Search

With All Deliberate Speed

Updated: Sep 3



Tomorrow, September 3, marks 127 years since the birth of one of our country’s most important and, unfortunately, most overlooked civil rights figures.


Charles Hamilton Houston was born in 1895, in the city in which, less than a year later, the United States Supreme Court would hand down its infamous Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, bolstering the segregation and disenfranchisement of Black Americans.


After enduring segregation in the United States Army during WWI, Houston went on to teach at Howard University, later becoming Dean of their School of Law. There he influenced a generation of black lawyers, including Thurgood Marshall, who would become our nation’s first Black Supreme Court Justice.


Basically, he wanted to make courts enforce the "equal" part of Plessy's mandate, making it so expensive to maintain separate facilities that ending segregation would become an economic necessity.

In 1935, Houston left Howard to serve as the first special counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where he served for five years. Houston fought for fair housing policies as well as to combat the unjust conviction of Black defendants by all-white juries.


But probably Charles Houston’s best known work was in formulating and implementing the legal strategy that would dismantle the “separate but equal” doctrine codified by Plessy. Of course, segregated schools were not equal, especially in the South, where funding for white schools was not uncommonly eight to ten times higher than for those serving Black students. A brilliant strategist, Houston decided to attack inequity in higher education, rather than K-12 schools, since most people didn’t go on to attend colleges and therefore didn’t care about litigation involving them. In this way, Houston was able to win cases based on sound legal arguments without much public scrutiny. Basically, he wanted to make courts enforce the "equal" part of Plessy's mandate, making it so expensive to maintain separate facilities that ending segregation would become an economic necessity.


One such client, Lloyd Gaines, disappeared after the United States Supreme Court found in his favor, and it is widely believed that he was murdered in retaliation for that victory.

This was a long, hard road which took decades to travel. Despite the strength of Houston’s arguments, some courts were still hesitant to undo segregation in higher education. Also, some of Houston’s colleagues favored a more aggressive assault on K-12 education, directly challenging state systems of segregated schooling. But he feared that this would be unsuccessful, wasting resources on un-winnable cases rather than building legal precedents that could be used in future rulings. And once Houston started winning cases, he drew the attention of militant racists and segregationists, making it personally dangerous for him and his clients. One such client, Lloyd Gaines, disappeared after the United States Supreme Court found in his favor, and it is widely believed that he was murdered in retaliation for that victory.


Very sadly, the individual who would later be given the title, “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow” would also not live to see its dismantling. Charles Hamilton Houston died young, in 1950, four years before the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling. But the victorious NAACP legal team, including its chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall, knew that the strength of the court’s 9-0 decision rested heavily on the foundation that Houston had built. In the Brown II decision the following year, the Court would order that schools desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”


“I really think that every person in America, especially young people, should see this film,” [the writing coach] told me. “But Hollywood will never make it.”
“Then what the hell is wrong with Hollywood?” I asked in reply.

I started writing screenplays about fifteen years ago, largely as a creative outlet and fairly inexpensive hobby. Probably the best screenplay I ever wrote was “With All Deliberate Speed,” a biopic celebrating Charles Houston’s life and legacy. It did well in some pretty prestigious international competitions, even earning a Top Ten Percent ranking in the Academy Nicholl Fellowship (up against more than 8000 other screenplays, many by writers already working in Hollywood). I talked to a few scouts and producers about optioning my screenplay, but no one really seemed that interested.


I finally contacted one of the best writing coaches in Hollywood to talk about my script (ummm, this was not cheap). After reading my work, the writing coach’s feedback was very telling.


“I really think that every person in America, especially young people, should see this film,” he told me. “But Hollywood will never make it.”


“Then what the hell is wrong with Hollywood?” I asked in reply.


Now that was several years ago, so maybe things have changed, and, with the expansion of digital media and programming, I’m hoping to investigate other avenues for my screenplay. I’ll be honest: I’d really like to sell it, but I’d also like to see it made because I think that it has so many important messages for us today.


Charles Hamilton Houston was a great man, and an American hero. We should remember and celebrate him, as well as his contributions to our nation.


28 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All