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Lawyer led the way on civil rights

His work in front of the Supreme Court helped end segregation.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published August 6, 2007


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RICHMOND, Va. - Oliver W. Hill, a civil rights lawyer who was at the front of the legal effort that desegregated public schools, has died at age 100, a family friend said.

Mr. Hill died peacefully Sunday at his home during breakfast, a friend of the Hill family said.

In 1954, he was part of a series of lawsuits against racially segregated public schools that became the Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which changed America's society by setting the foundation for integrated education.

"He was among the vanguard in seeking equal opportunity for all individuals, and he was steadfast in his commitment to effect change. He will be missed," said L. Douglas Wilder, who in 1989 became the nation's first elected black governor. Wilder is now Richmond's mayor.

In 1940, Mr. Hill won his first civil rights case in Virginia, one that required equal pay for black and white teachers. Eight years later, he was the first black elected to Richmond's City Council since Reconstruction.

A lawsuit argued by Mr. Hill in 1951 on behalf of students protesting deplorable conditions at their high school for blacks in Farmville became one of five cases decided under Brown.

Those battles to end the Jim Crow era were dangerous ones for Mr. Hill and other civil rights leaders. Mr. Hill once received so many threats that he and his wife, Berensenia, would not allow their son to answer the telephone.

Nor did his battle for civil rights bring him wealth.

"We got very few fees for any of this," he said in a 1992 interview in the Richmond News Leader.

Mr. Hill never lost sight of the importance of the 1954 court ruling. Without it, he said in an interview in the Richmond Times-Dispatch this year, "I doubt (Dr. Martin Luther) King would have gotten to first base."

Mr. Hill graduated second in his class from Howard University's law school in 1933. The top graduate that year was his friend Thurgood Marshall, who became the Supreme Court's first black justice.

In 1999, Mr. Hill received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, from President Bill Clinton.

[Last modified August 6, 2007, 01:34:17]


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