Literally while writing the previous post about the importance of recording history before the witnesses leave us, I heard on KERA-FM, NPR reporter Juan Williams’ intimate, detailed and stirring story about Oliver W. Hill, one of the lawyers who brought one of the five cases that resulted in the historic 1954 reversal of U.S. law, in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education (347 U.S. 483).
In 1940, Mr. Hill won his first civil rights case in Virginia, one that required equal pay for black and white teachers. Eight years later, he was the first black elected to the Richmond City Council since Reconstruction.
A lawsuit argued by Mr. Hill in 1951 on behalf of students protesting deplorable conditions at their high school for blacks in Farmville became one of five cases decided under Brown.
That case from Farmville offers students a more personal view of their own power in life. The case resulted from a student-led demonstration at Moton High School in Farmville. Moton was an all-black school, with facilities amazingly inferior to the new white high school in Farmville — no indoor plumbing, for example. While the Virginia NAACP failed at several similar cases earlier, and while the organization had a policy of taking no more school desegregation cases, the students’ earnestness and sincerity swayed Oliver Hill to try one more time:
On May 23, 1951, a NAACP lawyer filed suit in the federal district court in Richmond, VA, on behalf of 117 Moton High School, Prince Edward County, VA, students and their parents. The first plaintiff listed was Dorothy Davis, a 14-year old ninth grader; the case was titled Dorothy E. Davis, et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Virginia, et. al. It asked that the state law requiring segregated schools in Virginia be struck down.
Davis was consolidated with four other cases, from the District of Columbia, Delaware, South Carolina, and Brown from Kansas; it was argued in 1953, but the Court deadlocked on a decision. When Chief Justice Arthur Vinson died and was replaced by the (hoped-to-be) conservative Chief Justice Earl Warren, Warren got the Court to re-hear the case. Because he thought it was such an important case in education, Warren worked to get a solid majority. The Court which was deadlocked late in 1953, in May 1954 issued the Brown decision unanimously, overturning the separate-but-equal rule from Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) (167 U.S. 537).
Brown was the big boulder whose rolling off the hill of segregation gave power to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. That decision and the horrible murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi in the summer of 1955 inspired civil rights worker Rosa Parks to take a stand, and take a seat for human rights on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus in December of 1955, which led to the 1956 Montgomery Bus Boycott, led by the new preacher in town, a young man named Martin Luther King, Jr. When the Supreme Court again chose civil rights over segregation in the bus case, the wake of the great ship of history clearly showed a change in course.
Oliver Hill was there, one of the navigators of that ship of history.