At this year’s DeMott Lecture on Sept. 3, the Rev. Phillip Jackson ’85 made his deepest points by pointing. “That is our single finest graduate ever,” said Jackson, pointing toward the east wall of Johnson Chapel, to the portrait of Charles Hamilton Houston. “He is the finest that we have produced—and no one knows about him.”
Jackson made sure the class of 2021 knew about him. Houston was the grandson of slaves and the only black member of Amherst’s class of 1915.
After experiencing, in Houston’s words, “the hate and scorn showered on us Negro officers by our fellow Americans” in World War I, Houston vowed to fight for his people by studying the law. He became the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review and a protégé of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.
Portrait of Charles Hamilton Houston
Houston decided he would make Howard University School of Law, in his native Washington, D.C., the Harvard for black lawyers. He had “a strategy to end legal segregation in the U.S. in the next 20 years, and he did just that,” said Jackson.
As a law professor at Howard, Houston launched a series of cases with his student Thurgood Marshall (“kind of a party boy” until Houston said “I need you” joked Jackson). In one anti-discrimination case, the plaintiff was Donald Gaines Murray ’34. Houston groomed other compatriots, notably William Henry Hastie ’25, who became America’s first black federal judge—and whose portrait is displayed on that same wall at Johnson Chapel.
Houston died four years before Marshall famously argued Brown v. Board of Education. Hastie gave the eulogy at his mentor’s funeral. On his deathbed, Houston asked his friends to give his 6-year-old son a message: “Tell him I went down fighting that he might have better opportunities, without bias operating against him.” As he quoted Houston, Jackson wiped away a tear—as did many in the audience.
Jackson is a trustee of Amherst College and the vicar of Trinity Church Wall Street in Manhattan. Born in Chicago and educated at Yale Law School, he has also ministered in Detroit, Houston and Phoenix. “Historically, he was brought into parishes that were in trouble financially and spiritually and turned them around,” President Biddy Martin said in her introduction.
Jackson is the 10th person to deliver the annual DeMott Lecture. Given to first-year students at the end of orientation, it is named for the late English professor Benjamin DeMott, who taught at Amherst from 1951 to 1990.
Jackson’s lecture pointed to two other greats besides Houston “who went to a sacred place of encounter, and open us to lives lived in deepest consequence with that state.” To that end, he played off the readings he’d assigned the incoming students: a short essay, “The Sanest of Men,” on ancient Chinese poet T’ao Ch’ien, by David Bentley Hart, and a short book, Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency, by Andrea Oppenheimer Dean and Timothy Hursley.
The reverend got a little irreverent about T’ao Ch’ien especially. T’ao was a master of hsien, which can translate as “idleness,” though not laziness. It’s more, Jackson said, “the sublime capacity for total contentment for doing nothing—when nothing needs to be done.” He teased the students that they don’t need to check their phones in “idle” moments, don’t need to fill everything up with busyness. “To get here to Amherst, you got good at doing,” he said, smiling. “Sometimes to do well is to do nothing.”
Jackson also mentioned the white Southern architect Samuel Mockbee, who quit his conventional architecture practice upon seeing the grave of civil rights activist James Cheney. Mockbee set off, with his students at Auburn University, to design and build remarkable homes out of salvaged materials for poor residents in Alabama.
Jackson shook his head in admiration. “‘Poor people deserve beauty,’ said Mockbee. As architects, we are given a gift. The question to us is the same as it was for him.” Jackson pointed at the class of 2021: “Do you have the courage to make your gift felt on earth and felt for good?”
As Jackson came to the end of his speech, he again pointed up to the portrait of Houston, and all eyes rose to see the man now made known.
“He is the best we are,” said Jackson. “He’s Amherst College. And now you are Amherst College. Will you be the best you can be? Will you take his legacy and treat it like the gift that it is? Welcome to Amherst. Welcome home.”
The crowd jumped to its feet and applauded for a long, long time.