Wiley Branton, Sr.
Courageous, committed and loving are just three of the many positive adjectives that would aptly describe the late Wiley Austin Branton—–Whose name, like that of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, is firmly encased in the annals of civil-rights history. Mr. Branton was born in Pine Bluff on December 13, 1923, to Leo and Pauline Wiley Branton. He attended Pine Bluff’s Missouri Street School and Merrill High School and prepared for his career at Arkansas AM&N College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) and the University Of Arkansas School Of Law in Fayetteville. He was the fourth black student to enroll in the University of Arkansas and the third black student to graduate. By the age of 15, Mr. Branton was driving taxis for Brinton?s 98 Taxi Company, a business established by his grandfather and father in 1915.
After completing law school in 1952, Mr. Branton entered into private practice in Pine Bluff. But he soon found himself in the national spotlight as chief counsel for the black plaintiffs in the 1957 Little Rock School desegregation case. After Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered Little Rock’s high schools closed in 1958, Mr. Branton —along with Thurgood Marshall, then an attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Legal Defense Fund—challenged the actions of the governor and the state in a case that went all the way to the US Supreme Court. Mr. Branton’s role in the case was noted by President Bill Clinton during the 1997 Central High commemorating.
In 1962, after a move to Atlanta, Mr. Branton was selected to head the Voter Registration Project, which led to the registration of more than 600, 000 new voters in the south. The success of the Voter Education Project was a catalyst for the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
In the mid-60s, Mr. Branton moved to Washington and served as executive secretary of President Lyndon Johnson’s Council on Equal Opportunity, and later served as Special Assistant to two US Attorneys General. From 1967-69 he served as executive director of the United Planning Organization, Washington’s anti-poverty agency, He later directed the Social Action Program of the Alliance of Labor Act In 1971, and Mr. Branton became a partner in the Washington law firm of Dolphin, Branton, Stafford and Webber. He remained there until 1977. From 1978 to 1983, he served as dean of Howard University Law School. From 1983 until his death in 1988, Mr. Branton practiced law at Sidley and Austin, one of the world’s largest law firms. In 1989, the University of Arkansas awarded Mr. Branton a posthumous honorary doctorate for his lifetime work. And, in 1995, he was posthumously honored by UAPB with a “Keepers of the Spirt Award” for outstanding service to humanity.
Mr. Branton was married 40 years to the late Lucille McKee Branton. The couples are survived by six children and 12 grandchildren.