A Conversation with William L. Taylor
(Appeared in Bar Report, April/May 1999)
A 1954 graduate of the Yale Law School, William L. Taylor began his career as a staff attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York. He later served at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and was director from 1965 to 1968. For 15 years, Taylor taught civil rights law at Catholic University, where he founded the Center for National Policy Review, and ran a clinical program that focused on implementation of federal civil rights laws and on school desegregation litigation. Since entering private practice in 1986, Taylor has continued to advocate on behalf of minority and low-income children. He teaches law at the Georgetown University Law Center, and is the father of three grown children. In 1993 Taylor was selected as the first recipient of the D.C. Bar’s Thurgood Marshall Award. For 43 years Taylor was married to the late Superior Court Judge Harriett R. Taylor, whom he describes as "the greatest blessing in my life and a terrific influence."
Bar Report: Where did you grow up?
William L. Taylor: I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. I was born
in 1931, so I was a child of the Depression. My parents were first-generation
immigrants. They had come to the United States from Lithuania with their
parents. We weren’t poor because my father was a civil engineer and he
had a civil service job in New York City. Even so, as a child I couldn’t
help but be aware that we were living in hard times.
BR: Do you think the Depression had a major influence on you?
WLT: That’s hard to measure. Maybe it gave me some sympathy
for the underdog. I’m sure that both World War II and the Depression
were formative influences, but it’s hard to define precisely how they’ve
colored my day-to-day existence. I was 10 years old at the time of Pearl
Harbor. As a Jew, World War II had a particular impact on me. Our family
lived in a Jewish-Italian neighborhood, and I remember getting pushed
around as a kid and being called a "Christ killer." There was
a lot of anti-Semitism in the United States in the ’30s and ’40s, and
I couldn’t help but observe what was going on in Nazi Germany with horror.
BR: Do you think those experiences made you more sensitive to racism and prejudice?
WLT: I’m sure they did, but as I say, those sorts of things
are hard to measure. World War II and the Depression influenced millions
of peoplethey shaped an entire generation.
BR: Did you grow up knowing that you wanted to a lawyer?
WLT: Oh, goodness no. My father was a big baseball fan. He took
me to my first Dodger game when I was six years old, and I’d listen to
Red Barber do the play-by-play on the radio. As a kid I wanted to be
either a sportswriter or a broadcaster. I wanted to be like Red Barber.
BR: Did you ever pursue that ambition?
WLT: Not seriously. I was the sports editor of my high school
newspaper, The Lincoln Log, at Abraham Lincoln High School. This was
1947, the year that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in the major
leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers. I wrote him a letter asking for an
interview, and he wrote back telling me that I should come to the clubhouse
after a game and that he would grant me an interview. Which I did. I
showed my letter to the guard at the gate, and he threw me the hell out.
So I stood on Bedford Avenue and waited for Robinson. When he came out
I said, "Mr. Robinson, they wouldn’t let me in to interview you." He
said, "That’s okay, kid, come back next week and I’ll have it all
fixed." Then he jumped into a cab. Well, I never did get into the
clubhouse. I suppose that if I really was destined to be a journalist,
I would have hopped into the cab with Jackie Robinson and gotten my interview
right then. But I didn’t have that kind of moxie.
BR: Were you a Jackie Robinson fan?
WLT: Yes, he’s a hero of mine to this very day. The first awareness
I had about prejudice against blacks came from watching what Robinson
went through. When the Dodgers went south for spring training, he couldn’t
stay in the motel or eat in the restaurants. St. Louis and Philadelphia
had racist managers and players, so he wasn’t just getting catcalls from
the stands, the other team was yelling racist epithets at him from the
dugout. He had a very tough time. Yet, he absorbed the insults and the
hatred with great dignity. He was a remarkable man. He was a great athlete,
too. To this day I have vivid memories of watching him steal homewhich
is something you never see happen anymore.
BR: When you look back at the history of race relations in the United States, how important was Jackie Robinson?
WLT: I think he was very important. Racism had an extraordinary
emotional hold on a lot of people, as does an identity with an athletic
teamso Robinson provoked a real clash in values. If you’re a bigot
and a Brooklyn Dodger fan, who do you cheer for when Jackie Robinson
comes up to bat? The white pitcher on the opposing team? Or the black
guy wearing the Brooklyn Dodger uniform? Ultimately, Jackie Robinson
won a lot of people over. You had to admire his courage. You had to admire
who he was as a human being. The folks who were Brooklyn Dodger fans
had no choice but to take him along, even if they were bigoted. If you
were going to cheer for the Dodgers, you had to cheer for Jackie Robinson.
BR: So you had white fans cheering for the black athlete over the white athlete?
WLT: That’s right. Integration in athletics put some people
through great travail. Ultimately, it got white people cheering for,
and identifying with, black people. I think that was an important turning
point in our history of race relations.
BR: Were you still thinking about a career in sports journalism when you went to college?
WLT: No. By the time I enrolled at Brooklyn College I was interested
in public affairs and public service. I went to law school at Yale because
of its reputation as the public policy law school from the days of William
O. Douglas and Thurman Arnold. I think Yale’s heyday as a great public
policy law school had probably passed by the time I arrived, but there
were still a lot of interesting professors on the faculty, and a large
portion of the student body was drawn there for the same reasons that
I was. So that proved to be a great experience.
BR: While you were a law student, did the work Thurgood Marshall was doing bringing desegregation cases in the south catch your eye?
WLT: I took a civil rights course and we followed the progression
of what the Legal Defense Fund had done, starting with Gaines and going
through McLaurin and all of the other cases. I admired the work, but
it wasn’t something that I necessarily felt I wanted to be my life’s
callingat least not at that point. I was interested in civil rights
in much the same way that I was interested in a lot of other things.
BR: How did you come to work for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund?
WLT: The accident of timing is everything. I graduated in 1954,
one month after the Brown decision. I was looking for a job, and my wife
was a third-year law student at Columbia, where Jack Greenberg came to
give a talk. After it was over, my wife went up to Greenberg and asked, "Do
you have any jobs open?" He said, "Well, we have a position
for a one-year intern." She told me about that, and the next morning
I went tearing down to West 43rd Street, where the NAACP Legal Defense
Fund had their little offices. I applied for the one-year intern position,
and ended up staying for the next four years.
BR: When you signed on did it feel like you were doing historic, ground-breaking work?
WLT: Absolutely. From my very first day I felt I had lucked into
being a part of history. I was working with Thurgood Marshall, Bob Carter,
Constance Baker Motley, Jack Greenberg, and Elwood Chisholm. It was a
very dynamic group. And we all felt we were doing important work.
BR: What were your initial impressions of Thurgood Marshall?
WLT: He was deceptivefolksy, humorous, raunchy. You didn’t
immediately perceive what a great legal mind he had. But that came with
time. On the Supreme Court cases I worked with Thurgood on I came to
appreciate what a terrific lawyer he was. He had a kitchen cabinet that
he would call together with people in our New York office and people
from Washington like Jim Nabrit, George E.C. Hayes, Bill Hastie, Charles
Black, and Spottswood Robinson. Those sessions would ramble all over
the place, but by the time they were over Thurgood would have extracted
the few points that he could use, and he’d weave them into a tremendous
argument. It was fascinating to watch him work. He was a man of great
intellect and great courage.
BR: Were you involved in the Little Rock case?
WLT: Yes, one of the things I did that I feel proud of after
all these years is that I wrote the major portion of the brief when the
Supreme Court convened that extraordinary summer session in 1958. As
you may recall, President Eisenhower had to call out federal troops in
1957 in order to enforce the federal court decision mandating the desegregation
of Central High School in Little Rock. Ten black students were admitted,
and they had a difficult year. That spring the school board decided to
suspend desegregation because of all the resistance. The district court
agreed with their decision, the court of appeals reversed, and it went
up to the Supreme Court that summer. We didn’t have fax machines or Xerox
machines or Federal Express delivery in those days, and I remember bringing
the brief down from New York in my briefcase and filing it with the Court
on an emergency basis. Then the Court heard arguments in this historic
summer session. Thurgood gave the oral argument, and he was excellent.
J. Lee Rankin was there as the solicitor general, and he made an excellent
BR: What was the argument you made in your brief?
WLT: At issue was the rule of law. The question was whether a
community would be allowed to sweep aside the Supreme Court’s interpretation
of the Constitution simply because a vocal segment of the community disagreed
with it. Would we permit, even temporarily, mob rule? Or would we be
guided by the rule of law? The Court ruled unanimously in our favor.
Every single justice signed the opinionwhich is most unusualto
emphasize that this was the decision of each and every one of them.
BR: Were you at all discouraged by the pace of implementation after the Court had declared segregation unconstitutional in Brown?
WLT: Yes, I’d have to say that was indicative of how little
I understood about how deeply ingrained racism can be. After Brown I
thought, "Well, the Court has ruled. The law is the law. The law
will be implemented." I had no sense of how deeply rooted the problem
was that I was dealing with. The only thing I can say in my own self-defense
is that I don’t think Thurgood or Bob Carter envisioned what an enormous
struggle it would be to take the Brown decision and turn it into reality.
As the years went by, I think we all felt moments of disappointment,
bitterness, and despair, as well as moments of hope.
BR: Do you think it would have helped if someone other than Dwight Eisenhower had been residing in the White House?
WLT: Yes. When the Court issued the Brown decision in 1954,
and the subsequent implementation decision in 1955, the justices all
thought the other branches of government would offer support. But Eisenhower
paraphrased William Graham Sumner and said, "The law cannot change
the hearts and minds of men." He didn’t say how he felt about the
morality of segregation or the morality of the decisionwhich is
fortunate, since he disagreed with the Court and favored segregation.
The only thing that came out of Congress was the Southern Manifesto.
The lack of support from the executive and legislative branches left
a big vacuum, which was filled by southern governors like George Wallace,
Ross Barnet, and Orval Faubus, who were at the forefront of massive resistance.
If there had been presidential support and leadership, we might have
had a very different history.
BR: Did the use of the words "all deliberate speed" in the 1955 implementation decision muck things up by giving the resisters something to hang their arguments on?
WLT: Oh, I think those words mucked up the process a bit. There’s
no question that they became a vehicle the segregationists tried to use.
But I don’t think those words would have been significant if the president
and the Congress had backed up the Court. In addition to the legal process,
there was a political and social process taking place that had to be
BR: Did you have any dealings with Martin Luther King?
WLT: Yes, I met Martin for the first time in 1956, right after the Montgomery bus boycott. The NAACP regarded him warily, because he’d had this big impact, and they didn’t know who he was. They invited him to come up and speak in February 1956, and I was deputized to go meet King at La Guardia Airport. I was 24 and King was 27. We were both very young, and we had a nice chat riding in from the airport. Over the years, we kept in touch. He was someone I admired greatly.
BR: Was that admiration shared by Thurgood Marshall and others at the LEDF?
WLT: Not completely. Thurgood’s view of King was that he made
a big mess and then the Legal Defense Fund had to come in and clean up
after him. Thurgood was winning cases, and he was worried that King was
going to upset that process. But I think that deep down Thurgood had
to know that the social protest movement King created helped bring about
social change, and that it was just as important as bringing and winning
cases. After Brown, people were frustrated. The Supreme Court had declared
segregation illegal, but the schools were still segregated and the Jim
Crow laws were still on the books. King tapped into that frustrationand
he did so with as much vision and foresight as was humanly possible.
BR: When did you leave New York and come to Washington?
WLT: I came down in 1959. I worked as a lobbyist for Americans for Democratic Action for a short while, and then I got caught up in the Kennedy campaign. During the campaign he had said he would get a lot done on civil rights through executive action, which was exemplified by his campaign promise to end discrimination in federal housing programs "with the stroke of a pen." The idea was that he would sign an executive order. As it turned out, Kennedy won by a very narrow margin, and he realized that to get any legislation through Congress he was going to have to deal with the southern mandarins on Capitol Hill. I was asked to staff an operation out of the Civil Rights Commission that would lay the foundation for executive action. But every time we came up against a hard decision we hit a stone wall at the White House. Kennedy didn’t sign the executive order on housing until the fall of 1962, and by that time he was getting thousands of pens in the mail that were being sent to remind him of his campaign promise.
BR: Were you disappointed in his handling of civil rights?
WLT: Sure. Civil rights was not something that Kennedy wanted
to deal with. It was an issue that was forced on him. I remember at one
point the Civil Rights Commission, of which I was an official, was considering
holding hearings in Mississippi, and Kennedy said he didn’t think that
would be a good idea. We said, "Well, how about Alabama?" Kennedy
said, "No. Why don’t you go to Alaska?" That pretty much sums
up his attitude. He kept hoping the problem would go away.
BR: In November 1963, after Kennedy was assassinated, you had a southerner move into the White House. Was that a source of concern?
WLT: Oh, yes. Nobody was more of an adversary than Lyndon Johnson. He was widely derided inside the Kennedy administration, and he was perceived as the guy who had gutted the 1957 Civil Rights Act. I don’t think any of us expected great things on civil rights from Lyndon Johnson. But he fooled us all. He proved to be very forceful, very persuasive.
BR: Why do you think that was?
WLT: As a southerner, he knew the issues and the problems. It
was something he’d grown up with. He had a gut feeling for civil rights.
Kennedy had no feeling for it, but Johnson felt it in his bones. In addition,
Johnson had an enormous, outsized ego. He wanted to be a greater domestic
president than Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and he saw civil rights as
a way to do it. I remember one meeting I had with Johnson to discuss
education and segregation issues, and the meeting lasted for two hours.
Johnson talked about his experience as a schoolteacher in rural Texas,
and also the experience of his daughters at the National Cathedral School
compared to their education in Texas. I could see that he understood
these issues in a very personal way. I was totally convinced after that
meeting that his commitment to civil rights was deep and sincere.
BR: Were you involved in the drafting of the 1964 Civil Rights Act?
WLT: I was at the Civil Rights Commission, which had been founded
under Eisenhower as a bipartisan commission. Well, initially Eisenhower
chose three southern Democrats, two northern Republicans, and an independent
as commissioners. So it didn’t look like it was going to be a very dynamic
group. But as the commission went around the country holding hearings
and doing fact-finding, a dynamic process took place. The commission
made very strong recommendations in the areas of voting rights, housing,
education, and fair employment. Those recommendations formed the core
of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Also, a set of questions I drafted for senators Humphrey and Javits and answers to those questions I drafted for the Kennedy White House regarding what federal funding could do to provide antidiscrimination guarantees formed the basis for Title VI, which proved to be the real sleeper in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Richard Russell and some of the other southern senators were so focused on the fair employment provision that they overlooked Title VI, which ultimately became an important engine of social change.
BR: Earlier you mentioned President Kennedy suggesting that you hold hearings in Alaska. Did you ever hold hearings in Mississippi?
WLT: Yes. I first started going to Mississippi in 1962. We were
trying to get business leaders and religious leaders to come talk to
us, but we had no success. I remember at our first meeting, which was
with the state advisory committee, we had a bomb threat and as soon as
we convened the meeting we had to evacuate. Then I went down to Natchez
in the summer of 1964, which was the famous "Freedom Summer" when
all the college kids came in, and I felt like I was entering a war zone.
We had all sorts of reports about threats, and violence, and whippings.
Everywhere we went we were followed, and there were good old boys standing
around our dinner table at the motel glaring at us with their arms folded.
It was a palpably scary situation. Yet, nobody turned back. The college
kids kept at it. To this day, I find John Lewis and Bob Moses to be remarkable
people, as were all the people who lived there and stood up for their
rights. What they endured in those civil rights battles for education,
integration, and voting rights took extraordinary courage.
BR: On April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King was assassinated, can you remember what you were doing?
WLT: Yes. It was my younger daughter’s ninth birthday, and we
were having a birthday party at the house when the phone rang and I was
told the news. It was a total shock. I’d always known that King was at
risk, but somehow I didn’t think it would ever happen. And then it did.
My most vivid memory is of being totally numb, stunned. The next day
the D.C. Advisory Committee of the Civil Rights Commission had a previously
scheduled meeting at the Pitts Motor Hotel near the intersection of 14th
and U Streets. When we came out of the meeting smoke was rising all around
us from the riots. It was a surreal time. Then two months later Robert
Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. I think a lot of people felt
emotionally traumatized by the events of that year. I know I did. I’d
been the director of the Civil Rights Commission for three years, and
I felt burned out. I knew I wanted to continue working in the civil rights
area, but I also felt it was time to begin doing something else. So I
left the commission.
BR: When you left, did you feel defeated?
WLT: No. The strange thing about working in civil rights is that
you always feel that you are stuck in a period of great difficulty. 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. After President
Kennedy was assassinated we had the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights
Act and the 1965 Voting Rights. Some elements of Lyndon Johnson’s Great
Society legislation have proved to be enormously durable, such as the
Head Start program and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Then
after Martin Luther King was killed we had the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
All of these things have made for lasting change. And the black civil
rights movement gave birth to other movements that have brought gains
for other people of color, for women, and for people with disabilities.
So despite the trauma and the tragedy, you derive some satisfaction when
you stop and look at the positive change that has taken place.
BR: What did you do after you left the commission?
WLT: I taught at Yale for a year and wrote a book about race
and cities. Then I persuaded the Ford Foundation to fund the Center for
National Policy Review, which was affiliated with the law school at Catholic
University, where I taught and got the students involved in clinical
BR: Did you find that to be a rewarding experience?
WLT: Yes, very much so. I get an enormous kick out of teaching,
and I enjoy working with law students in a clinical setting. I’m teaching
education law at Georgetown now.
BR: Do you find much difference between the students of the 1960s, who went through the civil rights and antiwar movement, and the students of today?
WLT: My experience has been that there are always a significant
number of young people who are very idealistic and who want to bring
about change. The times may be different and the opportunities may be
different, but the sense of idealism doesn’t vary much from generation
to generation. The big problem today is all the debt that kids incur.
They graduate from law school owing huge sums of money, and need to begin
paying off loans immediately. This creates a particular difficulty. Some
students may say, "Well, I’ll go to work for a law firm for three
or four years and get some of this debt taken care of, and then I’ll
go do public interest work." But it’s very hard to change direction
like that after you’re caught up in the business of life. So it is true
that it’s harder for today kids to carve an independent path. But I do
believe that law students, who in general are privileged, smart, and
aggressive, can carve out careers in public service that will bring great
satisfaction if they choose to do so.
BR: In addition to teaching, you maintain a private law practice?
WLT: Yes, it’s an unconventional law practice that consists mainly
of school cases and education issues in Congress. My biggest case has
been a desegregation case in St. Louis that I took on for the NAACP in
1980. We recently settled it by obtaining ten more years of funding for
what has become the largest metropolitan school desegregation program
in the country. My passion for the moment is working for children who
are mired in poverty. All the research shows that the worst possible
environment to educate a child is in concentrated poverty. So I’m working
on continuing and improving standards-based reform under Title I of Elementary
and Secondary Education Actchanges we helped secure for a group
of education advocates in 1994. Part of our agreement in the St. Louis
settlement also involves a school improvement and reform program.
BR: It’s been 45 years since the Brown decision. Does it bother you that you’re still litigating race-based issues in public schools?
WLT: I guess I’d have to answer with a qualified yes. I’m distressed by the regressive movement that has taken place, suggesting that we have become a color blind society and should therefore do away with affirmative action. There are some things about this country that are not very likable. The sense of entitlement that wealthy people feel, the sense that they deserve the best of everything, and that programs designed to level the playing field for children living in poverty are somehow out of bounds, that makes me angry. At the same time, I realize that this is a tremendously different country from what it was when I first started working in civil rights in 1954. The situation for black people is enormously different. The black middle class has grown up because people have seized the opportunities available to them. Then the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s was followed by other antidiscrimination movementswomen, disabled people, Latinos, gays. So what the greatest change I’ve seen in my lifetime doesn’t have anything to do with putting men on the moon or advances in science and technology. The greatest change I’ve seen has been to remove the restraints previously placed on categories of people, and to allow those people the opportunity to achieve. So I don’t feel like I’m stuck waist deep in the big muddy. I feel that I have been enormously fortunate to be a part of major social change. I’ve felt a lot of frustrations over the years, and the continuing hold that racial thinking has in our society is frustrating. But I also feel blessed to have seen the amount of change that has occurred. Despite all of the difficulties, we are moving forward in a positive progression.