U prof recounts landmark case for the Law School

When the Supreme Court ruled Linda Brown was entitled to attend an all-white elementary school, John J. Cound said he foresaw the beginning of the end of “separate, but equal.”
Cound, now a University professor, was fresh out of Harvard Law School at the time. He was also one of six lawyers who orchestrated the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.
In the midst of Black History Month, Cound recalled his experiences before 25 people at the University Law School Thursday night.
“It was the very first case I ever worked on,” said Cound, before the speech. “I was the junior lawyer on the case. It was a wonderful first experience.”
Cound spent three years working for the U.S. Department of Justice, but he wanted to teach. He was hired by the University Law School in 1956 and still teaches civil procedure.
Brown was a black fifth-grade girl from Topeka, Kan., who was denied admission into a white elementary school in 1952. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People took her case, along with four others from the District of Columbia, South Carolina, Virginia and Delaware.
The cases were argued before the Supreme Court by a black lawyer named Thurgood Marshall, who eventually was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
For two years, different courts argued and re-argued the case. When the proceedings finally concluded, the Supreme Court uncharacteristically wrote one unanimous opinion: Segregation in schools was in violation of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.
The effects of the decision, however, reached further than one elementary school, Cound said.
“Brown was the foundation for a more basic rule that separation is not permissible in any public institution,” Cound said. “Very quickly, Brown came to stand for desegregation.”
Cound entertained the attendees with fond recollections of the historic case, but said his involvement initially was incidental.
“I had been picked for the team because I had a strong law school record, and most important, I was available,” he said. “I was certainly not selected because of any track record on the issue. My views on segregation were hardly militant.”
But Cound said he believed segregation was wrong.
“Separate-but-equal was a myth; it had never existed anywhere with which I was familiar,” he said. “In Washington D.C. and Arlington, Va., the systems were not even close.”
Cound said oral arguments rarely affect the outcome of important cases, but “it was hard to observe the quality, the integrity, and the dedication of the NAACP lawyers without feeling that a system that separated them from the rest of us was terribly wrong.
“My favorite of the lawyers was James Nabrit, representing the blacks in the District of Columbia case. He was a master of the ‘I’m only a simple country lawyer’ approach, although he had an extensive urban practice. He phrased many of his arguments as ‘humble suggestions,’ while, as a colleague phrased it, ‘firing greased curveballs past the court.'”
He added that Nabrit died only three weeks ago. “I thought the press might have been more attentive to his passing,” he said.
Cound concluded by saying he makes no pretense to having played a significant role in the case.
“I did a lawyer’s job, I’m glad we won, and I am proud to have been there.”