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Mr. Reliable of the civil rights movement

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For black lawyers and civil rights activists, any humor found in the 1957 integration crisis at Central High was likely to be of a grim nature. And so it was when Wiley Branton and Thurgood Marshall shared a guest bedroom at L.C. and Daisy Bates' house. According to Judith Kilpatrick, the two attorneys playfully (or not) switched nameplates back and forth, each trying to put the other in the bed next to the window that had been blown out by shotgun blasts.

Branton came through many such tests triumphantly and in good humor, as Judith Kilpatrick tells the story in her new biography, “There When We Needed Him: Wiley Austin Branton, Civil Rights Warrior” (University of Arkansas Press, $29.95 cloth.)

Kilpatrick is a professor and associate dean at the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville, the scene of one of Branton's triumphs. He was among a handful of black students who integrated the law school after World War II.

Branton, from Pine Bluff, had been a soldier in that war, and he was a soldier for civil rights all his life. When the conflict finally began turning his way in the '50s, he often found himself fighting alongside his close friend, Marshall. Marshall was more famous, eventually becoming the first black justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, and that didn't bother Branton. According to Kilpatrick, “Branton lacked the ego that Marshall and many of the civil rights leaders carried with them. As Wiley's son Richard explained, his father knowingly played a ‘prime minister's' role in the movement believing he could contribute more to the movement as a ‘facilitator,' helping people work together, than as a final decision maker. ‘He didn't need to be the symbol of it.' ” (Another son, Wiley Jr., is a circuit judge in Little Rock.)

A fierce warrior and a nice fellow to boot. That's worth reading about.

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