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William L. Taylor, 78; Washington lawyer, champion of civil rights

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010; B07

William L. Taylor, 78, a Washington lawyer and civil rights activist for more than half a century who fought discrimination on many fronts and was particularly dedicated to desegregating the nation's schools, died June 28 at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda of complications from a fall.

In a career spanning six decades, Mr. Taylor worked largely behind the scenes in courtrooms and on Capitol Hill, advising members of Congress, drafting legislation and taking advantage of changing attitudes about race and equality to strengthen the nation's civil rights laws and their enforcement.

One of his early mentors was Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first African American Supreme Court justice. Mr. Taylor went to work for Marshall at the NAACP Legal and Education Defense Fund in 1954, months after the Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed public school segregation.

In 1958, Mr. Taylor helped write the NAACP's legal brief for the Supreme Court case that compelled schools in Little Rock -- and required schools across the nation -- to comply with Brown v. Board and integrate public schools.

During the 1960s, Mr. Taylor was the general counsel and staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He played a key role in organizing on-the-ground hearings and investigations into discrimination against African Americans in the Deep South. The resulting recommendations by the commission became the foundation for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

In the late 1960s, he left the government to become a government watchdog. He launched two organizations to monitor the government's efforts to enforce civil rights laws, the Center for National Policy Review at Catholic University, where he taught law, and later the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights.

During the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Mr. Taylor lobbied for and helped draft stronger laws to address discrimination in housing, employment and voting. He also was in the group that led the fight against Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.

"They examined every article, every speech, every decision, every statement that Robert Bork ever made and put together the book on Bork -- and that was literally and figuratively the foundation" for Bork's rejection by the Senate, said Ralph Neas, the former executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, who chaired the Block Bork coalition.

Mr. Taylor was perhaps best known for his efforts to force states and cities to make good on the promise of equal schools for all. Through the courts, he pressed for the desegregation of a number of urban school districts.

In St. Louis, after a parent challenged the segregated school system, Mr. Taylor led negotiations in the 1980s that established the nation's largest voluntary metropolitan school desegregation plan.

In recent years, Mr. Taylor helped draft No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law intended to boost the quality of the nation's schools by measuring student progress on standardized tests, and he defended it against legal challenges. In his eyes, ensuring excellent schools for all students was a matter of civil rights.

"He was a huge champion for closing the achievement gap, for accountability -- just a hawk, and I use that as a huge compliment because he was ever-vigilant about that cause," said Margaret Spellings, who was secretary of education under President George W. Bush.

William Lewis Taylor was born Oct. 4, 1931, in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of Jewish emigrants from Lithuania. Growing up, Mr. Taylor was the target of anti-Semitic slurs.

He graduated from high school in 1947, the same year that Jackie Robinson went to bat for the Brooklyn Dodgers, drawing countless racial insults as he broke the major league color barrier.

"The very first awareness I had about prejudice against blacks came from watching what Robinson went through," Mr. Taylor said in a 1999 interview.

In 1952, he graduated from Brooklyn College, where he met his future wife, Harriett Rosen. He graduated from Yale University's law school in 1954.

Mr. Taylor had served since 1982 as vice chair of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in Washington and taught education law at Georgetown University.

His wife of 43 years, who became a D.C. Superior Court judge, died in 1997.

Survivors include their three children, Lauren R. Taylor of Takoma Park, Debbie L. Taylor of San Francisco and David S. Van Taylor of Brooklyn; a brother, Burton Taylor of Rockville; and three grandchildren.

At Brooklyn College, Mr. Taylor was editor of the campus newspaper for two issues before it was shut down by the college's president, Harry Gideonse, who thought the paper was too sympathetic to Communist interests.

When the New York Times printed a story about the closing, Mr. Taylor recalled in his 2004 memoir, "The Passion of My Times," he was called into Gideonse's office.

"I hate to ruin anyone's career," he remembered the president saying, "but in your case, I'm prepared to make an exception."

Years later, Mr. Taylor obtained his FBI file, which showed that college officials had urged the federal government not to hire Mr. Taylor when he was being considered for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. They criticized him for his involvement with the student government, which one official said had "espoused liberal causes such as the rights of the Negro in the South."

In 2001, Brooklyn College gave Mr. Taylor an honorary degree, honoring his efforts to secure civil rights for all Americans.

"It was a character-building experience," Mr. Taylor said at the time. "I learned that you could speak out for things you believed in and that nothing bad would happen to you. I have spent my life doing that."

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