Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Champion of Civil Rights From Crown Heights

(William "Bill" Taylor and Bayard Rustin, circa 1970. Photo via Flickr.)

The major papers all carried obituaries today for William Taylor, a leading civil rights lawyer who served the cause of justice for all as a member of the the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the United States Commission on Civil Rights, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. You can read the details of of Mr. Taylor's career achievements, among them fighting to de-segregate the schools of Little Rock in 1958 and directing the research that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, in the obits linked above, but on this blog, I want to celebrate him as a native son of Crown Heights.

Born in 1931 to Lithuanian Jewish immigrants in our neighborhood, Taylor said later in life that his commitment to equal rights began in Brooklyn, where he was taunted with anti-Semetic remarks in what was then a Jewish and Italian area, and where he witnessed racial hostility firsthand when Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947. He later attended Brooklyn College, earning a suspension from the college president when, as editor of the college newspaper, he ran an article that asserted a faculty member was denied tenure for his political views. The college retaliated by trying to keep Taylor off the Civil Rights Commission in the 1960s (they failed), but relented and awarded him an honorary degree in 2001.

Teachers, when you get back to school next fall, remember to tell your students about Bill Taylor, someone who learned tough lessons from his experiences of race and prejudice in Brooklyn and then spent his life in service to the promise of equal rights. After seeing the Crown Heights Oral History Project in action, I'm confident that Crown Heights can still produce students of this caliber, who can learn from all the challenges around them and build something better for the future.