“I was just doing my job,” was the humble reply of one of the state’s most noted civil rights attorneys, Wiley Branton.
His efforts opened the doors for many in education and voting in his long career. Branton rose from humble roots to become a respected civil rights attorney, help organize the 1963 March on Washington, and train a new generation of attorneys.
Wiley Austin Branton, Sr., was born in Pine Bluff in December 1923, one of five children. His father ran a taxi business in the city, and his mother had previously been a teacher. He grew up in a deeply segregated city, attending segregated schools. He excelled as a student, and began to make plans for the future as he enrolled at Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College (what is now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) after he graduated from high school.
He was drafted into the Army in 1943 at the height of World War II, temporarily disrupting his studies. In 1948, after graduating from AM&N, Branton and classmate Silas Hunt went to register at the University of Arkansas School of Law, which was still segregated in spite of a recent Supreme Court ruling. Though Hunt was admitted and became the first African-American to attend the law school, Branton was rejected. Determined to make his dreams a success, he kept trying. He was finally admitted in 1950 and graduated in 1953, the third African-American to graduate from the law school.
After graduation, Branton set up a law practice in Pine Bluff. The plan of many civil rights activists at the time, particularly the NAACP, was to use the courts to further the cause of justice. By finding loopholes in laws meant to subjugate minorities, civil rights lawyers hoped to build a body of law that would eventually topple the segregationist system. In other words, they hoped to turn the Jim Crow system against itself. The strategy slowly worked.
After public schools were ordered desegregated by the Supreme Court in 1954, Branton, along with the NAACP and a group of parents sued the Little Rock School District to force it to admit black students into white schools. In the process, he worked closely with future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall on the case. Despite hearings and negotiations with the school board, Gov. Orval Faubus sent in National Guard troops to prevent desegregation in 1957. Eventually, nine black students attended Little Rock Central High School. In 1958, the Supreme Court upheld the desegregation of Central High in the Cooper vs. Aaron case.
By 1962, he became part of a national effort to bolster civil rights. He became executive director of the Voter Education Project, an effort that registered hundreds of thousands of African-American voters across the South at a time when voters faced threats of violence and assaults for even attempting to vote. With his successes registering voters and taking on the Jim Crow system in court, in 1963, Branton became part of the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership. This group included lawyers from the NAACP, Martin Luther King and other ministers through his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and future Congressman John Lewis and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Branton was named to manage a subgroup of the organization, the Welfare, Education, and Legal Defense Fund, which collected donations from the different organizations, businesses and civil rights supporters across the country in order to support civil rights lawsuits and the March on Washington that summer. It was through these efforts that news about the rally at the Lincoln Memorial spread and 250,000 people attended to rally for equal rights and to hear King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
In 1965, Vice President Hubert Humphrey named Branton to the Council of Equal Opportunity. President Lyndon Johnson soon named Branton as a special adviser at the Department of Justice to ensure the smooth implementation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
He resumed his law practice in 1971, but within a few years, a new opportunity emerged. The prestigious Howard University in Washington, D.C., asked Branton to become the new dean for its law school in 1977. He accepted and spent the next several years guiding the policies and admissions for law students, encouraging them to become respected legal minds committed to justice.
“I am optimistic about the future and the basic good in mankind,” he said in later years. Branton returned to practicing law full time after five years with the university. He was hired at a Washington, D.C., law firm in September 1983. He died suddenly of a heart attack in December 1988 at the age of 65, working to the end in a profession that so many had tried to keep him from. One of his six children, Wiley Branton, Jr., later became a noted Little Rock attorney and judge. His legacy was further honored a decade later when a portion of Interstate 530 around Pine Bluff was named for him.
Dr. Ken Bridges is a professor of history and geography at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado and a resident historian for the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society. Bridges can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.