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Government, Politics & Issues

Obituary of Margaret Bush Wilson, hailed as civil rights "giant," dies at 90

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 13, 2009 - Margaret Bush Wilson, who died Tuesday at age 90, was remembered by her family as an woman whose unassuming manner belied a strong passion for social justice and lifelong love for bridge and books. She was the first woman to head the board of the national NAACP and held that post for nine terms, starting in 1975. Among the many tributes to Mrs. Wilson, U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, summed it up when he called her "a giant" and "a dear friend."

Her son, Robert, said the family had yet to determine the cause of death, and funeral arrangements are pending. Robert Wilson lives in Rio de Janeiro. He had been in St. Louis for about five weeks after his mother complained of feeling ill. He departed yesterday and had reached Miami when he was notified that she had died. He then returned to St. Louis.

Many area residents will mourn her passing as a civil rights icon, a member of numerous civic and corporate boards and the lawyer involved in the landmark 1948 Shelley vs. Kraemer case. That case, which went up to the U.S. Supreme Court, put an end to restrictive covenants used to prevent African Americans from buying homes in some sections of St. Louis.

Mrs. Wilson also served in high positions in the local and national NAACP. She became president of the St. Louis chapter in 1958 and served in that office during the historic Jefferson Bank demonstrations in the early 1960s. The Jefferson bank protests opened new middle-class job opportunities to African Americans. Then, in 1975, Mrs. Wilson became the first woman chair to head the national NAACP and held that post for nine terms.

However, Robert Wilson thinks about her mainly as a mother and housewife.

"Many people remember her for civil rights," he said, "but I remember her as my mom. I grew up in a household of lawyers. There was always something going on in this house."

His aunt and Wilson's sister, Ermine Byas, interrupts to add, "This place was like Grand Central Station when we were growing up. There was always something going on here involving civil rights or the NAACP. People were always coming and going here."

They both say one of the things that really stood out to them about Wilson was her love for books.

"She never went to bed at night without a book," the sister said.

Robert Wilson pointed to a room in Wilson's home on Page and added, "That's where she spent her time after she got home from the office. She'd spend time reading all kinds of books. Whenever I called her, we'd always talk about books we were reading. That's one of the things she inspired in me, gave me a love for books."

He says her life also inspired him to go on to law school at Harvard after graduating from Stanford University. Mrs. Wilson attended the historically black Lincoln University Law School -- the University of Missouri had closed its doors to blacks -- and was one of the first women graduates.

Praise for her life and work began pouring in as soon as people learned that she had died.

U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, said in a statement:

"The St. Louis community and our entire nation have lost a giant, and I have lost a dear friend. Margaret Bush Wilson was a tireless champion for civil rights and for the pursuit of equal justice under the law for all people.

"Her life was spent in the struggle to advance freedom and equality for African Americans, women, and all those who were excluded from the mainstream. She blazed a courageous legal trail marked by landmark decisions and major advances that opened up equal opportunity for all Americans.

"Through her leadership and determination, Margaret inspired countless people, including myself. She was a mentor to many of us who serve in public life and I know that we will miss her wisdom and warm friendship. My thoughts and prayers are with her family and many friends, and I know that her memory will continue to inspire us for years to come."

Dr. William Danforth, former chancellor of Washington University, said: "Margaret Bush Wilson was devoted to justice and fairness for all. She was knowledgeable, kind and wise and had a great ability of convincing people to reach the same conclusions that she did. She set an example while paving the way for others by serving on boards such as those of Monsanto and Washington University. She was an inspiration." 

And Mayor Francis Slay said: "I offer the thanks of her city for a life so well-lived.” 

Gov. Jay Nixon noted that "Missouri and St. Louis have lost a leader who stood up for what wasright during an era when that was not easy, and many times, not safe. Margaret Bush Wilson will forever be remembered for her tireless work toensure equality for all Americans, especially in fighting against the racial discrimination that prevented many Missourians from living in theneighborhood of their choice. The family and many friends of Ms. Wilson are in the thoughts and prayers of the First Lady and me."

St. Louis Alderwoman Kacie Starr Triplett, D-6th Ward, is part of a new generation of leaders. She said, "Margaret Bush Wilson was an inspiration to me and countless others. As a young elected official, I am constantly reminded that the reason I enjoy my personal success is that I have been fortunate to stand atop the shoulders of giants like Mrs. Wilson and her dear friend, John Bass, my grandfather."

STRONG CONVICTIONS GREW FROM A STRONG FAMILY

Margaret Bush Wilson was the second of three children born in 1919 in St. Louis to a father, James T. Bush, who was a real estate agent and a financial backer of civil rights causes; and a mother, Margaret Berenicy Casey Bush, who was on the executive committee of the local NAACP. Her brother, James T. Bush Jr., was the oldest child and lived in St. Louis. He died this year. Her sister, Ermine Byas, lives in Rochester, N.Y.

Eventually, Mrs. Wilson graduated from Sumner High School, then left for Talladega College, in Talladega, Ala. At the time, the school was one of the premier black schools, along with Fisk, Morehouse, Spelman and Howard University. She earned a law degree from Lincoln University, Jefferson City in 1943.

Years later two other institutions would recognize her commitment to the law and education.

In 1978, Washington University awarded Mrs. Wilson an honorary doctor of laws degree. And the University of Missouri-St. Louis awarded her an honorary degree in 1991 for her commitment to higher education.

“Her legacy lives on," said Tom George, UMSL’s chancellor, " through the Margaret Bush Wilson Scholarship, awarded to freshmen who have completed our pre-collegiate Bridge program and are pursuing a degree in math or the sciences. In the last five years 111 students received her scholarship and another 29 will be awarded this fall.”

After law school, Mrs. Wilson became an attorney for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Electrification Administration, where her earnings were said to be higher than that of most teachers with 10 years in the classroom. She later married a law school classmate, Robert Wilson, and set up a practice in St. Louis.

She once quipped that since she passed the bar before her husband, she was technically the senior partner, but she added that she never raised the issue with her husband.

Because of the mother’s work, the children were exposed to plenty of men and women in national leadership positions.

“Our mother was involved at the grass-roots level,” Wilson’s sister, Ermine Byas, remembers. “She went to God knows how many NAACP conventions in the ‘20s and ‘30s. I remember the time when Walter White (then head of the national NAACP) stayed at our house. I was very young, but we were all impressd by the visitors.”

She says their father was a quiet man with strong convictions about civil rights.

“I think Margaret is like her father in that way. I think she did everything she could because she wanted my father to be proud, for his approval. She was the middle child and you know middle children think they have to do a little bit more than others."

She describes their father as a "deep thinker who got things done. She was like him in that way, quiet but well respected in this community and nationally because, like him, she had strong convictions and didn’t waver.”

The sister also called Mrs. Wilson “the rock” of the family, saying she was "the one everyone else went to if they needed help. She was my idol.”

Dr. John Gladney attended Talladega at the time Wilson was a student there. He called her one of the most "influential people" St. Louis has produced in decades, "an accomplished mind, a person with an open attitude about life and was willing and able to assume a position of leadership. I think her becoming the first black woman to head the national NAACP's board was a tremendous acknowledgement of her talent."

Gladney's wife, Clarice, who also attended Talladega, says Wilson was known in later years for providing financial support for other students to attend the college. The Gladneys renewed their close ties to Mrs. Wilson after he came here to complete his medical residency and decided to settle in St. Louis.

At the time of her death, Mrs. Wilson still lived in the home owned by her late father. Because the neighborhood was declining, her son and sister had urged her to move away. They urged her to move out after she was mugged a few years ago in front of her home.

The mugger turned out to be a teenager, who knocked her down when grabbing her purse. Mrs. Wilson didn't take the hit lying down. She got up and gave chase but didn't catch the mugger.

Norman Seay, a close friend and civil rights leader, said Wilson's reaction summed up her steely resolve. "That says something about how tough she is and has been over the years," Seay said at the time.

But the mugging bothered her family.

"We'd tell her over and over that she needed to move," Ermine Byas said Wednesday. "She's always reminded us that the house was part of the family because her father had bought it years ago and she wasn't about to move out."

A VISIT FROM A FUTURE JUSTICE

One surprising guest at the house during the 1970s was Clarence Thomas who eventually became a Supreme Court Justice. He stayed there for a time when he worked on the staff of former Republican Sen. John Danforth when Danforth was Missouri attorney general. At first, Mrs. Wilson had felt comfortable with Thomas, but parted company with him because of his conservative views on the court.

One of Wilson’s closest friends was Pearlie Evans, former district director of the staff of former U.S. Rep. William L. Clay Sr. Evans remembers that Reagan spoke to the national NAACP convention at the time that Wilson chaired the board. Evans said Wilson suffered some anxiety about what Reagan would do after she introduced him. Would Reagan try to hug her?

According to Evans, Wilson's mind flashed back to an incident in which Sammy Davis Jr. was a target of ridicule among  blacks after he hugged President Richard Nixon on stage at the 1972 Republican covention. Sure enough, Evans recalled, Reagan gave Wilson a big hug after she introduced him. But the political fallout that Wilson feared never happened, Evans recalled.

Wilson was admired by people from all walks of life and considered herself a good friend of organized labor, says Ed Finkelstein, publisher, St. Louis-Southern Illinois Labor Tribune.

He said in a statement, “Margaret was more than a civil rights pioneer, she was a woman who took up the right causes for the right reasons and did so in a manner that had sound rationale and common sense at their core. She was truly a giant civic leader for the entire St. Louis community, encouraging all of us to be better citizens. Even those who ultimately disagreed with her positions had to pause to consider her sound, logical reasoning and intensity. St. Louis has lost a magnificent leader; the civil rights and equal rights movements have lost a respected elder."

One of the last big events in Wilson’s life came in January 30 when friends gathered at the old Scott Joplin House in the Jeff-Vander-Lou area to celebrate her 90th birthday.

“It was really grand,” her sister, Ermine Byas, remembers. “People she had mentored came here from all over the country to be part of this big celebration. “Many of them were lawyers she had advised and helped them in their careers and were doing well partly because of her.” 

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