Outside the U.S. Supreme Court After the Brown Decision
James Madison Nabrit, Jr., was a renowned civil rights
lawyer, Howard University president, and United Nations deputy ambassador. During his legal career, he argued for the
voting rights of blacks as well as school desegregation.
Nabrit was born September 7, 1900, in Atlanta, Georgia. The son of a Baptist minister, he attended
Morehouse College, graduating in 1923.
Nabrit continued his studies and received a doctorate in law from
Northwestern University in 1927.
He worked as an attorney in Houston, Texas, beginning in
1930, and for the next six years developed a successful law career. In 1936 Nabrit moved to Washington, D.C.,
where he became a member of Howard University’s law school faculty and established
the first civil rights course for a U.S. law school. From his post at Howard, Nabrit continued to
teach while working on a number of significant civil rights cases.
Among those cases were Lane
v. Wilson, (1939), concerning the registration of black voters in Oklahoma,
and Terry v. Adams (1953), which
focused on the right of African Americans to participate in primary elections
in Texas. He argued successfully for both cases. Nabrit worked closely with prominent civil
rights lawyers Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, and other members
of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund throughout his career.
He also teamed with George E. C. Hayes to work on the landmark
Bolling v. Sharpe case (1952), a
predecessor of Brown v. Board of
Education. Nabrit and Hayes lost the case in the District of Colombia
Federal District court before taking it to the Supreme Court in 1952 and 1953, where
they lost both appeals. Unlike Brown v.
Board of Education and other desegregation cases that followed, Bolling v. Sharpe was decided under the
due process clause in the Fifth Amendment, not under the Fourteenth Amendment.
In the ruling in favor of Brown in Brown
v. Board of Education, segregated schools were deemed unconstitutional in
In 1958 Nabrit became dean of the Howard University Law
School and two years later was appointed president of the university. In 1966
President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him U.S. Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations.
Nabrit returned to the university in 1967 amid student
protests. Tensions ran high on campus
when five faculty members and 18 students were dismissed for disruptive
demonstrations. Nabrit, who was
criticized by many students and alumni for his actions, resigned as president
James Nabrit Jr., a member of Sigma Pi Phi fraternity, died in Washington, D.C., on December 27,
1997. He was 97 at the time of his death.