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Wiley Austin Branton
Arkansas Native Son
Wiley Austin Branton died on December 15, 1988 at the age of 65. Eleven hundred mourners gathered at a memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Among those present were Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; Jack Greenberg, Director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; D.C. Mayor Marion Barry; and a host of other prominent civil rights activists. The eulogy was delivered by Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., at Branton’s request. In a second memorial service in his home town of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, almost 200 people came to pay their respects. Then-Governor Bill Clinton delivered the closing remarks. Wiley Branton was buried in the family plot at Bellwood Cemetery in Pine Bluff.
Wiley Branton’s is not a rags-to-riches story, although his life experience could not have been predicted at his birth on December 13, in 1923, when Jim Crow segregation was in place across the South. He was born into a well-respected and comfortably-situated Black family in Pine Bluff. His father and grandfather came to Arkansas from Mississippi in 1915 and began the first taxicab business in the town. Family history says that the Brantons are descended from Greenwood LeFlore, a wealthy plantation owner after whom Greenwood, Mississippi and LeFlore county are named. (Greenwood LeFlore was a French/Indian who became one of the elected Chiefs of the Choctaw Nation in Mississippi. He also became wealthy and owned a large plantation and slaves before the Civil War, although he supported the Union during the war.)
The business, Branton’s 98 (for the original telephone number) was for many years the only taxi business in the town. It made the family prominent in the community. A man raised in Pine Bluff in the 1950s recounted how a “party” was held each time Branton’s 98 brought in new taxicabs. It always occurred on a Saturday, when people were in town shopping, and the cabs – shiny black – would be unloaded from the truck ceremoniously and with great fanfare.
Wiley was given his mother’s family name. The Wiley family had a long history in Pine Bluff. His grandfather, James A. Wiley, had good, steady, jobs, first as foreman at the St. Louis Southwestern Railway yard and then as holder of a private contract with the U.S. Post Office to provide parcel post service for Pine Bluff. James Wiley later was hired by the post office to supervise an internal delivery system and remained in that employment until retiring in 1940. On his grandmother’s side, Wiley was related to The Rev. George Robinson, a founder of Pine Bluff’s St. Paul Baptist Church following the Civil War. The Wiley family lived in a rambling Victorian on a block of Alabama Street that included a tennis court, gardens, and plenty of space to play.
Effa Wiley, his grandmother, had graduated from Branch Normal College (Arkansas’ only school for Black higher education) in Pine Bluff and taught school for many years in the town’s segregated system. His grandfather was not highly educated, but the couple was able to engage in small land transactions that, together with salaried jobs, allowed them to send four of their eight children to attend Tuskegee Institute. Wiley’s mother, Pauline, graduated from Tuskegee and also became a schoolteacher in Pine Bluff before her marriage.
Upon their marriage, Wiley’s parents were given a lot on the Wiley family’s Alabama Street property. After living with her parents in “the big house” for several years, the couple built their own home next door. Thus, Wiley Austin and his three brothers and sister grew up in the midst of a large family, secure in their place in the Black community. Wiley attended Missouri Street Elementary School and Merrill High School, both segregated institutions. He always felt that he received a good basic education, despite the poor funding of the Black schools.
During their teens, Wiley and his brothers worked in the family cab business. Wiley later said he’d performed every type of job such a business offered — dispatcher, switchboard operator, taxi driver, baggage truck driver, gasoline attendant, mechanic’s helper, office manager, and assistant manager. At the age of 19, Wiley was both full time manager of Branton’s 98 and also enrolled at Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, & Normal College (AM&N, now University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff).
In 1943, he joined the segregated U.S. Army. Initially, Wiley was assigned to military intelligence. Later, he was trained and built bridges in the South Pacific as a battalion construction foreman. He was honorably discharged in 1946. Branton returned to Pine Bluff, the taxicab business, and college. He also became an activist in civil rights, as did many of the Black men who fought in World War II. He later said that he was horrified at the discrimination Black soldiers suffered in service, when they had given their bodies to fight for democracy.
Branton quickly joined the Pine Bluff chapter of the NAACP. It was while he was engaged in a 1948 NAACP voter registration drive that he was charged and convicted of violating an Arkansas ordinance that prohibited the printing or distribution of ballots for the purpose of instructing voters how to vote. He was fined $300, which was paid through a collection made on his behalf by the local Black community that felt “what he’d done, he’d done for them.” He remains the only person ever charged or convicted under that statute.
During that same period, Branton helped to integrate the University of Arkansas School of Law in 1948, when he, a Black attorney named Harold Flowers, and an AM&N College photographer named Geleve Grice, escorted AM&N graduate Silas H. Hunt to Fayetteville where Hunt applied for admission. Wiley Branton also applied for admission to the business program, but was denied. (In later years, he told how grateful he was for that rejection, since he had been married only the day before and his new wife was waiting to be escorted on her honeymoon.) His arrest, the Silas Hunt events, and other experiences inspired Wiley to apply to the University of Arkansas School of Law after college.
He began law studies in 1950, and soon moved his wife and three children up to Fayetteville. Denied university housing, he wound up purchasing a lot and building a house (formed of two Army surplus sheds that were welded together) for himself. Through a veterans preference provision in the rules for admission, Wiley was able to take the Bar examination before he graduated from law school. He was admitted to practice in February 1952. He began performing legal work for family and friends, but decided to continue his law studies and obtain the degree. In 1953, Branton became the third Black to graduate from the school. Returning to Pine Bluff with his family, which now included four children, he opened an office on Barraque Street. His wife, Lucille McKee Branton, served as his office manager and secretary, and took care of their family and home.
Partly because of his family’s reputation and partly as a result of his own efforts, Branton’s law office was almost immediately successful. He was one of the few Black lawyers in the South and he handled cases in Arkansas and other states. Most were the ordinary stuff of lawyer’s work - divorces, adoptions, wills, and minor criminal matters - but many involved civil rights issues that led him into physical danger.
His most famous case began in 1956, when he agreed to represent Little Rock high school students and their families who wished to integrate the all-white Central High School in Little Rock. That case, Aaron v. Cooper (358 U.S. 1, 78 S.Ct. 1399 (1958), soon involved the national NAACP and attorney Thurgood Marshall, among others. It ultimately went to the United States Supreme Court where it became the second major statement – after Brown v. Board of Education – on school integration. During the case, Branton’s life and the lives of his family were threatened repeatedly and crosses burned on his lawn. In 1961, Branton was representing eight civil rights workers arrested for sit-in actions in Indianola, Mississippi, when a white man walked into the courtroom and over to Branton and the defendants with an insect aerosol bomb. In the presence of the judge, the sheriff and others, who did nothing, the man sprayed the contents in their faces, saying “I have got to de-niggerize this.” Branton’s civil rights cases made him nationally known.
As a result, in 1962, Branton was selected as Director of a new program, the Voter Education Project (VEP), sponsored by the Southern Regional Council of Atlanta, Georgia. The VEP would focus on increasing the number of Black voters in the South through registration efforts and voter education. His appointment was approved by the Kennedy administration and by the leaders of the major civil rights groups – Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), James Foreman of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and representatives of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Branton soon moved his family to Atlanta and began work.
The VEP administered grant funds provided by several major foundations to local and national groups who would perform the grass roots work of encouraging local Blacks to defy tradition and assert their right to vote. It also accumulated data on the causes of low registration and voting in an effort to change them. During the first VEP’s two-and-a-half years, its funding of programs added 688,000 Black voters to the rolls of the eleven Southern states. This was almost half the total number added in the 22 years since the U.S. Supreme Court had invalidated the “white primary” that prevented the votes of most Blacks from having real meaning.
Despite having made hard decisions that upset and angered some people, Branton retained the respect of the civil rights community. Along the way, he found himself not only managing the VEP, but also using his legal skills in defending and freeing VEP and other civil rights workers from “trumped-up” charges and imprisonment in small towns across the South. Throughout this period, Branton would wind up meeting and working with just about everyone who was anyone in government and private civil rights efforts, from the President of the United States to the local Black grocer in small town Mississippi who supported registration efforts despite great personal danger.
Branton had considered his move to Atlanta temporary. When the first phase of the VEP ended in April 1965, Branton intended to return to Pine Bluff. Instead, Branton was recruited by Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey to become Executive Secretary of the President’s Council on Equal Opportunity, of which Humphrey was Chair. The Council was charged with coordinating and evaluating the civil rights and equal opportunity programs of the Federal Government.
Branton began work with the Council in April 1965. Only seven months later, in a sudden and unexplained move, President Johnson abolished the Council. Johnson’s aide, Joseph Califano, later described the events surrounding this action, stating his opinion that Johnson had decided that he did not want anyone but himself getting credit for civil rights efforts and, in any event, Johnson thought Humphrey too weak for the job. Johnson then asked Branton to join the Department of Justice (DOJ) as a special consultant to the Attorney General. In this role, Branton was expected to use his knowledge and experience, gained from those years with the VEP and earlier, to help the DOJ fulfill the role set forth in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. White House Press Secretary Bill Moyers said, “[t]he President told Branton that he considered voter registration ‘the paramount concern of the Federal Government at the present time.’” (“Federal Rights Setup Revamped by President,” Washington D.C. Post, 9/25/1965).
In a May 1966 interview in Little Rock, Branton described his job like this: “Mostly, I work with [local] private organizations and individuals as a sort of liaison between the Justice Department and private groups and other government agencies in an effort to assist in the implementation of the Voting Rights Act.” (“Alabama to Let Negroes Vote, Branton Feels,” Arkansas Gazette, 5/1/1966). Over the next two years, Branton would travel thousands of miles across the country, particularly on the back roads and byways of the South. He personified the Administration’s commitment to equal rights and urged local support of voter registration efforts. His files reveal the receipt of hundreds of letters and reports on discriminatory practices and requests for federal assistance, which he duly passed on to the appropriate government agency.
Branton left government service in 1967. In the next four years, Branton held two other positions in the civil rights arena. From October 1967 to August 1969, he was Executive Director of the United Planning Organization (metropolitan Washington’s community action agency) where he administered federal funding of various poverty programs. In August 1969, he was selected by Walter Reuther of the AFL-CIO to become the Director of Social Action for its Alliance for Labor Action. In this position, Branton directed the AFL-CIO’s community and social action efforts, including working with the poor and disadvantaged, sponsoring education and training projects, meeting housing needs, providing health care and other essential social services, and furnishing legal aid and consumer protection.
When the ALA ended at Reuther’s death in 1971, Branton went into private practice with the Washington, D.C. firm of Dolphin, Branton, Stafford & Webber. He spent six years performing legal services for individuals and small businesses, and devoted much of his spare time to various civic and charitable activities. In 1977, he was named Dean of Howard University School of Law, where he hoped to return the school to the “glory days” when it was a beacon of legal training for civil rights lawyers. His efforts improved the school’s standing among other law schools but its former prominence in civil rights could not be regained. By this time, other schools were competing for the cream of Black students and no one school could be that influential.
After six years, in 1983, he left the law school to join Sidley & Austin, a large Chicago law firm, in its D.C. office. There, he maintained a general practice that was not too different from those of prior years, except that he also worked with other lawyers on cases involving major firm clients, such as AT&T. He was the lawyer to whom Coretta Scott King turned when Senator Jesse Helms tried to open FBI files on Dr. King in 1983. Helms did not succeed. After only one year as an associate, Branton was made a partner with the firm. After his death, the managing partner of the office called him the “firm’s conscience,” saying that Branton had provided good counsel on moral and ethical questions presented to the firm.
More than the sum of these professional achievements, Wiley Branton was a friend, a family man, and active in his communities. As was stated by his good friend, Vernon Jordan, “Wiley was the one friend who could go the second mile, lend a helping hand, share and care and come when needed.” Another friend commented, “There are only two categories of people, . . those who didn’t know Wiley at all, and . . . those who considered him a close personal friend.” Columnist William Raspberry of the Washington Post wrote that “it is for Wiley Branton’s kindness, his good fellowship and his incredible warmth that I will remember him – I and a few thousand other ‘close personal friends.’” Although he traveled constantly during his civil rights work, his daughter Beverly said she always remembered him being home for dinner. His son tells stories of the enduring love affair his parents shared.
And Wiley never really left Arkansas. He subscribed to the Pine Bluff Commercial and the Arkansas Gazette even after he had moved away and read them cover-to-cover. He kept close tabs on Arkansas people and politics. One example of his close attention to events in Pine Bluff occurred in 1972, when he wrote a letter of condolence to the daughter of one of his grade school teachers. In it, he included a brief note about the fact that her mother had taught “three of the four Branton boys.” Wiley’s correspondence reveals hundreds of similar letters to individuals across the state containing good wishes and personal memories on their birthdays or anniversaries. Scores of letters went to the Editors of the Arkansas Gazette and the Pine Bluff Commercial, commenting on local political affairs, many of which were published. His notes frequently mentioned that his knowledge came from those newspapers. And he returned home at the end to be buried in Bellwood Cemetery. A good, and an unusual man, he considered himself an Arkansan. And Arkansas has been content to claim him. The closing paragraph of a “23-page memoir about growing up in Pine Bluff” that Branton submitted to the newspaper sums up his feelings about life:
I think that I represent a large number of people who had a lot to offer and contribute to the growth and development of our city, county, state and nation, but who were denied that opportunity simply by reason of our race. Despite the many shortcomings, I shall always hold very fond memories of the people of Pine Bluff, black and white. I wish that things could have been different so that they could have come to know me and I could have come to know them, and through our mutual support and endeavors we might have created a better society for all of us. I am optimistic about the future and the basic good in mankind. Peace to all.
[If you would like to read more about the life and times of Wiley Austin Branton, it is available in the biography There When We Needed Him: Wiley Austin Branton, Civil Rights Warrior (University of Arkansas Press 2007) .