Tuesday, August 7, 2007
VIRGINIA AND the United States lost a forceful foot soldier in the march to make America true to its ideals when Oliver W. Hill died Sunday. The 100-year-old native of Richmond found his calling after inheriting a copy of the Constitution from an uncle. He went on to follow that enduring road map of freedom as he sought to right the wrongs of segregation. As Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said Sunday, "His life's work was predicated on the simple truth that all men and women truly are created equal."
Mr. Hill was born May 1, 1907, in Richmond, but he was raised here in the District. He graduated from Dunbar High School and earned a bachelor's degree and a law degree at Howard University. Thurgood Marshall, who would later be the first African American appointed to the Supreme Court, was a classmate, colleague and friend. Mr. Hill went back to Richmond and became the first black person elected to the City Council since 1898. But it was the gnawing unfairness of the court's 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld separate but equal public facilities as constitutional, that fed Mr. Hill's passion for using the law to correct injustice.
Mr. Hill was the lead lawyer in D avis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, Va., which challenged "separate but equal" as applied to public schools. Yearning for a roof that didn't leak and a better learning environment helped change America; Davis was one of five cases that the Supreme Court combined in 1954 when it ruled, in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, that segregation in the public schools was unconstitutional. Mr. Hill's legacy as a Virginia lawyer is a raft of lawsuits that expanded everything from voting rights to employment protections. Like so many in the civil rights movement, he endured threats to his safety and to his family. And like so many in the civil rights movement, Mr. Hill was undeterred.
President John F. Kennedy invited Mr. Hill to serve at the Federal Housing Administration as an assistant commissioner in 1961. President Bill Clinton called him to the White House in 1999 to bestow upon him the nation's highest civilian honor -- the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Now comes one last series of honors. Mr. Kaine has ordered flags across the commonwealth lowered to half-staff, Mr. Hill will lie in state at the governor's mansion on Saturday, and his life will be celebrated at a memorial service on Sunday. Both the viewing and the service will be open to the public -- appropriate for someone who shaped history in the most admirable way.