For the Vanguard blog, Monday, Oct. 11, 2010
by Al Lasher
Bob Gair and I attended a memorial service for Bill Taylor this past Friday morning, October 8, at 10 AM in the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, an impressive building within sight of the White House and just down the street from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. I can’t quite verbalize it, but the juxtaposition was somehow appropriate in terms of who Bill was and what I learned about his central role in the Civil Rights movement.
The room was packed, more than 200 people. Seemed like they were all lawyers. From what I could gather, they all considered themselves to be good friends of Bill’s, and connected to the advance in Civil Rights since Bill graduated from Yale Law School and began work in Washington for Thurgood Marshall, then head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. There he wrote the brief in the Little Rock school case in which the Supreme Court definitively held that Brown v. Board of Education was the law of the land.
Many of us reading this report knew Bill back at Brooklyn College. Some of us remained in touch with him in the years since. He came in to New York for virtually all of the Vanguard reunions. And sometimes he’d come in for a speaking engagement or to visit his son, David, a distinguished documentary film maker who lives in Brooklyn. And until the last couple of years, he’d often bring his tennis racquet with him and Mike Kandel, Bill and I would play doubles on the clay courts along the Hudson River on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Sometimes he’d stay at Myron’s place, sometimes at mine. My daughter Risa and family live in Chevy Chase, not far from where Bill lived in D.C. and he’d occasionally come by when Stephanie and I were visiting.
All this is to say that Bill and I were lifelong friends and I thought I knew him fairly well.
Not so. I was astounded, almost undone, by the reports by the speakers at his Memorial Service last Friday. I’m a note taker and carry with me a little spiral bound pad to jot down occasional thoughts and brief reports. I was so transfixed by what I was learning about Bill that I only managed to jot down a single sentence, which in one way or another, was repeated by virtually all of the speakers: “Bill Taylor was the intellectual center of every piece of civil rights legislation over the past 50 years.” And this observation applied as well to some of the groundbreaking Supreme Court decisions in the second half of the 20th century.
Probably because my first career was in journalism, I have a bunch of friends who, like myself, wrote books. Candidly, I rarely read them. I had Bill’s most recent book, a personal memoir, The Passion of My Times (Carroll & Graf, 2004) and didn’t start to read it until Friday night when I returned home from D.C. Had I read it when it was first published, I wouldn’t have been so surprised at the outpouring of affection and high regard occasioned by his Memorial Service.
To get a compilation of tributes to Bill, go to www.civilrights.org/taylor
You’ll see a recent photo of Bill, then a blank page, and then an extraordinary list of tributes ranging from his children to some of the best known names in Government. On Oct. 22, the compilation will include the speeches at his Memorial Service.