Champion for justice


An old friend died the other day.

Bill Taylor wasn’t just anybody either.  Not to me.  Not to the country.

Indeed, his obit ran in The New York Times and other major newspapers.

They told how he was a major civil rights attorney, starting his career with Thurgood Marshall, then head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Attorneys there had this brilliant young lawyer write the legal brief in the Little Rock desegregation case.

He was the lead attorney in a number of cases, including St. Louis.  And in Cincinnati.

“I wish we could clone him,” Federal District Judge Walter Rice in that case told me.

I got to know Bill when I was writing editorials that called for Fort Wayne Community Schools to fully desegregate its kids.  That was in the 1970s and 1980s.  The district ran half dozen schools that we nearly all black in our inner city.   Bill, mostly by telephone, tutored me in the fine points of desegregation law, the history of major court decisions and the legal basis of any suit we could file against the district here.

I got to know Bill best at education conferences and, when my wife Toni was a program officer at the National Science Foundation in 1992, over a number of lunches.

I helped enlist Bill to lead the effort to get the Fort Wayne district to do what I strongly felt was its legal and moral responsibility.   With the financial support of Lincoln National Corp.’s CEO, Ian Rolland, Bill got involved.  First, he tried negotiations with school attorneys.  That produced only frustration.  Then, in 1986, he filed the lawsuit in federal court.   It wasn’t until 1989, however, that district officials consented to an out-of-court settlement.

The result was to racially balance all Fort Wayne schools, mostly by creating a number of magnet schools.

That watershed event in the community’s history now seems so long ago.  You no longer see letters to the editor decrying the integration of the schools.  Nobody even proposes filing a new lawsuit to overturn the district’s method of assigning students.  A recent Supreme Court ruling would appear to place that method in legal jeopardy.

Meantime, in his legal work, and lobbying in Congress,  Bill went on to other things.  That included drafting the No Child Left Behind Law for Sen. Ted Kennedy.  To Bill’s dismay, President Bush and the Republican controlled Congress failed to adequately fund the law.   Nevertheless, Bill always felt that much-maligned law helped established standards to the benefit of poor and minority kids.  He wrote a memoir, “The Passion of My Times.”

Since I learned of Bill’s death last week, I’ve often thought how far from realizing the equality that civil rights champions like him dreamed of.  Lots of our fellow citizens object to the idea of having a black president. Others have no interest in making it possible for undocumented immigrants to become citizens.

Maybe these folks don’t hate America.  But it’s the America of the 1950s they think they love.   The country we’ve become, with much expanded rights and opportunities for those who may not be like us,  that’s the America they hate.

To the end, though, I know that Bill Taylor never gave up on his dream of a greater America, a country of justice for all.   He sure did his part.  Of course, I’ll miss him.

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