Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Brown: A Lifetime of Impact

BOND: Congressman Bishop, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership.

BISHOP: Thank you very much.

BOND: I want to start with some questions about Brown v. Board of Education. Now, you were just seven years old in 1954 when the decision was handed down. Can you remember, did it mean anything to you right then?

BISHOP: I can remember the event. There was a great deal of excitement in our community, in our household and I remember sitting at the dinner table that evening when it came on the 6:00 o'clock news and hearing my parents talk about what it was going to mean for my life and what the challenges were going to be to compete in a non-segregated society and, of course, it was put upon me that I was going to have to run twice as hard and be twice as fast and twice as smart in order to compete, to catch up, because we had been held behind and so that was my mantra.

BOND: So you got a sense, I'm guessing from your parents, that although this meant equality, that you'd have to be better than equal in the years ahead?

BISHOP: Yes, absolutely.

BOND: Now, looking back on it from today's perspective, what has it come to mean?

BISHOP: Well, it has come to mean opportunity, at least on paper. The opportunity to compete, the opportunity to participate and, of course, as I later came to understand as an attorney, it was the foundation of equality through the 14th Amendment and I believe that through that, all of the other gains that we've been able to make in terms of race relations, whether it's the Voting Rights Act, the opportunity to participate, whether it's equal housing, public accommodations -- all of that really came from the writ jurisprudence established in Brown.

BOND: In some ways, the Brown case actually helped you to go to law school --

BISHOP: Oh, no question.

BOND: -- because every university had filed suit against Georgia, even though a private school, to allow it to admit black students. They won the suit, they admitted black students and shortly thereafter you enrolled.

BISHOP: Yes, that is correct, and, of course, Thurgood Marshall who was the attorney in Brown, one of the attorneys in Brown, was head of the Legal Defense Fund, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and one of the arms of that was the [Herbert] Lehman Foundation and the Earl Warren Training Program in which I participated, both in law school to assist those African Americans who were able to take advantage of desegregation of the southern law schools in terms of scholarship help and then post-graduate when I got to participate as an Earl Warren Fellow doing an internship in civil rights litigation.

BOND: And then further after that, you settled in Columbus, Georgia.


BOND: Because the fellowship required that you go to a place where there were few black lawyers, unlike Atlanta, say, and you participated in a landmark case in Texas that had its roots in Brown.

BISHOP: Yes. Actually, I got involved in that case while I was in New York in 1971 right after I got out of school. In 1966, a group of Texas teachers who were in Sweeny, Texas, the Sweeny Independent School District, when that district desegregated they had two of everything and so they decided that two was too many and they needed to consolidate and they discharged 75% of the black teachers and retained all of the white teachers and, of course, the black teachers filed suit in the federal district court. The federal judge tried it improperly before a jury and, of course, he vowed that "those niggers would never teach any white students as long he was the judge," and, of course, the jury ruled against them.

It was appealed to the Supreme Court from that trial in '66 and, of course, it had been reversed by the Supreme Court, went to the 5th Circuit, then it went to the Supreme Court, then it was reversed and sent back, remanded to the district court in 1971 as I was getting out of law school and I was assigned to go down and review the record to see whether or not there needed to be a new trial, whether it should be re-submitted to the judge for him to decide on the record, or whether the record needed to be supplemented. I recommended that the record be supplemented, not a full-blown trial, but that there be some more evidence put in and, of course, I was designated as lead counsel working with two local attorneys, Gabrielle Kirk McDonald and Weldon Berry who were there in Houston. Of course, it was a great experience for me. It was an interesting case, but it was perpetuating the legacy of Brown.

Ultimately, the case continued. We were ruled against but we made a good record. It went back up to the 5th Circuit, back up to the Supreme Court, reversed later. By that time, I was in the legislature, but it was taken away from that judge, assigned to another judge. They settled it and the estates of some of the black teachers received substantial settlements—four or five hundred thousand dollars, but the main plaintiff, Mildred Harkless who was a young teacher, immediately left and went to California. She didn't get a lot of back pay because the measure of damages was the difference between what you would've made and what you actually made and, of course, she went to a place that paid teachers higher than they did in Texas at the time. But it was an interesting experience for me.

BOND: I would guess so. So, in a way, Brown has impacted you all throughout your life, from the time of the decision in '54 when you were seven 'til the time you graduate from law school — you get into law school, you graduated from law school and you become an actual lawyer.

BISHOP: Absolutely, and, of course, the jurisprudence established by Brown has, of course, affected my legal career in terms of the cases in civil rights and, of course, it has obviously affected my life in its entirety.