View of an elegant restaurant interior
View of an elegant restaurant interior ()

Inspired by a 1965 talk in Houston by U.S. Solicitor General Archibald Cox, Houston lawyer Marvin Nathan took a job with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice right out of law school, where he tried civil rights cases in the Deep South, starting in 1966.

Nathan didn’t leave a passion for civil rights behind after he left the DOJ for private practice in his hometown of Houston; he’s been an active member of the Anti-Defamation League for 30 years and was the national chairman of the ADL’s Civil Rights Committee from 2003 to 2009.

Nathan, who started law school at the University of Texas in 1963 but graduated from the University of Houston Law Center, said he came of age during the “cataclysmic time in our country when civil rights was on the front page of our newspapers,” the country was rocked by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 and the Vietnam War had begun its buildup.

Nathan said Cox came to Houston to bolster support for civil rights issues and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“In all candor, he struck me deeply, in his words and his tone,” Nathan recalls.

Nathan said the DOJ interviewed at the U of H Law Center campus for the first time in 1965. After his interview, Deputy Attorney General Ramsey Clark, a Dallas native, called Nathan to offer him a job in the Civil Rights Division.

“I was 23 years old and really a rookie. I knew who Ramsey Clark was because his dad was on the U.S. Supreme Court. I was sort of floored,” Nathan recalls, noting that Clark said President Lyndon Baines Johnson was highly committed to enforcement of civil rights laws and wanted graduates of Southern law schools working on the litigation.

Nathan worked in the Civil Rights Division for two years, beginning in March 1966. He said the first case he worked on was United States v. Northwest Louisiana Restaurant Club, which was filed under Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In that suit, the government alleged the defendants denied “Negroes” public accommodation by calling themselves private clubs and issuing membership cards to whites that entitled them to dine in member restaurants, but the defendants denied membership cards and therefore accommodation to “Negroes.”

In 1966 the government obtained a permanent injunction against the practice in that case.

Nathan said he also worked in a number of school desegregation cases in Louisiana under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and also worked in enforcement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Most of his work was in Louisiana, Mississippi and Kentucky.

After returning to Houston, Nathan went into private practice, and in 1970 founded the firm now known as Nathan Sommers Jacobs.

In his role as national chair of the ADL’s Civil Rights Committee, Nathan said the committee filed amicus briefs in many significant civil rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

He said the impact of the civil rights laws Johnson advocated for is “huge” but incomplete.

“I don’t think we’ve had a total success. When you read a story about Donald Sterling on the West Coast, you know there is latent bigotry and racism in our country,” he said in reference to a recording of remarks allegedly made by the Los Angeles Clippers owner.