Significant Court Cases
Alston v. School Board of Norfolk (1940): Hill worked with Thurgood Marshall and William Hastie, dean of Howard Law School, to win a pivotal case cementing the right of Norfolk’s black teachers to the same pay scale as whites. The victory proved pivotal to future lawsuits protesting school inequality in Virginia and elsewhere. It also established Hill as the NAACP’s lead attorney in Virginia.
Morgan v. Commonwealth of Virginia (1946): Robinson represented Irene Morgan in the Maryland housewife’s appeal of her conviction for refusing to change bus seats to accommodate white passengers while traveling through eastern Virginia. The Supreme Court ruled in Morgan’s favor, decreeing that a law mandating racial segregation on commercial interstate buses violated the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. While Robinson filed papers and perfected strategy in the case, he had not had a law license long enough to argue it before the Supreme Court.
McGhee v. Sipes and Hurd v. Hodge (1948): As a law student at Howard University in the 1930s, Robinson developed expertise on restrictive covenants, private agreements forbidding home sales to blacks and other minorities. His work with Charles Houston in fighting housing discrimination in Washington made him a go-to expert when the Supreme Court tackled the issue. Robinson helped craft the arguments that led the court to bar enforcement of such covenants under the 14th Amendment.
Corbin v. School Board of Pulaski County (1949): In a series of cases involving localities across Virginia, Hill, Robinson, and several associates attacked racial inequities in public education, including facilities, course offerings, and transportation. The cases grew out of a year-long study of disparities commissioned by Thurgood Marshall and conducted by Robinson. The Pulaski case proved typical, convincing Robinson and others that racially segregated schools could never be made truly equal.
Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (1952): After a student walkout at the R. R. Moton High School in April 1951, Hill and Robinson filed a lawsuit protesting dismal conditions. In keeping with the NAACP’s decision in the summer
of 1950 to launch a full-fledged attack on segregated schools, the lawsuit attacked segregation per se. Not surprisingly, Hill and Robinson lost Davis in the early rounds, but the case combined with others from Kansas, South Carolina, Delaware, and Washington to produce the Supreme Court’s seismic 1954 decision striking down segregated public schools.
Above: Granite Elementary School interior. Below: crowded school bus, Pulaski County, Virginia, about 1948. (Corbin v. County School Board of Pulaski County, National Archives at Philadelphia)
Hill and Robinson “were the strongest team of civil rights lawyers working in the South.”
- Historian Patricia Sullivan
NAACP v. Button (1963): The case grew out of the Virginia legislature’s attempt to discredit NAACP lawyers, including Hill and Robinson, as part of a campaign of “massive resistance” to court-ordered school desegregation. Lawmakers branded the attorneys’ efforts to recruit plaintiffs in cases defending constitutional rights as unethical. The Supreme Court countered that a state “may not. . .ignore constitutional rights” under the “guise” of regulating professional conduct. The decision dealt a death blow to similar statutes across the South.