial class of students was eventually enrolled in Howard University’s now accredited, full-time program with an intensified civil rights curriculum.
Johnson and Houston were bound and determined to train top-notch, world-class lawyers who would lead the fight against racial injustice. Among the seven graduates of Howard’s Law School in 1930 was a young man named Thurgood Marshall.
The rest, as they say, is history. Marshall would go on to lead the successful Brown v. Board of Education case that abolished legal segregation in public education in the United States. Eventually he became the first African-American appointed to the Supreme Court.
Mordecai Wyatt Johnson and Charles Hamilton Houston were not the only ones to lead America toward the dismantling of institutional prejudice in the 20th century, but their unflagging strategic, visionary hopefulness contributed mightily to the transformation of American culture and the promise of American democracy for one and all.
Strategic, visionary hopefulness. This is what is required to make for greater “Racial Justice” for one and all.
— Bob Hill
(ALL YOU NEED IS MORE LOVE, Caroline Street Press, 2019)