Monday, August 6, 2007

Civil Rights Pioneer Oliver Hill dies at 100

"Oliver W. Hill, 100, a Virginia lawyer who helped overturn legal segregation in his native state and was one of the country's foremost civil rights defenders during a six-decade career, died yesterday at his home in Richmond. He had a heart ailment," writes Adam Bernstein in today's Washington Post.

Hill was an instrumental member of an NAACP-affiliated legal team that persistently attacked segregation. He also was a lead lawyer on a Virginia case later incorporated into Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated schools unlawful....
Hill, who was raised in Washington and graduated from Dunbar High School, spent his public life in Richmond, where he first won widespread attention in 1948 as the first black person elected to the City Council in 50 years. Although his term in office was short, his civil rights legacy proved far more enduring because of his role as a lead lawyer in Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Va., one of the five cases the U.S. Supreme Court combined into its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling. [Thurgood] Marshall was the lead lawyer in the high court case.

Hill's involvement in the Davis case began through his affiliation with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and he worked closely with a team that included Marshall; Howard Law School Dean Charles Hamilton Houston, who had been a mentor to Marshall and Hill; and Spottswood W. Robinson III, a future Howard law dean and chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Their goal was to challenge more than the existing "separate but equal" system of public facilities that had been created with the U.S. Supreme Court's 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson.

In 1951, Hill and Robinson took up the cause of students at an all-black high school in Farmville, Va., who had gone on a two-week strike to protest the leaky roof and other substandard conditions of the tar-paper building. This became the Davis case.

During and after the Brown decision, Hill remained an instrumental force in developing legal strategies during Virginia's "massive resistance" to desegregation, in which many public schools closed rather than admit blacks....

He told the publication Human Rights in 1994: "I can't understand why Americans are willing to send their children -- black and white -- to foreign lands to fight, and sometimes die, to preserve the American concepts of freedom, democracy and civil rights, when at the same time these same Americans are unwilling to undergo an occasional inconvenience or suffer a slight financial loss to help break down racial barriers and racial discrimination in this country."

The full story is here. An interview with Hill is here. A link to his Presidential Medal of Freedom webpage is here. Information about the Oliver Hill Foundation is here. A slideshow is here. The Wall Street Journal law blog has other good Richmond Times-Dispatch links here.
Image credit:
Spottswood W. Robinson III, George Leakes, Elaine Bowen, and Oliver Hill. 1950s. NAACP Papers, Library of Congress. LC-USZ62-118180