by Phil Morice Brubaker

1 Corinthians 10:11 – These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us,…

If you’ve never see the Eyes On the Prize video series on the history of the Civil Rights Movement, I highly recommend it. The leaders of the time were clever organizers and there’s a lot to learn from them – both their successes and their mistakes. Other movements can also instruct us as we further the cause of justice. Ignoring the history of social justice movements will simply lead toward avoidable mistakes and missed opportunities.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn is that effective actions did not just happen accidentally, but were the result of careful planning that went back far beyond the actions that are recorded in newsreel footage. That planning included training in nonviolent civil disobedience, building community through songs of resistance, as well as specifics related to any individual action.

Charles Hamilton Houston speaks at an unidentified government hearing in Washington, D.C. circa 1940.

Charles Hamilton Houston speaks at an unidentified government hearing in Washington, D.C. circa 1940.

One of my favorite stories of that past that is instructive and hopeful (unlike the ancient stories that Paul refers to in Corinthians) is the history of Howard University Law School. In the early 1900s, the school had become largely a training ground for successful African American lawyers, without a particular stress on achieving civil rights victories. However, when Charles Hamilton Houston became dean in 1929, that began to change.

Houston wrote that “the Negro lawyer must be trained as a social engineer” and through his teaching, mentoring, and leadership developed the Law School into a training ground for civil rights lawyers who, led by one of Houston’s students and mentees, Thurgood Marshall, would eventually end legal segregation with Brown versus Board of Education in 1954.

God of History, may we learn humbly from those who have gone before us, not thinking that we stand on our own when we stand on their shoulders.

Phil Morice Brubaker is coordinator and trainer with Roots of Justice.