Hastie, William Henry

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Hastie, William Henry

William Henry Hastie was one of the twentieth century's leading African–American lawyers and jurists. He served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit from 1949 to 1971, becoming the first African American to sit on a federal appellate court. Hastie also distinguished himself as an educator, a Civil Rights attorney, and a public servant. He successfully argued major civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and was a leader in the effort to desegregate the U.S. military during World War II. With Charles Hamilton Houston, his second cousin, Hastie dramatically improved the standing and reputation of Howard University Law School during the 1930s and 1940s.

Hastie was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on November 17, 1904. In 1916 his family moved to Washington, D.C., so that he could attend Dunbar High School. Thus began an education at the same schools Houston had attended before him. Hastie graduated from Dunbar as class valedictorian in 1921 and went on to distinguish himself at Amherst College, where he graduated in 1925, again as valedictorian.

After college Hastie spent two years teaching mathematics and science at a New Jersey school, then enrolled at Harvard Law School. There he served on the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review, becoming only the second African American to do so. He received a bachelor of laws degree from Harvard in 1930 and a doctor of Jurisprudence degree in 1933.

Hastie then joined Houston's Washington, D.C., law firm. He also worked as an instructor at Howard University Law School, where Houston served as vice dean. Together, Hastie and Houston mentored scores of young black lawyers, including Thurgood Marshall,who would become a leading civil rights lawyer and a U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Hastie worked as an activist for African–American civil rights. In 1933 he founded the New Negro Alliance, a group that organized pickets and boycotts of white businesses to force increased hiring of African Americans. He worked with Houston, Marshall, and other members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to devise legal strategies to fight racism in employment, housing, and education. With regard to Segregation in schools, Hastie and his NAACP colleagues focused first on graduate education. Hastie unsuccessfully argued one of the first School Desegregation cases, Hocutt v. Wilson (N.C. Super. Ct. 1933), unreported, which involved the attempt of a student, Thomas R. Hocutt, to enter the University of North Carolina.

In 1933 Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes recruited Hastie to work for the Interior Department as assistant solicitor. While in that position, Hastie fought against segregated dining facilities in the department and helped draft the Organic Act of 1936 (48 U.S.C.A. § 1405 et seq.), which restructured the government of the Virgin Islands and gave that territory greater autonomy. In 1937, as a result of this work, he was appointed to the federal district court of the Virgin Islands, becoming the first African American to be named a federal judge.

Hastie left this position in 1939 when he was named dean of Howard University Law School. A year later he returned to government service as civilian aide to the secretary of war. Charged with rooting out racial discrimination in the military, Hastie identified and attacked discrimination against African Americans such as unequal promotion, segregation in unequal training facilities, and violent assaults by police officers and civilians. Unsatisfied with the government response to his proposals to eliminate discrimination, Hastie resigned from his position in protest in 1943. However, his reports on racism in the military attracted national notice, and in 1944 the Army high command ordered that African–American officers be trained alongside white officers.

Following his work in the military, Hastie continued to practice law and plead civil rights cases for the NAACP. Hastie and Marshall won several key cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. In Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649, 64 S. Ct. 757, 88 L. Ed. 2d 987 (1944), Hastie and Marshall persuaded the Court that the practice of holding all-white party primaries, which effectively denied African Americans the right to vote, was unconstitutional. The case set a vital precedent for later Supreme Court civil rights decisions.

Hastie and Marshall won another major victory in Morgan v. Virginia, 328 U.S. 373, 66 S. Ct. 1050, 90 L. Ed. 1317 (1946), in which the Court struck down a Virginia law (Virginia Code of 1942, §§ 4097z–4097dd) requiring racial segregation on buses. Hastie and Marshall argued that the law imposed an improper burden on interstate commerce. Despite this ruling de facto (actual) segregation continued on buses in the South.

From 1946 to 1949, Hastie served as governor of the Virgin Islands. In 1949 President Harry S. Truman appointed Hastie to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. He was sworn in as an interim appointee that year and was confirmed by the Senate in 1950. In 1968 Hastie was named chief justice of the court of appeals. After retiring from the court in 1971, Hastie devoted himself to public interest law, including programs to provide legal aid for consumers, environmentalists, and minorities. He died April 14, 1976 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

"Always be prepared. your opponent will have the advantage of colorlessness."
—William Henry Hastie

Hastie was awarded over twenty honorary degrees, including ones from Amherst and Harvard. He received the NAACP's Spingarn Medal in 1943 and was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1952.

Further readings

Cohen, Mark S. 1986. Review of William Hastie: Grace under Pressure, by Gilbert Ware. Michigan Law Review 84 (February–April).

Tushnet, Mark V. 1985. "Being First." Review of William Hastie: Grace under Pressure, by Gilbert Ware. Stanford Law Review 37 (April).

Ware, Gilbert. 1984. William Hastie: Grace under Pressure. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.