- We Face the Dawn: Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson, and the Legal Team That Dismantled Jim Crow by Margaret Edds
Brown v. Board of Education (1954) remains a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, roundly celebrated for overturning racial segregation in public schools and dismantling the "separate but equal" doctrine that had been law since 1896. But legal victories like Brown are usually built on prior defeats. In We Face the Dawn: Oliver Hill, Spottswood Robinson, and the Legal Team That Dismantled Jim Crow, journalist Margaret Edds tells the story of the heroic and painstaking work that led to Brown, through the lives of two lesser-known legal giants. Black attorneys Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson dedicated [End Page 500] their lives to dismantling Jim Crow. But as Edds shows, nothing was a foregone conclusion. Through a sharp legal strategy fashioned by Charles Hamilton Houston, their mentor at Howard University School of Law, Hill and Robinson took on clients throughout Virginia, crafted legal arguments about racial injustice, and battled inequality in the courts, often repeating the process when the outcome was not to their liking.
At the heart of Edds's story are Hill and Robinson, two men whose personal lives and public work were full of hardships but also well-earned triumphs. Their journey is told in three parts: "Origins, 1907-1939," "Incubation, 1939-1950," and "Crucible, 1950-1963." Edds skillfully weaves in the social and political context of Virginia from the early to mid-twentieth century, as well as the state's role in the larger southern landscape. As she argues, Hill and Robinson were the "missing link" between "grassroots activists, top movement commanders, and the white jurists and legislators who often governed their fate" (p. 8). Through this retelling of their lives, one can see their legal strategy take shape. In Norfolk, for example, Hill and Robinson used the lesson of a racial discrimination challenge lost in state court to file a new suit on behalf of a new client in federal court, winning this time in the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to hear an appeal by the city of Norfolk cemented the victory, the first public school pay-equalization order to emerge from the federal courts.
Hill and Robinson's work attracted the attention of students at the all-black Robert R. Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia. Initially these students demanded improved facilities. But by the time Hill and Robinson filed Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County in 1951, they sought the desegregation of education itself. The Davis case was one of five cases consolidated into Brown. But Hill and Robinson's work did not stop after the celebrated decision. During the 1960s, Hill's path led him toward government work and political organizing and Robinson's toward academia and the bench.
Edds masterfully marshals evidence from newspapers, court documents, NAACP papers, and interviews with surviving family and friends to tell the biographies of these men. Her argument, however, is not groundbreaking. Scholars will not be surprised when she explains, "The civil rights movement did not begin in the 1960s" (p. 8). Historians have long studied the work of civil rights lawyers during the 1940s and 1950s and have long examined the spaces beyond the marches on Washington, D.C., and organization headquarters, where important work was done to end discrimination and segregation policies. There is certainly an argument to be made about the importance of Prince Edward County's school desegregation efforts: white Virginians were so determined to resist integration that they kept the county's public schools closed for five years. This story has long been overshadowed by the triumph of Brown and the subsequent test case at Arkansas's Little Rock Central High School. That said, this book is a well-written, thorough account of two important Virginians, and readers will find much...