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Branton, Wiley A.(1953–1988) - Lawyer, civil rights activist, Chronology, Civil Rights and Voting Rights Campaigns

arkansas african school university

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.


1923 Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas on December 13

1942 Enrolls at Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical & Normal College; serves as full time manager of Branton’s 98, his family’s taxi business

1943 Joins the U. S. Army and trains in military intelligence; works as a bridge construction foreman in the South Pacific

1946 Honorably discharged from the army; returns to Arkansas and begins to actively fight for civil rights

1948 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

1950 Enrolls in University of Arkansas law school

1952 Through a special veterans preference program, passes the bar exam before graduation

1953 Becomes the third black person to graduate from the University of Arkansas Law School

1956 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

1960s Serves as legal representative for the freedom riders in Mississippi

1962 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

1965 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

1967 Serves as the executive director of the United Planning Organization in Washington, D.C., a poverty program

1969 Serves as AFL-CIO’s director of Social Action for the Alliance for Labor Action

1971 Practices with the Washington, D.C. firm of Dolphin, Branton, Stafford & Webber

1978 Becomes dean of Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C.

1983 Serves in the Washington, D.C. office of Sidley & Austin law firm

1988 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, Branton 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.”

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.

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