Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

The Unsung Heroes Of The Desegregation Of American Law Schools

Gail S. Stephenson (Southern; Google Scholar), The Unsung Heroes of the Desegregation of American Law Schools, 51 J. of L. & Educ. 118 (2022):

In 1940 seventeen American states prohibited interracial education by force of law. In 1945 the south offered white students sixteen law schools, but African-American students were limited to one segregated law school. Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP developed a strategy to desegregate American education by first attacking the inequities in graduate and professional education in the courts. Law schools were the first targets as Marshall hoped to develop a cadre of civil rights advocates who could carry on his work.

These lawsuits required courageous individuals to step forward to serve as test plaintiffs. These individuals were vilified, intimidated, and threatened. Ultimately only two actually graduated from the schools they sued to attend and practiced law, although some graduated from other law schools and went on to highly successful careers.

The Article examines the desegregation of American law schools in all seventeen states with de jure segregation. It reviews the NAACP’s criteria for selecting test plaintiffs, the legal battles that led to those students enrolling in formerly whites-only schools, the students’ experiences in the newly desegregated schools, and some of the factors contributing to their lack of success. The Article concludes by noting the honors awarded these test plaintiffs decades later, often posthumously.

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