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William L. Taylor, civil rights lawyer who created St. Louis' deseg plan

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 29, 2010 - William L. Taylor, civil rights lawyer who created St. Louis' deseg plan William L. Taylor didn't live in St. Louis and few St. Louisans would recognize his name. But Mr. Taylor was the NAACP lawyer who successfully pressed to create the St. Louis-St. Louis County school desegregation program, which became the nation's largest school choice plan and outlived many of the lawyers and judges who created it.

Mr. Taylor, a persistent advocate with a Brooklyn accent and a shock of gray hair, died Monday in a Bethesda, Md. hospital at age 78. During a 56-year career as a civil rights lawyer, he worked alongside Thurgood Marshall, served as staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, led the successful effort to block the nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court and worked on the nitty-gritty of some of the nation's most important civil rights and education laws.

Mr. Taylor's death comes one week after that of Gerald Heaney, the appeals court judge who wrote decisions requiring desegregation of the St. Louis schools and upholding the city-county plan.

When Mr. Taylor was the undergraduate editor of the student newspaper at Brooklyn College during the McCarthy era, the president of the college shut it down for leftist views. Nevertheless, Mr. Taylor graduated and went on to Yale Law School, obtaining a degree just in time to get a job working with Marshall right after he had won the 1954 school desegregation case.

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In a 2005 memoir, Mr. Taylor recalled watching Marshall drain a bottle of Jack Daniel's as he listened to his kitchen cabinet of lawyers debate the best approach to a legal argument. The next morning, Marshall would show up sober and able to distill the best of the arguments from the night before.

In the summer of 1958, when the Supreme Court called an emergency summer session to consider whether to delay desegregation of the Little Rock schools because of the white protests, Mr. Taylor wrote most of the brief calling on the court to move ahead and enforce the law. The court agreed to uphold the rule of law over the mob.

As staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Mr. Taylor led investigations and studies that helped form the basis of the civil rights laws passed during that era. Mr. Taylor was particularly involved in developing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act using federal funding to enforce anti-discrimination rules.

He later recalled holding hearings in Mississippi during Freedom Summer. "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."

In the 1970s, the NAACP lawyer took up Minnie Liddell's complaint about school assignments in St. Louis. Liddell was angry that her son Craton was to be bused away from nearby Yeatman School. Mr. Taylor transformed the suit into one of the most ingenious and expensive school desegregation plans in the country.

While the late U.S. District Judge William L. Hungate wielded the stick -- a threat to combine and integrate St. Louis and St. Louis County public schools forcibly -- Mr. Taylor offered suburban districts a carrot. He promised not to seek a consolidated city-county district if the suburban districts would agree voluntarily to the interdistrict transfer program. They did and the program began in 1983.

For years Attorneys General John D. Ashcroft and Jay Nixon filed appeal after appeal, but lost. Mr. Taylor wrote in his memoirs about the behind-the-scenes role he playing in scuttling Nixon's 1998 campaign for the U.S. Senate. Nixon "turned out to be cut from the same cloth as Ashcroft in his belief that practicing the politics of racial division would take him to higher office," Mr. Taylor wrote.

Mr. Taylor, working with former Rep. William L. Clay, undermined Nixon's support in the African-American community, and Sen. Christopher S. Bond, R-Mo., easily won re-election.

That episode set the stage for negotiations that led to settlement of the school desegregation case and the extension of the life of the interdistrict plan. Mike Wolff, the Missouri Supreme Court judge who then was a special counsel to former Gov. Mel Carnahan, remembers Mr. Taylor's persistence in negotiations to extend the plan. "He really persisted and made a difference," Wolff said in an email on Tuesday.

On the national stage, Mr. Taylor was influential in reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 1982 and passage of the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988. In addition, he was an important player in negotiations for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which overturned a number of Supreme Court decisions that had narrowed civil rights laws. Former Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., was a key sponsor of the bill.

Mr. Taylor was a leader of a coalition of national civil rights groups that succeeded in blocking Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court. Anthony M. Kennedy, who filled that spot, became a swing vote on the court rather than a predictable conservative, significantly changing the direction of Supreme Court history.

Gay and lesbian advocates noted that blocking Bork and filling the vacancy with Kennedy had an important impact on gay rights. Kennedy has written majority opinions recognizing constitutional protection for intimate relations of gays. On the day of Mr. Taylor's death, Kennedy was a fifth vote supporting the Hastings Law School, which had had denied recognition to a Christian student group that barred lesbians and gays.

Dianne Piche, who worked with Mr. Taylor on the St. Louis case and others, recalled that "Bill was fond of congratulating his team, his co-workers and allies with words of thanks and praise that would inevitably conclude with: 'You are all great Americans.' To me, this expression represented so much of Bill's public and private persona. Like his close friend Ted Kennedy, Bill steadfastly believed in -- and never gave up on -- a United States of America where there should and could be true 'liberty and justice for all.'"

The funeral for Mr. Taylor will be held at 10 a.m., Wed., June 30 at Tifereth Israel in Washington, D.C. Contributions may be made to the Bill Taylor Fund at the LCCR Education Fund; 1629 K Street, NW; 10th Floor, Washington, D.C. 20006.

Surviving are a brother, Burton (Susan) of Rockville; daughters Lauren Rose (Gail Messier) of Takoma Park and Deborah Lynn of San Francisco; son David Samuel Van Taylor (Ali Pomeroy) of Brooklyn; grandchildren Simone Alice Van Taylor, Jesse Hart Pomeroy and Nathaniel Isaac Pomeroy.

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

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