Education Trends

William L. Taylor: The Passing of a Champion for Civil Rights in Public Schools

June 30, 2010

Brown v. Board of Education outlawed racial discrimination in America's public schools, but it was the Little Rock crisis that tested the government's willingness to enforce the historic ruling.

On the first day of school in 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered the state national guard to block nine African American students from entering the all-white Central High School. The students, who became immortalized as the "Little Rock Nine," also received physical threats. Arkansas, like many states, refused to accept the Supreme Court's doctrine. Several weeks later, at the urging of Little Rock's mayor, President Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division of the Army to escort the students into the school.

It was an historic victory for Thurgood Marshall, at that time a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, and his protégé, William (Bill) Taylor, a young Yale Law School graduate who had joined the Fund just three years earlier.

William Taylor died Monday from injuries suffered in a fall. He was 78 years old.

His career spanned more than half a century, and I'd need a book to do justice to all of his accomplishments. So, let me just list a few. Bill served as General Counsel and later staff director of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, he founded the Center for National Policy Review, and was founder and Chair of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights. He also served as Vice Chair of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and played key roles in lobbying Congress to extend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and in blocking the confirmation of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court. He brought his expertise into the classroom too, teaching at Stanford, Georgetown and Catholic University law schools.

But it was his work on behalf of school children that cemented his legacy. In one of those odd coincidences of life, my former college roommate worked with Bill for many years as Executive Director of the Citizens' Commission. Together, they litigated educational equity cases across the country. Taylor led the negotiations on behalf of parents in St. Louis, MO, creating the nation's largest voluntary school desegregation plan. There were other similarly historic school equity agreements in places like Ft. Wayne, Cincinnati, and Wilmington.

"Today, we mourn the loss of a true pioneer in education," said California Congressman George Miller, chair of the House Education and Labor Committee. "Bill's steadfast commitment to helping all children shaped the way we educate children in this country."

He remained unwavering even in the face of criticism from other liberals, which became especially vociferous when Taylor held fast to his support for the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act, which he helped write. "He loved and thrived in the life of the law and its capacity to be a vehicle for hope, change and redemption," said my college roommate, Dianne Piché, in her email.

While Dianne only occasionally gave me scoops from her and Bill's work (an ethical tribute for which I can only partially forgive her), she did provide something just as valuable to a reporter - access.

I met Bill just a few times, but called and emailed him from time to time for quotes or background information while reporting on education for public radio. I always expected him to beg off, citing an overload of work, but Bill always made time. One conversation that stands out was when I was working on a report about the 50th anniversary of Brown.

I called Bill looking for an angle that I hoped wouldn't be covered by the thousand other reporters on the story. The next day, I opened my email and found a sheaf of notes and recommendations the size of a legal brief with names, numbers and an insider's take on the complexities and history of that tumultuous era. What really astounded me, however, was that I knew he had written it from memory.

Among the tributes being posted in the days since his death, recent Teach For America member Coleen Yamamura-Clark wrote, "When I look into the faces of my students in New Orleans, I know that Bill's life work has bettered their lives and chances of realizing their full potential."

Bill Taylor was part of the rarified world of intellectual and moral leaders of America's civil rights era. Even though his name wasn't as well known as some of the others, his passing leaves a void that will be hard to fill, and legacy that is full.

--Kathy Baron, Features Producer & Research Editor, Edutopia

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