Oliver Hill, Pillar of Civil Rights, Dies

Attorney Oliver Hill was one of a handful of pioneering legal eagles who risked his career and his life to challenge American justice in the days of segregation. Hill's old neighbor and friend, Douglas Wilder — the first African American ever elected governor of a U.S. state — helps remember Hill, who died last weekend.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

The civil rights movement didn't just changed hearts and minds. It changed laws. A handful of lawyers risked their careers and their lives to balance the scales of justice. Perhaps the last of these great lawmen, Oliver Hill, died this weekend at his home in Richmond, Virginia. He was a hundred years old.

Born and raised in Virginia, Hill was a product of segregated schools. When his step-uncle, who was a lawyer, died, his aunt gave young Oliver her husband's law books. It was then that Hill realized that he wanted to practice law with a specific purpose - to put a legal end to segregation.

Hill earned an undergraduate degree from Howard University in 1931. Two years later, he got a law degree from Howard as well. Only one of his classmates managed to graduate with better grades - his good friend, Thurgood Marshall. Another friend is Douglas Wilder, the current mayor of Richmond and former governor of Virginia. Wilder was a protege of Hill's when they worked for the NAACP. Wilder says Hill's early success at Howard shows his tenacity and high standards.

Mayor DOUGLAS WILDER (Democrat, Richmond, Virginia): He didn't suffer fools too gladly. He didn't tolerate the excuses. He believed if you - he was a man of punctuality. He believed that if it said 8 o'clock, be there at 8 o'clock, start it at 8 o'clock. And he believed in a dispatch of your responsibilities. If you're supposed to do something, do it. He made few excuses for anyone else and he made none for himself.

CHIDEYA: In 1940, Oliver Hill won his first civil rights case. He argued that black teachers deserve the same pay as white teachers. But it wasn't until 1951 that he took up the case that would make him famous. Hill argued on behalf of black students in Farmville, Virginia. Their segregated school, they charged, was in such bad shape that separate was not equal. The suit became one of a handful of cases at the heart of the Brown V. Board of Education decision. The defeat of this pillar of segregation inspired a generation of younger African-Americans to pursue law and politics. Among them, Douglas Wilder. He became the first African-American ever elected governor of a U.S. state. But if it weren't for Gil, Wilder says, he might have pursued a very different path.

Mr. WILDER: I was a chemistry major as well as a chemical technician when the Browns' case came out, that's caused me to go to law school. And I said, wow, these guys are making all of the necessary changes and they're going to need help, and so it was greatly inspirational for me.

CHIDEYA: Though a lawyer by nature, Oliver Hill never shied away from politics. In 1948, he became the first African-American elected to the Richmond City Council since Reconstruction. In later life, he served on a number of high-profile panels, including the national Democratic Party's Biracial Committee on Civil Rights.

Hill once said he would have liked to represent his Virginia home in Congress. While that never happened, the Congressional Black Caucus now has 43 members, including a current presidential candidate. And many of those leaders had never attended a segregated school, thanks in part to Oliver Hill.

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