Virginia Trial Lawyers Association - Preserving and protecting justice for all Virginians
Law Letter Online November 16, 2007
Black Like Me
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Black Like Me
Chuck Zauzig, VTLA President

“His effigy was strung up from the traffic light on Main Street. A cross was burned on the lawn of the black church near his house. He received death threats and was denounced as a traitor to the white race.” [1]

In the fall of 1959 John Griffin chemically changed the color of his skin so he could experience firsthand the prejudices directed toward the black man in the South.[2] He published his book Black Like Me in 1960 which began the social and financial retribution summarized above. Thereafter, Griffin traveled with civil rights activists and witnessed firsthand the real danger that surrounded the movement:

“One thing was clear: We had to accept the fact that these principles were worth dying for and that there were plenty of people who were willing to see us dis-appear… . They and many, many others acted with a bravery and heroism almost incomprehensible to most men. They went into areas of extreme danger.” [3]

This was a time in our country where there was a clash of ideals. One, as Griffin points out, is “…the universal one of men who destroy the souls and bodies of other men….” The other was one that embraced the true spirit of the United States Constitution which would become a weapon against the pattern of persecution.

Emerging from this chaos many persons rose above fear and became heroes. In Virginia, Oliver Hill proved his courage. As a college sophomore Hill was given a copy of the United States Constitution and determined that he would be an instrument of change:

“… and that’s when I read the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t – why segregation laws didn’t violate them, so I went down to Congressional Library and read the cases that were cited as being where the Supreme Court had interpreted these amendments and I read about Plessy, and I just thought they lost their cotton-picking minds with their decision, so – at that time, you couldn’t – the big issue for the NAACP was anti-lynching law and you couldn’t get a law through Congress making it a crime to lynch a Negro… So I decided the only thing for us to do was for somebody to carry a case back to the Supreme Court and convince them that they ought to reverse Plessy, and somebody ought to do it, so I didn’t see why I shouldn’t be the somebody.” [4]

Armed as a lawyer, Hill went on to battle discrimination in the Courts of Virginia and ultimately the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1943 Hill obtained equal pay for black teachers. [5] In 1951 he began the fight on behalf of black students at a segregated Farmville high school. Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County didn’t merely ask for equal facilities, it demanded an end to segregation in public schools. Davis [6] was consolidated as one of the five cases in Brown v. Board of Education, which recognized the irreversible damage of segregation:

“Such considerations apply with added force to children in grade and high schools. To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.” Brown v. Bd of Education at 494 (1954).

Of course, the “all deliberate speed” mandate of Brown II became a battle of wills in Virginia. Notably there was the official state policy of the Byrd organization known as “massive resistance” to avoid integration. It was a time of high emotions, of threats, of violence. The flavor of the times is reflected in Martin Luther Kings’ acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964:

“I accept this award on behalf of a civil rights movement which is moving with determination and a majestic scorn for risk and danger to establish a reign of freedom and a rule of justice. I am mindful that only yesterday in Birmingham, Alabama, our children, crying out for brotherhood, were answered with fire hoses, snarling dogs and even death. I am mindful that only yesterday in Philadelphia, Mississippi, young people seeking to secure the right to vote were brutalized and murdered. And only yesterday more than 40 houses of worship in the State of Mississippi alone were bombed or burned because they offered a sanctuary to those who would not accept segregation.”

It was in this atmosphere that Oliver Hill practiced law. His was a strong voice for social change. His was a strong heart with faith in his country’s Constitution.

Every legal organization has heaped awards at this great man’s feet. In 1999 Oliver Hill was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest honor. This year Oliver Hill passed away at 100 years of age. There are few in our profession that have advocated for higher causes and even fewer at such risk. Virginia Trial Lawyers Association honors Oliver Hill for his life and courage. This year, and for the future, we will change the name of our Courageous Advocate Award, which has only been awarded twice in its 20-year history, to the Oliver White Hill Courageous Advocate Award which will be given as a tribute to those who have demonstrated the highest attributes in our profession in advancing a cause regardless of personal consequences. We anticipate that this award will be given sparingly in the years to come. What is certain is that Oliver Hill’s name will always be attached to the highest quality in a trial lawyer – courage.

When I learned that Oliver Hill had died, on many levels I realized I could not begin to understand the times he lived through as a black man, let alone an activist for change. I thought of John Griffin who acknowledged that his attempt to experience life as a “black John Howard Griffin” was temporary but the change in how he was perceived and treated was immediate. For just a short while he shared in the “…despair (that) hungover the lives of black people, a scene of utter hopelessness…”. This hopelessness was made worse by the establishment that perpetuated it, “that every time black men thought they had found a loophole in the closed society…” that loophole was quickly plugged by the consent of white society. Oliver Hill did not eradicate prejudice but he helped bring down laws that perpetuated racism.

1 Saturday Review
2 “I learned within very few hours that no one was judging me by my qualities as a human individual and everyone was judging me by my pigment. “ Griffin, Black Like Me, p. 166. 
3 Griffin, Black Like Me, p. 172
4 Explorations in Black Leadership, Oliver Hill interviewed by Julian Bond
5 Alston v. School Board of Norfolk Va., 112 F.2d 992 (4th Cir.) (1940)
6 Lest it be forgotten, the Virginia Constitution §140 and the Code of Virginia, 1950, §22-221 required the separation of whites and blacks in public schools.

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