Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly described William L. Taylor as executive director, rather than a vice chair, of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and failed to note that in January it was renamed the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

The loss of civil rights advocate William L. Taylor

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Friday, July 2, 2010

BILL TAYLOR was not one of those bold-face Washington names -- except to those in the civil rights movement. If you were in that movement, you probably knew William L. Taylor, who died Monday at the age of 78; and if you didn't know him, you certainly knew what he had accomplished.

For more than half a century, Mr. Taylor was at the center of every major civil rights battle. As a young lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, he wrote the Supreme Court brief in Cooper v. Aaron, the case in which the justices insisted that the Little Rock schools be desegregated notwithstanding massive local resistance. He worked not only to pass the landmark civil rights statutes of the 1960s -- the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 -- but to ensure their extension and rewriting in the face of hostile Supreme Court decisions in the following decades. He focused particularly on school desegregation -- most notably negotiating a voluntary desegregation plan for St. Louis schools -- and ensuring educational opportunity for students in impoverished areas, a passion that led him to join forces with the Bush administration in writing the No Child Left Behind law. In his various roles, as general counsel and staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, as a vice chair of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, as a law professor and private practitioner, Mr. Taylor was, in the words of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, "a long-distance runner on the road to justice."

The Brooklyn-born son of Lithuanian immigrants, Mr. Taylor wrote in his memoir, "The Passion of My Times," that he turned up for work at the Legal Defense and Educational Fund fresh out of Yale Law School "with virtually no interaction with African Americans. Jackie Robinson provided my only civil rights education." But his passion for civil rights, like his passions for baseball and jazz, never waned. His funeral Wednesday featured repeated references to Mr. Taylor's strong, sometimes prickly, personality. "He was never afraid to share his side of the argument -- whether or not you wanted to hear it," his 13-year-old granddaughter, Simone, wrote in a memoir read at the service. "He knew when to take a stand, and he knew when to hammer out a compromise with integrity," said Rabbi David Saperstein, a longtime colleague.

"The strange thing about working in civil rights is that you always feel that you are stuck in a period of great difficulty," Mr. Taylor said in a 1999 interview with the D.C. Bar magazine. "There was tremendous resistance to the Brown decision, and then we went through all of the tumultuous violence of the 1960s. There were times when it felt very grave, ugly and hateful. But every few years you look up and realize that things have changed in fundamental ways." Mr. Taylor helped bring about that fundamental change.


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