Civil Rights Lawyer Oliver Hill Dies at 100

Oliver Hill, a civil rights lawyer who was at the front of desegregating public schools, has died at age 100. In 1954, he was part of a series of lawsuits against racially segregated public schools that became the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Civil rights lawyer Oliver Hill lived for a century. And in those hundred years, he led the legal fight against racial segregation. He died yesterday at his home in Richmond, Virginia.

NPR's Juan Williams knew Oliver Hill and interviewed him for books on the civil rights movement, and Juan joins us now. Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about Oliver Hill. He became a civil rights leader in what had been the capital of the Confederacy.

WILLIAMS: He really was an extraordinary individual who became a civil rights lawyer largely because he left Virginia to go to Howard University Law School under the dean, who was then Charles Hamilton Houston, a man who told him and Thurgood Marshall - his law school classmate - that they had to be social engineers in order to fight against separate but equal, the Supreme Court decision of 1896 called Plessy v. Ferguson. And Oliver Hill took it to heart and became one of the leading civil rights lawyers in the heart of the confederacy in Virginia. He had more than 75 cases at one point pending against segregation in that state.

MONTAGNE: And his most famous case probably was Virginia's - was in Virginia's Prince Edward County. Tell us about that one.

WILLIAMS: In 1951, Renee, he got a call from a young woman named Barbara Johns, who complained about the separate but equal education taking place at Moton High School, the inferior conditions. And working with Spotswood Robinson, who was his co-counsel, they began a case in that county that became one of the five cases, you know, collectively known as Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the Supreme Court ruling ending legal school segregation in the United States.

Here he is, talking about that case in an interview I did with him in 2004, the day before his 97th birthday.

Mr. OLIVER HILL (Civil Rights Attorney): At this time, this was in 1920. At that time, you couldn't get a law through Congress making it a crime to lynch a negro, much less extend his civil rights. So I've concluded as long as (unintelligible) was that somebody take another case to the Supreme Court and convince them that they were wrong in 1896.

WILLIAMS: And, of course, that case, the 1896 case, Renee, was Plessy v. Ferguson.

MONTAGNE: And Oliver Hill also broke ground as a politician.

WILLIAMS: He did. You know, he was one of - he was the first black man elected to the Richmond City Council after reconstruction. This is in the late 1940s. And you have to understand that Oliver Hill was up against the massive resistance machine - resistance to legal segregation run by a segregationist political structure throughout the state of Virginia. It was a short political career, but it's evidence of a guy who was fighting his whole life against segregation, really leading the effort, going back to 1940 when he was winning teacher pay equality cases, arguing for equality in all aspects of life in Virginia. He really was, in so many ways, a gentleman, a Southern gentleman, but one who was quite determined on every front, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Just give us a brief memory here. Oliver Hill received the Presidential Medal of Freedom eight years ago. You were there.

WILLIAMS: This was in '99 at the White House. And President Clinton gave him the honor - obviously, it's towards the end of his career. He'd already won American Bar Association medal and been praised. But Clinton said to him he was the man who withstood for everything just to make America truly equal and indivisible.

MONTAGNE: Thanks, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Juan Williams, remembering civil rights attorney Oliver Hill, who died yesterday at his home in Richmond, Virginia. He was 100 years old.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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