At the height of the jailings and beatings of civil rights workers in the 1960s, Wiley Branton, who became dean of the Howard University Law School on New Year's Day, often would make a quiet phone call to win the release of young blacks and whites.
Branton's calls weren't official in any sense. In truth, he pulled some pretty good down-home con jobs.
"Oh, Wiley would put on his best white southern accent," recalls John W. Walker, a lawyer in Little Rock.
"He'd say something like, 'Sheriff, this is Wiley Branton up in so-and-do county. How's the fishing down there? I hear they're bitin' pretty well.'
"And the sheriff would fall for it. He'd say, 'Fishing's pretty good right now, but I think it's going to be better in a week or so.'
"Wiley had him relaxed. So he'd slip one in: 'Sheriff, you got a couple of boys in jail down there. Some people up this way are interested in getting them out. What can you do for me?"
"Wiley would end up sending me and another young lawyer down there with bail money. He pulled that stunt many times."
Sitting in his office overlooking llth and G Streets NW, Branton chuckles about such shenanigans, saying in his (U.N.Ambassador Andrew Young) swears that I saved him and several other people by calling and getting them out of jail in Winona, Miss."
Now, as the eighth dean of the Howard Law School since 1960. Branton sees a special challenge in recovering the institution's luster - to bring back the splendor the 108-year-old school had a generation ago when it served as the think-tank for the desegregation struggle.
And the 54-year-old Branton isn't backing off. He's been in other demanding situations. Many remember him as the lawyer in the Little Rock school desegregation case of 1957, as director of the Voter Education Project of the Southern Regional Council in the volatile '60s and as executive director of the United Planning Organization (UPO), the District's embattled anti-poverty agency in the late '60s, which he left because he did not feel the Nixon administration was committed to community action.
For most of his career, Branton has concentrated on solving hard social problems. That's how he became a lawyer.
In a 1948 election, plantation owners around Branton's hometown of Pine Bluff, Ark., had routinely instructed their black workers how to vote. But to their surprise, blacks made their own choices, spurred by Branton, then 25, who had mimeographed sample ballots and shown the workers how to vote their consciences.
For that he was convicted of violating Arkansas' election laws and fined $1,000. The experience, however, fueled him with the determination to study law. In 1953, he became the third black to graduate from the University of Arkansas Law School.
Branton immediately plunged into civil rights law, trying cases frequently for the NAACP.
The 1950s were a time of bitter confrontations between blacks and whites in the South. In 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision outlawing racial segregation in public schools. Starting in 1956, Martin Luther King Jr. directed the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Violence erupted in Little Rock and Clinton, Tenn., where attempts were made to desegregate schools.
Branton himself was the target of harassment. A cross was burned on his lawn in Pine Bluff in 1957, the year the Little Rock school crisis broke.
His wife of almost 30 years, Lucille, remembers it well. Speaking in the pleasant, soft drawl of her nativee Memphis, she says, "I had had a premature baby at the height of the Little Rock school crisis. It was the first night I was home from the hospital. I called Wiley at his office and he asked me to call his father, who lived next door (the child born then, one of six Branton children, is now a junior at Spelman College)."
Taking precaution against violence was routine in those days. Branton says he and family members made phone and electric light checks with each other. He also placed scotch tape on the hood of his car and men regularly stood guard around the Branton home.
He continues: "If I was in a town where there was a trial with a sensational angle - maybe interracial rape - then I would stay in another town or drive home every night. I wouldn't stay with friends and expose them to potential violence.
"Those were bad times, even in little ways. Southern whites wouldn't give courtesy titles to blacks. Telephone operators would go to great extremes to avoid saying Mr. or Mrs. In small towns they knew who you were.
"Somebody would call me long distance and say, 'I want to speak to Mr. Branton.' The operator would say (to me), 'Is Branton there?"
"Well, I learned to play tricks with them. I'd say, 'You mean Mr. or Mrs.?' They'd say, 'Ah, ah, the woman, the man.' They'd start playing tricks back."
Branton was born in Pine Bluff, on Dec. 13. 1922, where his first brushes with such racial chicanery started early.
His father and grandfather operated one of two taxicab companies in the town of about 30,000, 45 miles southeast of Little Rock.
The family business, founded in 1915, was the oldest organized cab company in the state - and one of the first in the nation to use two-way radios, according to Branton.
The dean said he started running the company when he was 17, even though his father was still living. "I though I was going to be in the taxicab business forever," he recalls.
But along came World War II. Branton served in the South Pacific and following his discharge he plunged into the civil rights fight that took him into law.
Since 1967, Branton has been in private practice in a medium-sized firm specializing in personal injury and probate law. One of his sons is coming here to take over some of the load in the office.
Although he left Arkansas in 1962, Branton is associated with a law firm in Little Rock, travels to the city about twice a year to handle cases, and has subscribed to The Pine Bluff Commercial without interruption for 15 years.
Old friends there remember him fondly. A schoolmate from the earliest days, Dr. R.F. Bryant, now college physician at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff says, "The sky's the limit here for Wiley. He could come back and run for public office. But the challenge is no longer here. He's always looking for new worlds to conquer."
Sitting in the den of their four-bedroom Southwest townhouse, the 5 feet, 8.188-pound Branton takes a bite from a delicious pecan pie his wife has baked and thinks of his newest challenge. If he's satisfied and if the Howard administration is pleased, he says the deanship may turn out to be a final step in his career - a last world to conquer.
Some people are saying that Branton will need great resourcefulness. He's being called upon to administer a law school beset by troubles - students have performed poorly on bar exams, faculty members disagree on which direction the school should take and some sources claim the school is having difficulty with its accreditation, even though its current credentials are in good standing with the American Bar Association and the Association of American Law Schools.
Despite the challenge of returning the Howard Law School to its former glory, Branton still occasionally yearns for home - Arkansas, the place of his first victories in civil rights battles and residence of relatives and his oldest friends.
The dean sighs, "There was a time when I think I would have loved being a U.S. district judge in Arkansas or Georgia, or to have served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which covers most of the Deep South states. (Indeed, Branton was nominated in October for a federal judgeshio that ultimately went to Louis F. Oberdorfer and he was a subsequent front-runner for two other vacancies on the federal bench).
"But after moving to Washington and changing my residency. I was no longer eligible. I suppose deep down I'll always harbor a feeling that it would be great to be a U.S. district judge in Arkansas."