Branton, Wiley A.
Wiley A. Branton
Lawyer, civil rights activist
Wiley A. Branton was the mastermind behind the legal strategy that caused the Little Rock Nine to claim national attention in 1957 when nine African American students successfully integrated Central High School. These students and the adults who supported them faced great personal danger from whites who did not want to see the end of the South's rigidly segregated social system. Branton began working on school desegregation in Arkansas soon after the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. An army veteran, Branton had just passed the Arkansas bar two years before Brown. Washington Post journalist Juan Williams wrote in 1988, that when asked about all the work and time that led to the Little Rock school desegregation victory, Branton replied, "I was just doing my job."
Branton was an indefatigable advocate for civil rights during his entire adult life and was liked and trusted by a broad spectrum of his contemporaries, black and white. In the same Post article Williams noted that when civil rights leaders needed someone to approach Martin Luther King Jr. about the harm to the civil rights movement that his sexual indiscretions caused and the negative publicity about King being aired by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the leaders got together and selected Branton to talk to King. Branton was charged not only to speak to King about the matter but also to get him to agree to limits on his behavior. Branton was willing to go to King and discuss the controversy. King listened to him and agreed to curb his behavior. Many of Branton's friends and colleagues confirmed that Branton seemed to have an innate ability to deal courageously and tactfully with very different personalities in a variety of difficult and often dangerous situations.
Born on December 13, 1923, to a family of professionals in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Branton was of African, Indian, and European descent. During the days of rigid segregation, he occasionally found himself in danger because he was mistaken for a white man. His father and grandfather ran a prosperous taxi service in Pine Bluff called Branton's 98. Wiley's mother, a Tuskegee Institute graduate, and maternal grandmother were both teachers. Wiley attended segregated institutions until he graduated from college—Missouri Street Elementary School, Merrill High School and Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College (AM&N; now University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff). Branton always believed that in spite of the segregation he faced, he received a good basic education. As a teen, he and his brothers worked with his father's taxi service, and while he was in college, he was the full time general manager of the business. Because of his active involvement in the taxi service as a young person, he believed that he would spend his career working as a businessman. His undergraduate degree was in business administration.
- Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas on December 13
- Enrolls at Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College; serves as full time manager of Branton's 98, his family's taxi business
- Joins the U. S. Army and trains in military intelligence; works as a bridge construction foreman in the South Pacific
- Honorably discharged from the army; returns to Arkansas and begins to actively fight for civil rights
- Marries Lucille McKee with whom he has five children; is charged and convicted of violating an Arkansas law for engaging in an NAACP voter registration drive; helps Silas N. Hunt integrate the University of Arkansas Law School; tries to enroll in the University of Arkansas business program but is unsuccessful
- Enrolls in University of Arkansas law school
- Through a special veterans preference program, passes the bar exam before graduation
- Becomes the third black person to graduate from the University of Arkansas Law School
- Defends the Little Rock nine and shares the national spotlight with NAACP Legal Defense Fund director Thurgood Marshall and the local NAACP branch president, journalist Daisy Bates
- Serves as legal representative for the freedom riders in Mississippi
- Named executive director of the Southern Regional Council's voter education project based in Atlanta; registers almost 700,000 voters in eleven states during the three years of his tenure
- Moves to Washington, D.C. to become executive secretary of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Council on Equal Opportunity; later in the same year moves to the Department of Justice where he serves as a special consultant to the attorney general
- Serves as the executive director of the United Planning Organization in Washington, D.C., a poverty program
- Serves as AFL-CIO's director of Social Action for the Alliance for Labor Action
- Practices with the Washington, D.C. firm of Dolphin, Branton, Stafford & Webber
- Becomes dean of Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C.
- Serves in the Washington, D.C. office of Sidley & Austin law firm
- Dies in Washington, D.C., on December 15
In 1943, Branton joined the U. S. Army where he was trained in military intelligence and worked as a bridge construction foreman in the South Pacific. He did his work faithfully but was angered and humiliated by the segregation and mistreatment of African American troops. Branton came home determined to fight against racial injustice. One of the many experiences that played on his mind related to European prisoners of war. When he escorted Italian prisoners, they were allowed to eat at southern eateries while Branton, an American citizen and soldier, had to wait outside. This and many other demeaning occurrences only served to steel his determination to fight for the rights of all Americans. Along with so many other African American veterans, he was angered that black men could shed their blood but, for the most part, they could not cast their ballots. In 1946, Bran-ton was honorably discharged from the armed services.
In 1948 Branton married Lucille McKee, who became his lifelong partner and occasional office manager. Together they had five children who enjoyed teasing their parents about their ongoing love affair and regaling listeners with stories about the comfortable home they shared. Married life did not keep Branton from engaging in civil rights initiatives. Soon after his marriage, for engaging in an NAACP voter registration drive, Branton was charged and convicted of violating an Arkansas law relating to using copies of ballots to teach people how to vote. This misdemeanor resulted in a $3000 fine that was soon paid for Branton with a collection of funds from members of Pine Bluff's African American community. A 2003 article by Judith Kilpatrick for the Arkansas Black Lawyers Association indicated that no one else has ever been convicted of breaking the same ballot law. In 1948 Branton also helped Silas N. Hunt integrate the University of Arkansas Law School. Branton tried to enroll in the University of Arkansas business program but was unsuccessful.
In 1950, Branton received a B.S. in business administration and subsequently enrolled in the University of Arkansas Law School. Through a special veterans preference program, Branton passed the bar examination in 1952 before he graduated. In 1953, Branton became the third black person to graduate from the University of Arkansas Law School and the fourth African American to attend. By the end of his career, Branton was a member of the bars of Arkansas, Georgia, the District of Columbia, and the Supreme Court of the United States. Later in his career, the Washington, D.C. Bar Association complimented Branton for expending his best efforts "on matters which are calculated to have the most positive effect upon the quality of life for his fellow human beings."
The Little Rock Nine
Branton practiced in Little Rock for ten years, from 1952 to 1962, and took on a variety of cases relating to labor, civil rights, and other mundane matters such as wills, deeds, and divorces. Yet, he actively sought to make a difference in the field of civil rights for all Americans. Soon after he began his practice the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the school desegregation decision. Branton actively sought the implementation of the Brown decision in Arkansas. Initially, it seemed that the Little Rock school board was quite progressive with a plan in place that would allow three hundred African American students into Central High School. However, school desegregation was such a volatile issue that—in response to the violent displeasure of the segregationists—the board kept reducing the number. Finally the board decided that only twenty-five African American high school students would be admitted to Central. Of those twenty-five, only nine had parents who agreed to allow their children to undergo the ordeal of being the integration vanguard. The other parents refused to subject their offspring to the inevitable ordeal. The nine children who agreed to confront the racism gained national and international renown as the Little Rock Nine. Their courageous efforts have been repeatedly chronicled in articles, books, and television documentaries through the following decades.
NAACP lawyer Jack Greenberg explained in his 1994 memoir Crusaders in the Courts that at first Governor Orval Faubus seemed to be a moderate on racial issues. Later, though, he became wildly popular among many of his white constituents—as well as with segregationists and white supremacists throughout the South—when he rose up to oppose the Little Rock school board's desegregation decision. To the amazement of observers, he called out the Arkansas National Guard on September 2, 1957, just before school was scheduled to open. The guard's sole purpose was to prevent the African American students from enrolling at Central High. When the Little Rock school desegregation case began, Branton defended the Little Rock Nine and the desegregation plans in the court and remained as chief counsel in the case; he yielded much of the national spotlight to NAACP Legal Defense Fund director Thurgood Marshall, who became his lifelong friend. The nation's attention was galvanized when Governor Faubus took his unyielding stand with the segregationists against the nine youths who were attempting to integrate Central.
Artists, photojournalists, and television cameramen captured the hatred that rained down upon the nine young people. Hundreds of white adults spat at the youths and shouted obscenities and racial epithets as local police tried unsuccessfully to hold them back. Because Governor Faubus refused to comply with the federal mandate to desegregate, officials began to call on President Dwight Eisenhower to intervene. President Eisenhower nationalized the Arkansas National Guard, charging them to protect the Little Rock Nine, and ordered one thousand paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to protect the students and restore order. Members of the Airborne Division met at local NAACP president Daisy Bates's house. It was there that the children assembled each school day to pray and fortify themselves for the day's battle. Some soldiers escorted the children to school, others surrounded the school, and still other servicemen escorted the students through the hallways. The servicemen guarded the students from September through most of November.
Litigating this case, Branton worked closely with other NAACP lawyers such as Marshall, Constance Baker Motley, and Jack Greenberg as well as journalists Daisy Bates and her husband L. C. Bates. The segregationists' response to Branton and the others was brutal. The homes, possessions, and bodies of the civil rights workers were constantly in danger. Even in the face of cross burnings, rock throwing, bombs, and other types of intimidation, these lawyers fought and won several important U. S. Supreme Court decisions which disallowed the tactics that the Arkansas governor used to stop school desegregation, such as closing public schools or trying to turn public schools into private ones. Jack Greenberg in Crusaders in the Courts details Branton's pivotal role in Little Rock and the strategy the NAACP lawyers employed during the court battles. In his 1998 biography, Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary, Juan Williams states that, at first, Marshall was worried about Branton's ability to face tremendous pressure but later he said, "They had crosses burning on his lawn and everything, but he was a really tough guy." Together they learned that they should have taken less time to rejoice over the Brown decision and should have been designing strategies for implementation of desegregation.
Civil Rights and Voting Rights Campaigns
Branton was often able to act as mediator because he was able to cooperate with many civil rights leaders and lawyers without trying to focus the spotlight on himself. Central High was just one of the many skirmishes Branton had with white racists. During the 1960s Branton served as legal representative for some freedom riders in Mississippi. While a trial was in progress in Indianola in 1961, a white man came into the courtroom and sprayed insecticide on Branton and the defendants without the judge or court officials making any attempt to stop him. The man said that he was trying to free the court of vermin.
By 1962, Branton's role began to alter but was no less perilous. With the support of President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and a number of civil rights leaders, Branton was named executive director of the Southern Regional Council's Voter Education Project based in Atlanta, Georgia. In the nineteenth century, after the passage of the fifteenth amendment granting voting rights to all male citizens regardless of color, African Americans were able to elect people of color to many elective positions on local, state, and federal levels because African Americans vastly outnumbered whites in some parts of the South. To counter a perceived threat of African American domination, whites began to employ a variety of tactics to disenfranchise African Americans. These included poll taxes, grandfather clauses (if one's grandfather had not voted, then the citizen was ineligible to vote), various tests, white-only primaries, as well as outright intimidation and threats against African Americans who wanted to exercise the franchise. White segregationists resisted voting rights for African Americans as much as they resisted desegregation in general. They believed that if African Americans were armed with the ballot, white control of the black populace would come to an end. Consequently they opposed enfranchisement of African Americans in every way they could. Nevertheless, the Voter Education Project registered almost 700,000 voters in eleven states during the three years of Branton's tenure. His work on this project increased the momentum that led to the creation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and brought him to the attention of many federal officials.
Washington, D.C. and Howard University
Because of Branton's success with the Voter Education Project, in 1965 he was invited to come to Washington, D.C, to become executive secretary of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Council on Equal Opportunity. Later in the same year President Johnson shifted Branton to the Department of Justice to serve as a special consultant to the attorney general. Branton served until 1967 under both Nicholas Katzenbach and Ramsey Clark. While working for the federal government, he was able to continue his efforts to get African Americans registered to vote. Branton described his work in this way in the Arkansas Gazette of May 1, 1966: "Mostly I work with private organizations and individuals as a sort of liaison between the Justice Department and private groups and other government agencies in an effort to assist the implementation of the Voting Rights Act." Branton traveled all over the South explaining the Johnson administration's commitment to civil and voting rights. Branton also served as an overseer of proper voter registration procedures and acted to redress official complaints from those who felt they were being mistreated or defrauded in their efforts to register.
One of the goals of the civil rights movement was to relieve poverty, especially among minorities. From 1967 to 1969, Branton worked as the executive director of the United Planning Organization (UPO) in Washington, D.C. This poverty program helped D.C. communities design programs that would meet their own needs. UPO would review the program proposals to see if they were feasible and then could provide funding. In 1969 Walter Reuther, a prominent leader of the AFL-CIO, recruited Branton as director of Social Action for the Alliance for Labor Action. Branton assisted in supervising programs for the poor in the areas of jobs, housing, health care, and legal and social services. This position only lasted for two years, though. Upon Reuther's death in 1971, Branton rejoined the Washington-based law firm, Dolphin, Branton, Stafford & Weber, and was counsel to the Little Rock Arkansas firm of Walker, Kaplan and Mays.
In 1978 Branton became the dean of Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C, and served in that capacity until 1983. Howard Law School lawyers and instructors such as Charles Hamilton Houston, James Nabrit, William H. Hastie, and Thurgood Marshall were in the forefront of the legal battle against segregation and discrimination for many years. The success of the movement, however, ultimately presented a problem to the law school. During the decades of segregation, African Americans who wanted to study law had very few choices of law schools to which they could apply. Howard was considered by many to be the best law school available to them. After integration, white schools began competing with Howard and other historically black law schools for students with the most potential and highest test scores. Many Howard law students were not performing well on their bar exams because they lacked adequate writing skills. During his tenure as dean, Branton attempted to restore the law school to its "glory days," but he faced many daunting challenges from both the students and the administration. In 1983, Branton returned to private practice with the Washington, D.C. office of Sidley & Austin. Branton died on December 15, 1988.
During his illustrious career Branton received many honors and awards. Walter E. Fauntroy, D.C. delegate to the U.S. Congress, read into the Congressional Record on Thursday, February 9, 1989 a tribute to the life and work of Wiley A. Branton. In his posthumous salute to Branton, Fauntroy mentioned some of Branton's honors, including awards from the National Bar Association, the Civil Liberties Union, the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under the Law, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award from the District of Columbia Public Library just before he died in 1988. Congressman Fauntroy said that Branton had earned "respect, admiration and lasting friendship of all for his courageous, resolute dedication and unselfish efforts in forging new paths in our society. We shall miss him but we will never forget him."
Greenberg, Jack. Crusaders in the Courts: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
Williams, Juan. Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary. New York: Random House, 1998.
Williams, Juan. "Little Known Wiley Branton." Washington Post, (19 December 1988): A13.
Fauntroy, Hon. Walter E. "Wiley A. Branton, Civil Rights Leader, Attorney, Law School Dean." Congressional Record 9 February 1989. http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?r101:E09FE9-218 (Accessed 15 January 2006).
Kilpatrick, Judith. "Wiley Austin Branton: Arkansas Native Son. Arkansas Black Lawyers. www.arkansasblacklawyers.net/branton.html (Accessed 15 January 2006).
Muse, Clifford L., Jr. "Wiley Austin Branton." HUArchives Net: The Electronic Journal, Howard University, November 1999. www.huarchivesnet.howard.edu (Accessed 15 January 2006).
The Wiley A. Branton Papers are in the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C.
Debra Newman Ham