“My father was an advocate for equal rights for all citizens, and we haven’t gotten there, so I’m passing the challenge down to the young folks,” said Little Rock Circuit Judge Wiley Branton Jr. as he honored his father’s legacy at a Black History Month Celebration held Tuesday night at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.
Branton is the son of the late Pine Bluff native and attorney Wiley Branton Sr., who is known as a “civil rights warrior.”
During his speech, Branton Jr. highlighted some important contributions his father made not only in Arkansas, but in the United States. He stressed the importance of education and said that his father was one of the first African-Americans to attend the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, helping to desegregate their School of Law.
“My father was a civil rights fighter before he became an attorney,” Branton Jr. said.
In 1948, Branton Sr. was prosecuted for teaching people how to vote and for voter fraud.
“He was convicted, he repealed his case to the Arkansas Supreme Court, where it was found that he was involved in voter education, not voter fraud,” Branton Jr. said.
According to encyclopediaofarkansas.net, in early 1956, Branton Sr. filed suit against the Little Rock School Board for failing to integrate the public schools properly after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, decision. Branton’s suit precipitated the desegregation of Central High School and ultimately was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court as Cooper v. Aaron in 1958.
During the years he was involved in this case, Branton Sr. worked primarily with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc.’s director-counsel Thurgood Marshall, who presented the arguments to the Supreme Court. They won the case, and the school board was ordered to proceed with desegregation. The case made Branton Sr. nationally known and led to his recruitment as executive director of the Voter Education Project in 1962.
Branton Jr. went on to tell about how his father was involved in the historic Little Rock Nine crisis. Branton Sr. served as chief counsel for the nine African-American students involved in the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock in 1957.
“My father went on to work with the Johnson Administration,” Branton Jr. said.
Branton Sr. became executive director of the President’s Council on Equal Opportunity and helped coordinate implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked Branton, Sr. to move to the Department of Justice as his personal representative and continue working to implement the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“Nothing worthwhile in life comes cheap,” Branton Jr. said in his closing comments. “You have to pay for what you obtain in life. There is no substitute for education. Despite the obstacles, if you push yourself, make good choices, and educate yourself, not even the worst racism can hold you back.”
The Arkansas Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission, along with the City of Pine Bluff, came together to produce the 2018 Black History Month Celebration. The celebration also included live music performed by The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Vesper Choir, Dollarway High School Choir, Watson Chapel High School Choir, Kendall Redding, S. Juain Young & Artists United, and the Ivy Center for Education Scholars.
“The goal of the commission is to promote racial harmony, multicultural diversity, and social equality for Arkansans,” said Dushun Scarbrough, executive director of the Arkansas Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission.
“Mayor Shirley Washington reached out to us months ago and thought that it would be a great idea to collaborate and do a Black History Program.”
Scarbrough said that this is the first Black History Program sponsored by a state agency and powered by the City of Pine Bluff.
“Having Judge Wiley Branton Jr. as the keynote speaker shows the black history and the enrichment that Pine Bluff has,” she said.