Civil rights loses a champion in Bill Taylor

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, July 3, 2010

Exactly 49 years ago today, July 3, 1961, Gwendolyn Stewart of Orange, N.J., to the consternation of many folks of sound mind, married me and, two hours later, boarded a train at Union Station that took us to Indianapolis, where I reported for duty as a newly minted 2nd lieutenant with the Adjutant General's Corps at Fort Benjamin Harrison.

Nearly 50 years later, we look back on that time, happy that the Department of the Army didn't order me down south where, in 1961 -- and despite a Supreme Court decision -- local laws and customs made restaurants and waiting rooms in bus stations off-limits to couples who looked like us. Access to good schools and to the voting booth wasn't much better for the same reason. Believers in the status quo were known to enforce Jim Crow laws, often with bloody violence.

So this is time for an anniversary celebration.

But it's also a week in which the Kings will pause to celebrate the life of William L. Taylor, a man revered in America's civil rights and education community, who had a major role in reshaping that shameful period in our nation's history into today's more just society.

Bill Taylor was present at the creation of our modern civil rights movement, working alongside Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. As staff director and general counsel of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Taylor helped lay the groundwork for the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Ralph Neas, former executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said at Taylor's memorial service Wednesday morning that Taylor, as a legal and legislative strategist, helped the civil rights movement "strengthen every civil rights law, overturn more than a dozen adverse Supreme Court decisions and defeat the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork."

For more than 50 years, Bill Taylor gave his all for justice and equality.

Taylor was "a proud Jew," Rabbi David Saperstein said at the funeral, who "was particularly proud of the black-Jewish alliance in shaping the civil rights movement."

Which makes it all the more saddening, sickening and infuriating that Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam would choose to go before a sold-out audience in Atlanta last Saturday and single out Jews as historical conspirators against African Americans.

Farrakhan told the gathering that Jews "have always tied themselves to black people. They attach themselves to our talent. They are the managers, the agents; and they are the accountants. And that's why our black artists loved fame and got fame but died poor because somebody else got their money, while the Jews sent their children to the finest schools and were able to continue to rule."

Taylor's pride in the black-Jewish alliance was well placed. This was no sham of backroom Jewish operators attached to out-front black talent.

The men and women who came together over the years to craft the Little Rock school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, civil rights and fair housing laws; who destroyed barriers and opened up equal educational opportunities covered the spectrum: blacks, Jews and non-Jews, Southerners and Northerners, women and men. That spectrum was on display at the service for Taylor in the Tifereth Israel Congregation synagogue in Upper Northwest. They assembled to honor and say farewell to a man whose core principles made him a champion for justice and a civil rights icon for the ages.

How dare anyone dismiss the work of people such as Marshall, Jack Greenberg, Dorothy Height, Joe Rauh, Clarence Mitchell, Roger Wilkins, Marcia Greenberger, Elaine Jones, Wade Henderson and Taylor, and the relationships they forged as African Americans and Jews, as nothing more than a symbiotic yet parasitic relationship between manipulative Jews and unsuspecting blacks?

That was the gist of Farrakhan's recent message, which he attempted to buttress with a newly released 456-page second-volume edition of "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews."

I won't dignify Farrakhan with another word.

I will, however, testify to what I learned as a legislative assistant to the late Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr. (R-Md.) in the '70s, as he worked with Sens. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.), Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.), Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Phil Hart (D-Mich.) and superstar legislative aide Ralph Neas on civil rights legislation: When the time came to fight the good fight in the causes of civil rights and education, Congress could always count on hearing the footfalls and voice of the omnipresent Bill Taylor.

Along with our 49th anniversary, Gwen and I will toast him tonight.

kingc@washpost.com


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