The Blue Raccoon

Monday, August 06, 2007

A Giant Exits, and other news from the weekend

For most Richmonders who’ve lived here for any significant time, and know who he was and the role he’d played in history, Oliver Hill Sr. was a fact. He was like the James River, Church Hill and Monument Avenue. His name was affixed in 1996 to the new Richmond Juvenile and Domestic Courts Building, and a bust of him by Richmond artist Paul DiPasquale was in 1997 placed in front of the Black History Museum and Virginia Cultural Center, and in 2005 the Old Finance Building in Capitol Square was also named for him. Then, the actuarial eventuality caught up to him, on Sunday, at his home here. He was 100 years old.

Civil Rights Dream Team:

The Legal Defense Fund team of the NAACP (left to right): Louis Redding, Robert Carter, Oliver Hill, Thurgood Marshall, and Spottswood W. Robinson
(Courtesy of Associated Press, NAACP)

Hill was a general in the war for civil rights in this country. He undertook to make the world a better place at his exit than it was when he entered; and in this he achieved great success. Problem is, the world around him and us doesn’t seem to have gotten much better. Or maybe we just know in greater detail what a sad and shoddy makeshift it all really is. Regardless, Hill’s life as a lesson is that civil liberties are worth the struggle. He persevered, even when in 1955 a cross was burned on his lawn. The Hill family received such a multitude of threats that his wife Beresenia Walker Hill installed floodlights.

If we take for granted, we are foolish, and debase the memory of Hill and those who campaigned with him.

When I saw the huge photograph above the fold of the Richmond Times-Dispatch this humid August morning I thought of how age had made Hill’s profile pharaonic. He’d have without a doubt dismissed such a comparison, but as a lawgiver, and as a man of greatness, I don’t think the resemblance is so far off.

I never met Oliver Hill. I saw him at a distance, at some big events. During his later years, when his health was failing him, and institutions he’d battled as a young man were scrambling to drape lace and bronze around his neck, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1999, and as Outstanding Virginian of the Year by the Virginia General Assembly in 2003.

You can read about his remarkable life and career, here and here and here.

The Unconscionable Constitution

One of his many roles during his life was in 1969-1970 to serve on a panel to recommend changes to the Virginia constitution. These amendments and alterations would take into account national civil rights laws, and wipe away the last vestiges of the reactionary 1902 document.

The Virginia Constitution of 1902 suspended the voting rights of all blacks and a third of the whites. Cities were split from counties and the governor was restricted to one term. The document established effective statewide apartheid and retained political power in the hands of a few. The representatives of the convention that drafted the revisions knew they couldn't submit their new constitution to a public referendum, as the law called for, and have it survive, so they just proclaimed it as law, like some regal edit. Virginia thus entered the 20th century shackled by provincialism, elitism, and racism.

By 1905, the number of Virginians voting was reduced to 50 percent of the number who voted in 1901. In 1940, only 10 percent of Virginians older than 21 could vote. There were few legal challenges to the constitution. People then, as now, were busy earning a living and providing for their families. What would’ve otherwise been considered unconscionable became the accepted order of the day.

Unfinished Business

The political “machine” of Harry F. Byrd Sr. (1887-1966), governor and U.S. senator, thrived under these circumstances. The Byrd Organization that ran the Commonwealth for half a century, and the one that Hill and his colleagues battled, supported Massive Resistance, a strategy of opposition to racial integration. Civil-rights legislation overturned race-based laws.

The Virginia Constitutional Commission of 1969-1970 analyzed the document’s flaws and detailed revisions. The commission included former Gov. Colgate W. Darden, future Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., Hardy C. Dillard, who became chief justice of the World Court at The Hague, civil-rights attorney Hill, and another Richmond native, legal scholar A.E. Dick Howard, chaired the group.

The 1970 constitutional changes didn’t solve all the problems. “We’re now fixed in a system that is terribly retrogressive for the state’s cities,” Dick told me for a history column I wrote in 2004. “They are locked without power to annex, and the counties do not share the problems of urban areas.”

Today, Virginia is the single state in the nation where each city is not part of a surrounding locality. This plays havoc on regional planning issues—like for transportation, housing, environmental issues, and emergency and social services. Within about a 30 mile radius there, are for example, four departments of economic development, four local police forces, and four school systems.

This is an immense waste of time, money and effort. The cul-de-sac archipelago thinks Richmond is fine sequestered in its sacred precincts. There are those who live out there in the densepack off the parkway who’d be fine if the James River should with great violence leap without warning out of its banks and take to a watery doom the blacks, the poor, the halt, the lame, stick and the old buildings that are in the way of glass box progress. Kind of like what’s happening with New Orleans: bulldoze it and start over.

In hindsight, though, when I spoke with him in 2004, Dick was glad the Virginia Constitution was amended in 1970, not today. “The political environment is polarized and poisonous,” he said. “It would be difficult to achieve a constitutional convention today. I’m not certain what the result would be.”


As evidence of how far we’ve come from Hill’s ideals and how disconnected policymakers are from the public, I give you the weekend machinations of the United States Congress. That body voted to uphold the administration’s right listen in on telephone calls between this country and other nations. This has the onerous name of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The legislators further promulgated FISA while the Daily Kos held audience at its annual convention for the roster of Democratic presidential wannabes. The news was that as Hillary and Obama scrapped, the Democratic more-or-less majority Congress just rolled over. I mean, folded like that proverbial cheap suit. Again.

My senator Jim Webb– mine in that I exercised my franchise in his favor and danced a jig when he won -- let me down on this one. In this official statement Webb wrote, emphsis mine:

“Yesterday I supported two measures to amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. These measures were considered against the backdrop of heightened concerns from our nation's intelligence community abut the threat of international terrorism. The ramifications of the two amendments before us last night were not political. Instead they related to the urgent demands of national security. I chose to heed those warnings. We now have six months to work in earnest to bring full accountability to the process.

“This distinction and the threats to national security were stated clearly by Admiral McConnell as well as four of the eight Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. These members, Senators Feinstein, Mikulski, Bayh, and Bill Nelson, have extensive experience on intelligence matters and are respected champions of civil rights and liberties. They chose to give significant weight and deference to the intelligence community on FISA reform, and so did I.

“There is near uniform, bipartisan agreement on the need to reform FISA to reflect modern telecommunications and information technology. We must do so in a way that safeguards basic civil and constitutional rights. But we must also remember that the terrorist threat to the nation is extremely serious. I remain fully committed to bringing accountability to this process, and to protecting the privacy rights of all Americans.”

I'd comforted myself earlier in the year that Congress was engaged in a high stakes game of chicken with the Chief Executive and his minions. But I was just wrong. They're just well...turkeys. And I mean no insult to that noble fowl.

While the nation's legislature was tinkering with our rights, Amie and I were attending the Richmond Shakespeare Festival’s production of Henry IV Part One. As cicadas whirred outside Agecroft Hall, the players brought to life Harry Hotspur and young Hal, and the drunken wise fool, Falstaff.

The actors were gleaming and damp in the heat, which seemed appropriate, considering the vital brio exhibited in this play. It’s an Elizabethan action movie, with much declaiming, dispatches received and sent, sword play and running hither and thither. We liked the running, as it kicked up a breeze in the languid night, and the play was mighty fine.

With all the strategizing and collusion I was reminded that councils of war and government have changed little from Shakespeare’s time, except for clothes, cell phones, and indoor plumbing.

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