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Nabrit, James Madison, Jr. (1900 - 1997), Lawyer, Civil Rights Activist, Educator

Francesca Gamber

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Nabrit, James Madison, Jr. (1900 - 1997), Lawyer, Civil Rights Activist, Educator

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civil rights attorney and educator, was born in Atlanta, Georgia, the oldest of eight children born to James Madison Nabrit Sr., a Baptist pastor, and Augusta Gertrude Nabrit. As a child in the Jim Crow South, Nabrit was exposed to racial violence at an early age. He was just ten years old when he saw an African American man lynched and burned for celebrating the victory of the black boxer Jack Johnson over his white opponent Jim Jeffries. Nabrit attended Morehouse College High School and went on to Morehouse College, where he was captain of the debate team. Nabrit received a BA with honors in 1923 and enrolled at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago. While in law school, Nabrit supported himself by working as a baggage handler at a train station, and he also taught English and political science at Leland College in Baker, Louisiana, from 1925 to 1927. On 30 December 1924, he married Norma Clarke in Aiken, South Carolina. They had one son, James Madison III, born in 1932. Nabrit graduated from Northwestern with honors in 1927 but did not receive any job offers, although his white classmates quickly found employment.After serving as dean of Arkansas State College in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, from 1928 to 1929, Nabrit moved to Houston, Texas, and established the firm of Nabrit, Atkins, and Wesley. Between 1930 and 1936, Nabrit worked on several civil rights cases, many of which focused on ensuring African Americans' ability to vote in primary elections. In 1936 Nabrit became associate professor of law at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Two years later, he assembled over two thousand case studies to establish what is considered the first civil rights course in an American law school. Nabrit assisted with some of the civil rights cases that helped lead to the desegregation of public schools. The case for which he is perhaps best known, Bolling v. Sharpe, was filed in 1951 by Nabrit and fellow attorney George E. C. Hayes to overturn racial segregation in the Washington, D.C., public schools. Though Nabrit and Hayes were defeated at the initial trial, they were invited by the Supreme Court to argue their case along with four other school desegregation cases from Virginia, Delaware, South Carolina, and Kansas that had made their way to the Court by 1952. Nabrit and Hayes argued Bolling v. Sharpe in December 1953 and pursued a strategy that differed from those used in the four state cases, now called Brown v. Board of Education. The Brown v. Board of Education cases used the Fourteenth Amendment and its equal protection provision to argue the inherent unconstitutionality of segregation. Because Bolling v. Sharpe dealt with Washington, D.C., a federal territory, and the Fourteenth Amendment applied directly to states, Nabrit and Hayes instead argued the principle of strict scrutiny. This principle required a clear justification for laws that sanctioned differential treatment of racial groups, and Nabrit and Hayes countered that in the instance of school segregation, there was none. The Supreme Court agreed, and on 17 May 1954, it issued rulings in Brown v. Board of Education and Bolling v. Sharpe declaring segregated public schools unconstitutional.In 1960, Nabrit succeeded Mordecai Johnson to become the second African American president of Howard University. As Nabrit stated in a press conference that July, his aim was for Howard “to become a great university” (Logan, 464), and his administration witnessed an expansion in the university's enrollment, faculty, and physical plant. Nabrit also directed more research funds to the humanities and social sciences, fields often slighted in favor of economics and natural science, and established a College of Fine Arts. In 1961 Nabrit engineered the transfer of the Freedmen's Hospital to the university; the hospital, established in 1862, was one of the only places to which black doctors had regular access. The facility served as a teaching hospital for Howard students and eventually became Howard University Hospital in 1975. Nabrit took a brief leave from Howard between 1965 and 1967 when President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations. In 1966 Nabrit became the first African American to serve as deputy to the chief delegate, the second-highest position in the delegation.Nabrit's presidency coincided with the surge of student activism sweeping college campuses across the country in the 1960s, as civil rights agitation was joined by protest against the war in Vietnam. Nabrit himself was hesitant to associate the two causes, telling a 1966 White House Conference on Civil Rights, “I don't want to put that albatross around the neck of the Civil Rights Movement” (Logan, 461). After thirty students prevented a speech by Selective Service System Director General Lewis B. Hershey in March 1967, the university issued a policy statement permitting campus demonstrations so long as they did not interrupt scheduled activities. The attempt to reconcile free speech and orderly operations was not enough to appease some student activists, who boycotted classes on 10 May. Nabrit came under fire from the American Association of University Professors for expelling eighteen students and firing five professors for their participation in disorderly demonstrations in 1967. Nabrit retired in 1969 but maintained that student unrest had not motivated that decision.An avid golfer, a widely published legal scholar, and a recipient of fifteen honorary degrees, Nabrit died at age ninety-seven in Washington, D.C. Though the challenge of ensuring integrated education continued, Nabrit played an indispensable role in dismantling one of the most debilitating structures of segregation. Although Nabrit assumed a cautious stance toward the student activism of the 1960s, he helped establish the legal civil rights framework that encouraged further agitation not only among African Americans but also among women, gays and lesbians, Latinos, and Native Americans in later decades. His commitment to civil rights was carried on by his son, who was an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund from 1959 to 1989.

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