Honoring a Civil Rights Leader

April 28, 2011

Lawyer William L. Taylor’s papers become part of special collection in Gelman Library

By Laura Donnelly-Smith

At a symposium held in the Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library on Wednesday, civil rights lawyer William L. Taylor was remembered as a tireless advocate for equality in education, but also as a savvy, strategic thinker who understood the need for collaboration between the worlds of policy and the academy. The symposium was held to inaugurate the William L. Taylor Papers, a collection of Mr. Taylor’s legal briefs, speeches and correspondence that will be permanently housed in Gelman Library’s Special Collections Research Center.

“I am honored to have George Washington University be trusted as a repository for these materials,” President Steven Knapp said at the symposium. “We will make them available to generations of students and scholars. It’s one of our aspirations to become a center where people from all over the world can come learn about American history, especially in fields like access in education.”

Graduate School of Education and Human Development (GSEHD) Dean Michael J. Feuer worked with Mr. Taylor’s children to bring the collection to GW after Mr. Taylor’s death in June 2010.

As a lawyer, Mr. Taylor collaborated closely with future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall at the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund in 1950s and ’60s, working on cases that arose after Brown v. Board of Education ordered an end to segregation in public schools. Taylor also served on the United States Commission on Civil Rights, where his work helped lead to passage of the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and Fair Housing Act. Later in his career, he advocated for educational equality for all children, and in 2002, Taylor help draft the No Child Left Behind Act.

At the symposium, keynote speaker Carl Kaestle, an emeritus professor at Brown University and prominent historian of American education, explained how Mr. Taylor and one of his contemporaries—another civil rights advocate named Bill Penix—worked from opposite ends of the political system to accomplish the same thing: the end of segregation in American public schools.

While Mr. Penix worked at the local level in Hoxie, Ala., to win protection for pro-integration school board members being harassed by segregationists, Mr. Taylor worked at the federal level to draft legal briefs for high-profile desegregation cases such as the one in Little Rock, Ark. Mr. Taylor was successful, Dr. Kaestle said, in part because of his synthesis of knowledge across fields. “He recognized the importance of research in the pursuit of justice.”

Mary Futrell, professor of education and former dean of GSEHD, and David K. Cohen, professor of education and education policy at the University of Michigan, also shared their thoughts on the continuing work needed to eradicate educational inequities in America.

Dr. Futrell recalled her childhood in Lynchburg, Va., attending segregated schools, and encouraged audience members to expand their vision of the civil rights movement to include behind-the-scenes leaders like Mr. Taylor. “When we think of civil rights, we think of Martin Luther King, of Rosa Parks. Who was behind the scenes, opening doors? People like Bill Taylor. He was determining where we should take our strategy,” Dr. Futrell said.

Dr. Cohen noted that Mr. Taylor’s most important work involved using the law to push the government in a progressive direction in which it wasn’t always willing to go. But despite his work, Dr. Cohen said, school districts in New Jersey still spend, on average, three times as much per student than school districts in Alabama. “There’s an enormous amount left to do with ending inequalities fixed into the system—among schools within districts, districts within states, states within the country,” he said.

Gelman Special Collections Director Meredith Evans Raiford and other Gelman staff members will work to digitize the Taylor Papers during the next year, although hard copies of the documents may be available to researchers sooner. Dr. Feuer said he has high hopes that the collection will become the basis for colloquia and student and faculty research projects, with connections to law, policy and legislation.

“In Bill’s career, he started as lawyer and was a lawyer to the end, but he developed strong alliances with people doing serious social science and education research. He understood the power of doing that kind of a bridge,” Dr. Feuer said. “Here at GW, physically and through digital media, we’ll have a scholarly resource oriented toward the continuation of the American saga of educational opportunity.”

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