Civil Rights Leader | Class of 1998
Wiley A. Branton was a civil rights leader in Arkansas who helped desegregate the University of Arkansas (U of A) School of Law and later filed suit against the Little Rock School Board in a case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. His work to end legal segregation and inequality in Arkansas and the nation was well known.
Wiley Austin Branton was born on December 13, 1923, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, the second child of Pauline Wiley and Leo Andrew Branton; he had three brothers and one sister. His father and paternal grandfather owned and operated a taxicab business. His mother had been a schoolteacher in segregated public schools prior to her marriage.
Branton was educated in the segregated schools of Pine Bluff, and he attended Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Normal College (AM&N) there (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff—UAPB); he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 during World War II. His wartime experience opened his eyes to the horror and madness of prejudice. Upon his return from military service, Branton became active in civil rights activities even while he operated the family business. He married Lucille Elnora McKee in January 1948, and they had six children.
At this time, he was also involved in integrating the U of A School of Law in Fayetteville. The university, similar to most other Southern colleges and universities, traditionally had refused to admit African Americans as full-time students. In 1948, U.S. Supreme Court opinions had required the state-supported graduate schools of several other states to admit black students. Branton was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Arkansas State Conference of Branches when Arkansas Governor Ben Laney held a statewide conference to promote his idea for a regional graduate school for black students. Branton was so disgusted with the discussion that he declared his intention to register in the undergraduate school of the university. He also persuaded a friend, Silas H. Hunt, to register for the university’s School of Law. (Hunt had graduated from AM&N and had planned to attend the University of Indiana School of Law.) They traveled to Fayetteville accompanied by Pine Bluff attorney Harold Flowers and photographer Geleve Grice. Branton was refused admission, but Hunt was accepted.
Branton was admitted to the U of A School of Law in January 1950. He was the fifth black student admitted to the school and, in 1953, the third to graduate. After he was admitted to the Arkansas bar, Branton operated a general law practice in Pine Bluff from 1953 until 1962.
In early 1956, he filed suit against the Little Rock School Board for failing to integrate the public schools properly after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. Branton’s lawsuit precipitated the desegregation of Central High School, a case which was ultimately argued before the U.S. Supreme Court as Cooper v. Aaron in 1958. During the years he was involved in that case, Branton worked primarily with Thurgood Marshall, who presented the arguments to the Supreme Court as the director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. They won the case, and the school board was ordered to proceed with desegregation. Branton and Marshall became fast friends during this time. The case brought Branton national recognition and led to his becoming the executive director of the Voter Education Project in 1962.
During a thirty-month period between 1962 and 1965, Branton worked with representatives of the major African-American civil rights organizations to register almost 700,000 new black voters in eleven Southern states, despite massive resistance from the white population of most of those states. This is also when Branton met and mentored a young Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., who succeeded him as executive director of the Voter Education Project. The two eventually became close friends.
Following this successful venture, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey asked Branton to become executive director of the President’s Council on Equal Opportunity and help coordinate implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After President Lyndon B. Johnson abolished the council in September of 1965, he asked Branton to move to the Department of Justice as his personal representative and to continue working to implement the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In 1967 after two years with the Justice Department, Branton was appointed as executive director of the United Planning Organization (UPO), which provided social service programs to Washington, D.C., under grants through the Equal Opportunity Act of 1964. In this role, Branton helped the nation’s capital recover from the effects of riots that followed the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. From the UPO, Branton moved to the Alliance for Labor Action in 1969, where he helped Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers Union, to create social service programs across the country. Reuther’s unexpected death in May 1970 thwarted the program’s progress. Branton left the Alliance for Labor Action in August 1971 and returned to private law practice.
He joined with others to create the firm Dolphin, Branton, Stafford and Webber in Washington, D.C., where during one point in his practice he supervised the successful effort to obtain court- ordered protection of illegal FBI surveillance files on Dr. King. He also continued his active involvement in the many social organizations of which he was a member. The most prominent among those were the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc.; the NAACP; the National Bar Association; Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity; and the Masonic Order.
In December 1977, Wiley Branton became the new dean of Howard University School of Law. He took that post during a troubled period in the school’s existence and was proud of his work in restoring some of its historical prominence of laying the foundations of a new battery of black civil rights lawyers. Branton left that post in September 1983 to join the Chicago law firm of Sidley and Austin in its Washington, D.C., office. There, in a reprise of earlier years, he resisted Senator Jesse Helms’s efforts to obtain access to the FBI’s files on Dr. King.
Branton died of a heart attack on December 15, 1988, two days after his sixty-fifth birthday.