There When We Needed Him: Wiley Austin Branton, Civil Rights Warrior
Lawson, Steven F., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly
There When We Needed Him: Wiley Austin Branton, Civil Rights Warrior. By Judith Kilpatrick. (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2007. Pp. x, 221. Acknowledgments, introduction, illustrations, epilogue, notes, index. $29.95.)
Wiley Branton used to tell a story that sums up how most people view the civil rights movement. In 1958, he and his colleague from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Thurgood Marshall, heard the Supreme Court rule in their favor and order that desegregation of Little Rock, Arkansas, schools continue. Branton and Marshall got into a taxi cab, whose driver recognized them and gleefully remarked: "Wasn't that a great thing Dr. [Martin Luther] King did? He just got the Supreme Court to let those kids go to Central High School in Little Rock" (p. 154). Dr. King had nothing to do with the case, but the driver's comment reflects the popular notion that the civil rights movement depended solely on King. In reality, the black freedom struggle contains numerous examples of unsung, but remarkable, people who sustained the movement for decades. Wiley Austin Branton was one of them.
Branton was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, in 1923 into a black middle-class family. His father and paternal grandfather owned and operated a successful taxi cab company, and his mother and maternal grandmother taught in the public schools. Pine Bluff had a black institution of higher learning, Arkansas Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College, which Wiley attended. A light-skinned family, the Brantons stood atop the social pecking order in the town's African-American community.
Well-educated and living in relative comfort, Branton still experienced race discrimination. As a soldier in World War II, he served in a segregated army, and, after he wrote a pamphlet criticizing segregation as a waste of manpower, he was accused of having communist connections. As with many black veterans, World War II politicized Branton, and he came home determined to extend democracy and first-class citizenship to African Americans. Returning to Pine Bluff, he worked in voter registration drives and campaigned for local and statewide white candidates who promised reform. In 1950, he became one of the first blacks to gain admission to the previously restricted University of Arkansas Law School, and upon graduation he set up a private practice that included work on civil rights cases. …