Hobson studies landmark D. C. school ruling: 1967
Julius Hobson (left) reads a landmark decision on his civil rights suit against Washington, D.C. public schools along with attorney Bill Higgs June 20, 1967.
Hobson, a long-time school and civil rights activist, filed the suit charging that the District of Columbia had failed to desegregate under the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Bolling v. Sharpe by segregating teachers, putting black students in lower “tracks” that denied them the ability to go to college and left black schools overcrowded while white schools were underutilized.
U.S. Court of Appeals Judge James Skelly Wright ruled that the city practiced “criminal” discrimination against poor black children and that any discrimination by intent or by “accident” are equally unconstitutional.
Wright outlawed the track system that placed students in one of four tracks: vocational, general, college-bound and honors. The overwhelming majority of black students were placed in vocational and general.
The court also ordered the school system to “substantially integrate” faculties. White teachers had been assigned to schools west of Rock Creek Park while black teachers were assigned in black neighborhoods.
Further Wright ordered the school system to file a plan with the court to increase student integration.
Mainstream civil rights leaders and groups had distanced themselves from Hobson whom they regarded as a radical and he financed the $13,000 cost of the suit by soliciting small donations.
At one point he had to file for relief from the court because he didn’t have the money to print 40 copies of an appeal as required by law.
Prior to the decision, Hobson attempted to organize a boycott of the city’s schools on May 1st, attempting to reprise the 1947 boycott in Northeast Washington by Gardner Bishop that ultimately led to the Bolling v. Sharpe decision.
Mainstream civil rights leaders roundly condemned the planned boycott and fewer than 1,000 students boycotted school that day.
Julius Wilson Hobson was a crusading civil rights activist and self-described socialist in the District of Columbia who was later elected to the D.C. school board and city council.
Hobson was born in Birmingham, Alabama where as a child he cleaned floors in a public library, but was unable to borrow books due to race laws in the Jim Crow south.
After graduation from high school, he attended Tuskegee Institute but was called away from his studies due to World War II. During the war, he served in the United States Army in Europe where was awarded three bronze stars for his many piloting missions for artillery observers.
After returning from the war, Hobson graduated from Tuskegee Institute and briefly attended Columbia University before moving to Washington, D.C. to attend graduate school in economics at Howard University.
In the early 1950s, he walked his son past the all-white neighborhood school to Slowe elementary in the Brookland area and became increasingly angry.
“That was just about the first fight I got involved in,” Hobson said years later. He became president of the local PTA arguing that students at overcrowded black schools should be permitted to go to under-utilized white schools.
This was the era of pickets, demonstrations and a student strike that was organized by Consolidated Parents over the same issue in another part of Northeast Washington that resulted in the Bolling v. Sharpe U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1954 that ordered desegregation of D.C. schools.
Hobson became increasingly active—first in his local civic association and rising to become vice president of the Federation of Civil Associations and also becoming a member of the executive committee of the local NAACP.
In 1961, the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) asked Hobson to be its president. For three years he led pickets—primarily directed at businesses that failed to hire black personnel. When the picketing was over, 120 businesses had hired black workers.
While Washington’s transit system first opened the operator job to African Americans in 1955, the company dragged its feet on hiring any substantial number of black drivers. After Hobson threatened a boycott, the D.C. Transit Company hired 44 black operators and clerks.
CORE conducted a sit in at the Washington Hospital Center and not long afterward, the facility desegregated its wards.
He led a march of 4,500 people to the District Building (now John Wilson) demanding an end to segregated housing in the city. Shortly afterward the appointed commissioners outlawed segregation in housing rental units.
Hobson’s confrontational style made enemies not only of white supremacists, but within the civil rights movement itself. In 1964 the national leadership of CORE expelled him for running a dictatorship in the Washington, D.C. chapter.
Hobson formed his own group and, if anything, engaged in even wilder theatrics. To dramatize the rat problem in the city’s poorer neighborhoods, Hobson drove around the city with possum-sized rats in cages and threatened to release them in Georgetown unless the city focused on eradicating rats in poor and working class neighborhoods.
His greatest accomplishment though came through meticulous research into the school system’s expenditure of resources.
Despite the Bolling v. Sharpe decision in 1954, the city schools spent far more proportionately on white students than on black students.
Hobson took aim with a lawsuit at the city’s tracking system where black students were channeled into vocational education while white students were targeted for academics.
On June 19, 1967, U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge James Skelly Wright agreed with Hobson and abolished the track system and ordered schools integrated even if it meant busing students from overcrowded black schools to white schools west of Rock Creek Park.
Hobson was an outspoken foe of freeway construction and supporter of building the Washington Metro system. He was a leader of a bus boycott in 1968 protesting an increase in the fare.
Hobson turned his attention to the District’s newly created elected positions, running for and winning an at-large seat on the school board in 1968. The following year he ran for a ward seat and lost.
Next he ran for D.C. Delegate to Congress in 1971 under the Statehood Party banner, but lost to Democrat Walter Fauntroy.
He was the People’s Party, a loose-knit left wing party, candidate for Vice President in 1972 with pediatrician Benjamin Spock as the Presidential candidate.
He was elected as an at-large councilmember in the District in 1974 again under the Statehood Party banner and served until his death in 1977 after a long bout with spinal cancer.
His reputation was tarnished after his death in 1981 when the Washington Post obtained his FBI file under a Freedom of Information request that revealed he had been a source of information for the government for more than five years.
The Post article reported that FBI Agent Elmer Lee Todd "said he met regularly with Hobson — sometimes as often as twice a month — from about 1961 to late 1964, mostly to discuss and assess potentially violent or disruptive demonstrations, organizations and individuals in the civil rights movement."
Specifically, Hobson apparently was paid $100 to $300 in expenses to monitor and report on civil rights demonstration plans at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.
On another occasion, he reported on a 1965 meeting in Detroit involving the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM)—a short lived black liberation group that advocated armed self-defense; and, on still another, he warned agents of possible violence at a Philadelphia demonstration that same year, according to the file.
Friends defended him saying that he often joked about telling the FBI stories but others condemned the incongruous behavior as a stain on his otherwise exemplary record.
Many of those who knew him preferred to ignore the FBI allegations and remember him more fondly.
Longtime friend and ally Sam Smith quoted Hobson on the black church:
"I was asked to speak at his church one Sunday. I went over there and when I went there I looked over the congregation.”
“I would say the average person in there had on a pair of Thom McAn shoes, that their suits cost an average $35 a piece, that their shirts were from Hecht’s basements and that they were very poor and very illiterate - almost illiterate - people who were emotionally shocked just came to the church to let out this scream.”
“[The minister] took up a love offering, he took up a minister's travel offering and then he took up a regular - he took up five or six offerings.”
“So when he got to me to speak, I got up and said, 'God damn it, if this is Christianity, I want no part of it.' And 'this son of a bitch is stealing from you and the thing is, he's not just stealing your money, he's stealing your minds. And I refuse to be a part of this.' And I walked off.”
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Photo by Joseph Silverman. The image is courtesy of the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.