Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influence of the Civil Rights Movement

BOND: Continuing on, how did you choose your career? Were there lawyers in the District and you said, "Gee, I can do that," or "I want to do that," or people you met early on? Was it Antioch? How did you decide, fix on the law?

NORTON: I think the civil rights movement had everything to do with it, that here's where when you come to consciousness matters. If I'm going to law school in -- I'm sorry, if I'm going to college -- it was probably my second or third year in the mid '50s and the Montgomery bus boycott has broken out, the Brown decision has occurred, there are almost no black lawyers. My own father was a lawyer, but he never practiced because lawyers in his generation could be criminal lawyers and that's about all. It seemed to me, I just thought I was very fortunate to be born at a time when I knew there would be civil rights lawyers and I consider myself very fortunate indeed.

BOND: And you knew there were things you could do to advance the cause of civil rights?

NORTON: I was sure I could do it through the law because there were so few African American lawyers in the first place, much less African American lawyers who were in fact engaged in civil rights because most were engaged in criminal practice or --

BOND: Wills or contracts.

NORTON: Small civil practice is very important, but I wasn't driven by those professional needs. I was driven by the fact that here was this important movement. There was much to be done. I mean, all right, the Supreme Court declared separate but equal and do it at all deliberate speed. Everybody could fathom from that that somebody was going to have to go ahead and make that happen through the law, even as the Brown decision occurred through the law. But more than that, it was -- remember, the civil rights movement broke out because Brown was not self-executing in lifting segregation from this country. For example, in employment and housing, everything remained the same, actually, after Brown and even if the schools had been integrated all over the United States, everything else would've been the same in where you could be employed, where you could eat -- and so the need to break through that and the fact that the law had broken through it as nothing else had.