Rethinking Civil Rights Lawyering and Politics in the Era Before Brown

99 Pages Posted: 26 Oct 2007


This Article argues that scholarly accounts of civil rights lawyering and politics have emphasized, incorrectly, a narrative that begins with Plessy v. Ferguson and ends with Brown v. Board of Education. That traditional narrative has relied on a legal liberal view of civil rights politics—a view that focuses on court-based and rights-centered public law litigation. That narrative has, in turn, generated a revisionist literature that has critiqued legal liberal politics. This Article contends that both the traditional and revisionist work have focused on strains of civil rights politics that appear to anticipate Brown, and thus have suppressed alternative visions of that politics. This Article attempts to recover these alternatives by analyzing the history of civil rights lawyering between the first and second world wars. It recovers debates concerning intraracial African-American identity and anti-segregation work, lawyers' work and social change, rights-based advocacy and legal realism, and the legal construction of racial and economic inequality that have been elided in the existing literature. It thus contends that the scholarly inquiries that have been generated in both the traditional and the revisionist work should be reframed.

Keywords: Civil Rights, NAACP, Legal Liberalism, Civil Rights Movement, Brown v. Board of Education, African American Lawyers, Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston, Raymond Pace Alexander, Legal History, Public Interest Lawyers, Public Law Litigation, Civil Rights Lawyers, Legal Realism

JEL Classification: B24, B13, B25, J70, J71, J78, 10

Suggested Citation

Mack, Kenneth W., Rethinking Civil Rights Lawyering and Politics in the Era Before Brown. Yale Law Journal, Vol. 115, No. 2, 2005, Available at SSRN:

Kenneth W. Mack (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1525 Massachusetts Ave.
404 Griswold Hall
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-495-5473 (Phone)
617-496-5156 (Fax)


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