Saturday, August 11, 2007

RIP and Thank You, Oliver Hill

(Hat tip and props to Lilith who posted this comprehensive honoraria of Oliver Hill's life when the first news broke; I'm now posting the draft I had to abandon because work called, as always!)

Oliver White Hill, the last of the titans who brought the original desegregation cases consolidated in the now-moribund Brown v. Board of Education passed this week, at the age of 100.

Oliver W. Hill is not one of those names that most folks think of when they think of Brown.  The late Justice Thurgood Marshall is usually who folks remember.  Occasionally, they remember the master strategist Charles Hamilton Houston who mentored Justice Marshall, as well.
Yet Oliver Hill was bringing desegregation cases just as long as Justice Marshall, having been in the same Howard Law School Class - the Class of 1933.

Beginning in the 1930's, from his home state of Virginia, Oliver W. Hill was fighting the good fight, to provide busing for Black students to access better schools, funding for Black school facilities and texts that were equal to that received by whites, you name it.  Yet most would contend that his highest and best work was in taking the case that begame his contribution to the decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS.  Hill's case, Davis v. Prince Edward County was ultimately one of the four consolidated separate but equal cases addressed by the Supreme Court's decision Brown v. Board of Education holding segregated schools to be inherently unequal, and thus unconstitutional.

For those who study the civil rights movement, Hill's name is recognized, quietly, as one of the original heroes when it came to desegregation litigation in the US, being awarded with the Springarn Medal award in 2005, for example, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999.  Oliver Hill remained a practicing lawyer advocating for civil rights and civil liberties until he was 90, even after he became wheelchair bound, and lost his sight.  Rumor has it that although Hill had gotten frail over his passing years, he could still recall the cases he brought as if they were the day before.  (That's a Big Deal, to me.  I know I don't have that much game, and I'm only 1/2 way to 90.....God bless that type of commitment.)

But a household name he is not.

I'm not sure he ever wanted or needed to be.  If you look at Oliver Hill's most prominent case, the Davis case, you see many parallels between how he practiced law and the clients he practiced law for.  I see the synergies because the Davis stemmed from the actions of another hero(ine) of the civil rights movement --whose name is often forgotten today --  a young teenager named Barbara Johns

In 1951, Barbara Johns was a 16 year old who was sick and tired of being sick and tired of the degraded physical conditions, lack of funding and lack of college-oriented course offerings at her Black high school, Moton High School, compared to the white high school in her town, Farmville, Virginia.  After black parents tried and failed repeatedly to persuade the county to equalize funding and facilities, young Ms. Johns took matters into her own hands.  Showing strategic skills that some of our US military generals could probably learn from, she organized and led a strike of 450 high school students which lasted for weeks.

This strike caught the attention of the NAACP, and Oliver Hill, and (with the students' permission that their case could seek to obtain integrated schools, not just equal funding) led to Hill's filing the Davis case.  As history confirms, they lost, with the Virginia courts embracing segregation so long as there was equality - all the way to the US Supreme Court, which reversed all over courts in its holding that segregated education was inherently unequal.

Yet when it was over, Barbara Johns did not hit the lecture circuit, end up on television, or gain any prominence.  Neither did Oliver Hill.  Both kept working at what they did best, what they had fought for from the beginning.  And, so, just as Barbara Johns died in 1991 a small town librarian, Oliver White Hill passed as a well-regarded, yet still in the trenches rather than in the spotlight, Virginia lawyer.  Neither of them having ever apparently sought the limelight and fame that their bravery and willingness to attack the status quo on behalf of Black folks would have given them a right to. 

Especially after Prince Edward County, furious over what began as Barbara Johns and 116 other student plaintiffs going to the Courthouse with Oliver Hill as their NAACP lawyer and ended with a commandment from the US Supreme Court to desegregate and a series of court decisions shutting down all of Virginia's facile attempts to avoid that, shut down its entire public school system for five years in a collective act of racist defiance aka "massive resistance" rather than comply with Brown -- an act that Prince Edward County apologized for only four years ago and for which reparations in the form of scholarships were provided -- but only after advocated fiercely by a guilty, private white citizen for depriving more than 1,000 Black children the free and appropriate education to which they were entitled.

Oliver Hill remained in the trenches in Virginia that entire time, continuing to fight to desegregate schools, work and other places where racism limited life chances for Blacks in Virginia.  His role in the national movement towards desergregation largely unknown today, except to those who followed.

Despite him not being known to everyone, Oliver W. Hill was nonetheless a central figure in our legal history as a people here in the United States struggling for equality in the 20th Century, and we should honor his memory.  Reasonable minds can and do differ on whether desegregation efforts were truly worth the sacrifices, especially now that Brown as precedent has been gutted using its very own words in that twisted, facile display of right-wing reasoning engaged in by the Roberts Court in Parents Involved with Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist. #1.  But there's something to be said for the view held by Oliver Hill, who once contended:  without Brown as the philosophical foundation, Dr. King's subsequent work likely would not have stood a chance.  That may very well be the truth.

A nice way to honor Oliver White Hill, if you are so inclined, would be to donate to the Oliver Hill Foundation, formed in 2000 to support young law students who wish to work furthering the causes of civil rights and civil liberties through law.  Or, check out Hill's autobiography, The Big Bang:  Brown v. Board of Education (available through the Foundation). We need to support institutions of this type -- owned and managed by those with the most at stake -- which funnel cash and support to those up and comings who will have to carry on the work, but might need a little help, in the field of law. 


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