Courtesy of the Richmond, Virginia, Times: February 2000
Samuel W. Tucker had an intense devotion to the cause of equal rights. “I got involved in the civil rights movement on June 18, 1913, in Alexandria,” he once said. “I was born black.”
Tucker was a respected lawyer who used the courts as his battleground to secure rights for blacks, especially in the area of school desegregation.
He was one of a group of groundbreaking civil rights lawyers in Virginia including Oliver W. Hill, Spottswood W. Robinson III, Henry L. Marsh III and others. During the 1960s he joined Hill and Marsh to form the law firm Hill, Tucker & Marsh in Richmond.
As early as his teen years Tucker was demanding justice. At 14, he caused a stir in Alexandria by refusing to give up his seat on a streetcar to a white person.
His desire to become a lawyer also developed at an early age. He started reading law books when he was about 10, and though he earned an undergraduate degree from Howard University in 1933, he never attended law school. Instead, Tucker focused on his law books and qualified for the bar exam based on his studies in a law office.
Tucker was admitted to the state bar in 1934 and began practicing in Alexandria. There, in 1939, he filed a suit to end the exclusion of blacks from that city's public library. The suit resulted in a branch library being established for blacks.
World War II interrupted his practice and he entered the Army, serving in combat in Italy and rising to the rank of infantry major. After the war, Tucker moved his law practice to Emporia. The black civil rights struggle came into full flower during the postwar era, and S.W. Tucker, as he preferred to be called, was often at the center of its legal battles in Virginia.
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the separate-but-equal doctrine in public education in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, but whites resisted desegregation in Virginia through Massive Resistance.
Tucker was the principal lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in many post-Brown school desegregation cases. He participated in the long legal struggle to reopen the public schools in Prince Edward County, which had been closed by the county to avoid desegregation.
Tucker also had a hand in the lawsuit that ended the state tuition grant program that allowed white children to attend segregated academies at public expense. He was also involved in cases that challenged the death penalty as being racially biased, and he fought efforts to exclude blacks from juries. All this legal work meant that Tucker often carried a heavy caseload. In 1967, for example, he had about 150 civil rights cases before state and federal courts. Perhaps Tucker's greatest legal achievement was Green vs. New Kent County School Board, which challenged a freedom-of-choice plan the board had enacted to desegregate the county schools on a voluntary basis.
The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in May 1968 that the freedom-of-choice plan was an inadequate remedy. The justices determined that school boards had an “affirmative duty” to desegregate their schools.
According to The Encyclopedia of Civil Rights In America, Green vs. New Kent County School Board “did more to advance school integration than any other Supreme Court decision since Brown.” Tucker died in October 1990 at age 77. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder spoke for many when he called Tucker “a giant among giants.”
In June 1998, a monument was dedicated in his honor in Emporia. The monument's inscription praised Tucker, in part, as “an effective, unrelenting advocate for freedom, equality and human dignity — principles he loved — things that matter.”
Samuel Wilbert Tucker (1913-1990), a Richmond civil-rights lawyer active in desegregation efforts in Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s, was the senior member of the firm of Hill, Tucker and Marsh and a cooperating attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Tucker, a native of Alexandria, Virginia, was born June 18, 1913. He graduated from Howard University in 1933 and began practicing law in Alexandria. He served in World War II in the 366th Infantry in Italy from 1941-1945. Throughout his career, Tucker was active in efforts to end desegregation, principally in Virginia's public school systems. He died October 19, 1990.
The Trials of S.W. Tucker
By S.J. Ackerman, June 2000
The Washington Post
The temperature had already crept to 89 that Monday morning in August 1939 when a well-dressed young black man approached the front desk at the Alexandria public library to request a borrower's card. Refused, the man did something highly out of the ordinary: Rather than depart quietly, he picked a book from the stacks and sat down at a table to read.
Alice Green, the assistant librarian, hadn't recovered from her astonishment when a second young black man appeared with an identical request. After being denied, he too turned toward the stacks rather than the exit. And now another was coming in the door.
Soon there were five African Americans at separate tables, with a sixth dawdling near the doorway. Dispatching the library's page, William Adam, for reinforcements, Green paced and pleaded. “I'm sorry,” she said, “you fellows will have to leave. This library is for whites only.” The readers maintained silence.
Adam ran to the lodgings of Catharine Scoggin, the head librarian. “Oh mercy, Miss Scoggin, there's colored people all over the library!” Adam proclaimed from the foyer. Scoggin, who had just emerged from the shower upstairs, dressed quickly and scurried to City Hall, where she discussed the unprecedented situation with the city manager and the chief of police.
Outside the library, the authorities found about 300 spectators, including a suspiciously timely press contingent. Scoggin entered and requested that the renegade readers depart. Their reply was the polite rustle of turning pages. Police officer Jack Kelley seconded Scoggin's request. Nobody budged.
“What would happen if we don't leave?” William “Buddy” Evans, age 19, finally asked.
“Then I would have to arrest you,” Kelley replied.
“Well, we are staying.”
The officers reluctantly did their duty. Everybody walked out together into the soggy sunlight in orderly fashion, without handcuffs or a struggle. All but Bobby Strange, the young man in the doorway, who had bolted out of the library when the
police first arrived and dashed to an inconspicuous law office at 901 Princess St. There, he breathlessly passed the word to a 26-year-old black lawyer who, although he never showed his face at the library that morning, was the mastermind behind the sit-in — and a forgotten architect of the mighty social revolution that was to follow.
Samuel Wilbert Tucker is an unsung patriarch of the civil rights movement. Even specialized accounts of the movement's history tend to overlook him. He wrote no books, gave few speeches and confined his work largely to Virginia's courtrooms and hearing rooms, choosing to stand beside the powerless in obscure places like Emporia, Farmville and New Kent County. His partners in Hill, Tucker and Marsh — for decades Richmond's foremost black law firm — won headlines and acclaim. Oliver Hill, now 93, received the Medal of Freedom from President Clinton. State Sen. Henry L. Marsh III was Richmond's first black mayor in modern times. S.W. Tucker, by contrast, was mostly a faceless lawyer in newspaper stories reporting NAACP victories.
“God keeps his eye on the sparrow, but the sparrow never shouts,” Tucker once told a friend. “He just sings his song.” S.W. Tucker's song still resonates. He helped invent the modern civil rights demonstration, stood up against the white power structure in his native Virginia and litigated landmark cases that broke the back of racial segregation in the nation's schools. He did it with a special blend of courage, pride and humility — humble enough to work in the shadows, yet proud enough to stand toe to toe with Sam Ervin at the height of the North Carolina senator's power and defend his life's work before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“He is really one of the most brilliant minds that I know, a man of great integrity,” Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, then the Senate's sole black member, said of Tucker in 1975. “He is always on the firing line when he believes injustice is being done or some wrong needs to be righted.” Or as Henry Marsh put it a few years ago, “He was the brains behind the movement.”
He was a quiet and unassuming man, smallish, bald and perpetually rumpled. His voice was soft and his cadence deliberative and respectful, and he reveled in the role of the friendly and amusing country lawyer. Retired U.S. District judge Robert Merhige Jr. recalls Tucker's remark as Merhige weighed accepting a gradualist proposal to desegregate a public school system: “Judge, you don't do a dog a favor by cutting off its tail an inch at a time.” At the same time, Tucker brooked no disrespect. When an opposing white attorney used the pronunciation “Nigra” one day in a lawyers' conference with Merhige, Tucker halted the proceedings until the man explained he meant “Negro” instead of the N-word.
A decade after his death, S.W. Tucker is finally receiving more widespread recognition. The City Council in Richmond recently decided to rename the J.E.B. Stuart Bridge in his honor; a new elementary school in Alexandria will bear his name. Last summer, a reenactment of the library protest was held at the Kate Waller Barrett branch, where the original one took place.
He was born just two blocks away — at 918 Queen St. — in 1913. His mother had been a teacher, his father a real estate agent who shared an office with lawyer Thomas Watson. S.W. (then known as Wilbert) ran errands for both men. Race played a role in his life from early childhood. When he was 3, he watched two white policemen drag his pregnant mother from their home following a street quarrel in which she was an innocent bystander. When he reached school age, S.W. found himself abruptly separated from his white playmates, the neighboring Duncan children, who went to the all-white Jefferson School at West and Queen streets, visible from the Tuckers' doorstep. He was dispatched to Parker-Gray School for Negroes, eight blocks away.
In June 1927, on the electric streetcar from 12th and D streets NW in Washington, little brother Otto flipped a reversible trolley seat so that he and S.W., then 14, could face his older brother George and friend Andrew Jackson behind them. Once the car was in Virginia, Lottie May Jernigan, a white woman, ordered Otto to move, because the seat back now ambiguously protruded into the section designated “whites only.”
Otto just sat. When the Tuckers hopped off at Patrick and King streets in Alexandria, Jernigan tailed them, buttonholing a policeman. Otto was only 11; so the cop hauled George and S.W. into police court, on charges of disorderly conduct, assault and abusive language. Knowing their parents were out of town, a passing neighbor ran for lawyer Watson. The court fined S.W. $5.03. Watson appealed the case.
Presiding over the appeal was Judge Howard W. Smith, paladin of the cozy oligarchy that ruled Alexandria. S.W. expected no breaks in the courtroom, with his black attorney facing five white male jurors. Still, the jury found the Tuckers innocent.
The shock of unexpected justice electrified S.W. He vowed to follow in Watson's footsteps. The closest Virginia high school for blacks was in Manassas, so Tucker, like many blacks, was forced to ride the trolley to Washington each day. He “bootlegged an education,” as he put it, posing as a D.C. resident and making daily a 22-block hike to Armstrong High from the trolley terminal. “That was the first kind of scar,” he recalled years later. “We knew that something was wrong with it, there was a public high school within sight of my home that white children attended as a matter of course.”
He went on to Howard University, where he first encountered Charles Houston, the law professor who spearheaded the legal assault on segregation by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Instead of seeking the overturn of the separate-but-equal racial provisions of the Supreme Court's 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, Houston argued in those days that blacks should invoke them to force equal funding for Negro institutions.
Barred by race from Virginia's law schools, Tucker read law under Tom Watson while researching cases for him at the Library of Congress. He readily passed the bar exam at age 20, too young to be sworn in. When he turned 21, he was called to the bar in the same courtroom where he had faced trolley car justice.
Tucker deemed December 27, 1934, “the day I became a man.” Visiting Watson's home on Glebe Road to report on casework, he learned that his mentor had died suddenly at age 61 of acute bronchitis. “I drove up there as a boy, to tell him what I had done,” he recalled. “I drove back as a man; I had to make the decisions myself.” The first case he argued was a murder trial he inherited from Watson. The result was a hung jury.
Every day, Tucker passed the new whites-only library at 717 Queen St., galled that he couldn't enter. In March 1939 he accompanied a retired black Army sergeant, George Wilson, to the library to request a borrower's card. Librarian Sue Fox politely turned them away. When Tucker asked why, she referred him to City Attorney Armistead Boothe, vice president of the Library Board.
Boothe was later elected to the state Senate, where he won a reputation as a man of conscience who opposed maintaining school segregation in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court. But in this case he served as the reluctant agent of Jim Crow. He stalled Tucker while the board began belatedly considering a “colored” branch. In May, Tucker petitioned a local court for a writ requiring the library to register Wilson. Boothe replied that Wilson hadn't made it clear to the librarian that he was an Alexandria resident. As the court pondered Wilson's petition, Tucker could see the city's machinery slowly gearing up to produce the last thing he wanted: a Jim Crow library for blacks.
Boothe ghosted a June 28 piece in the Alexandria Gazette asserting that whites had waited since 1794 for a new library, while blacks had only wanted one for two years. In fact, he claimed, the Library Board had consulted “prominent colored citizens” who deemed a Negro boys' club a greater priority. The board would proceed “regardless of steps taken in court by some over-zealous persons.”
Tucker knew he had to shake things up. One of his mentors at Howard, theologian Howard Thurman, had returned from a 1935 trip to India enthralled by the effectiveness of Gandhi's nonviolent resistance campaign. Then there was the 1937
sit-down strike in Flint, Mich., when General Motors workers stymied the world's largest corporation, sparking imitations nationwide. Finally, Tucker had his own brother's precedent: Sitting down and staying put was exactly what Otto had done on that streetcar in 1927.
Tucker recruited 11 young disciples, drilling them secretly. On Sunday, August 20, 1939, he told them to be prepared to strike the next day. Several of the recruits succumbed to their parents' misgivings. Just six reported for duty Monday morning.
Not everything went as scripted. Buddy Evans went straight to the stacks to snatch a book, although his companions duly requested applications. The faithful five were spread thin among the library tables, some too jittery to read. But they stayed put and went to police headquarters with their dignity intact.
The media paid scant attention to the episode. Preoccupied with the Hitler-Stalin pact, disclosed that same day, the Washington Star missed the story. The Post reported that “five colored youths” had staged a “sit-down strike.” The Times Herald and the African American Washington Tribune used similar terminology.
Boothe argued before a packed courtroom that the library wasn't public. Tucker moved for dismissal, because no law had been broken. The judge ruled that the issue was whether a breach of the peace had occurred, and requested rival arguments. Requesting repeated continuances, Boothe quietly let the charges drop. He didn't want the protesters in jail any more than Tucker did.
On September 12, ruling on Wilson's request for a library card, the judge conceded all of Tucker's points: Alexandria's was indeed a public library; citizens had a right to use it; and Wilson was qualified to be a reader. Still, the judge denied the petition, upholding Boothe's claim that Wilson had not identified himself as an Alexandria resident. The judge found no regulation limiting the library's use to whites; it was open to Alexandria residents or taxpayers. “Inasmuch as the City Council has not provided a separate library for the colored race,” he suggested the librarian should accommodate black Alexandrians.
This wasn't the victory it seemed. Rather than endure black readers at Queen Street, Alexandria was now rushing through approval of a separate library.
During evening hours on January 30, 1940, Catharine Scoggin had unexpected visitors: Tucker and Wilson, with borrowers' applications. Scoggin issued cards valid at the future Colored Library, which was due to open in March.
“I refuse and I will always refuse to accept a card — in lieu of a card to be used at the existing library,” Tucker told her. Delay until March would be a refusal, “whereupon I will feel justified in seeking the aid of court to enforce my right.”
The skies frowned wet and raw, slowing construction of the new library — but also laying Tucker low with flu. By the time he recovered, Robinson Library was rising. It had shorter hours, castoff books and a hand-me-down typewriter from Queen Street.
The black press hailed it as a great victory.
S.W. Tucker was disgusted.
Tucker spent World War II as an officer in the all-black 366th Infantry Division, which fought several bloody and heroic engagements in Italy. After the war, he came home to Virginia, quickly determined there were too many black lawyers in
Alexandria, and headed south.
The city of Emporia was in the heart of Southside Virginia's Black Belt, where African Americans were numerous but powerless. S.W. Tucker arrived there in 1946, and set up an office and living quarters above a movie house. He was joined the following year by his new bride, Julia.
Southside justice was lily white. There were no black judges, no black prosecutors, no black lawyers and no black jurors — only black defendants. As the region's sole black lawyer, Tucker quickly became an institution among African Americans. At the same time he grew conspicuous, feared and even hated by antagonists in the legal community — so much so that when he built a house on the outskirts of town, he insisted that each room have two doors, and that the house include several trapdoors for quick exit.
Tucker quickly found himself on a collision course with the white legal establishment. He took on a series of criminal cases where the defendants were black and poor. In many of these, Tucker mounted a defense that consisted not only of attacking the evidence against his client but also of attacking the system itself for its racial imbalance. There was, for example, the case of Jodie Bailey, a local black man. In October 1949, after a few drinks, Bailey disputed an automobile repair charge at the Capital Garage, pulled out a switchblade and stabbed the popular white proprietor, Luther P. “Dick” Brotwell, to death. Bailey's wife, Katie, ran for Tucker.
The mood in town was menacing, and the “hanging tree” stood between Emporia's vulnerable lockup and the courthouse. By the time Tucker got to the jail, the authorities had transferred his client to the jail in adjacent Brunswick County. Three months later, an all-white Greensville County jury convicted Bailey and he was sentenced to life in prison. Tucker's fee was $44.50.
Tucker, supported by the NAACP, set about appealing the conviction to the Virginia Supreme Court. He cited the “systematic exclusion of Negroes” from Greensville County juries, buttressing this contention with an unprecedented statistical analysis documenting that no black had sat on a trial jury for more than 30 years. The court overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial. Bailey was temporarily freed — only to be convicted again.
As the Bailey case proceeded, Tucker also became involved as an NAACP attorney in the appeal of the death sentences of the “Martinsville Seven” — seven black men convicted of raping a white woman. Once again, Tucker devised a statistical argument against the fairness of the sentencing. Since 1908, he discovered, Virginia had executed 45 black men for raping white women, yet no white men had been executed for rape. “If you can't equalize upward, we must equalize downward,” he urged. State and federal judges rejected the argument.
The executions were scheduled to begin February 2. As crowds of protesters gathered at the governor's mansion and the penitentiary in Richmond, Tucker and a colleague began a frantic round of last-minute appeals, seeking a sympathetic judge. Denied their petition in Richmond, they sought out one U.S. 4th Circuit judge in Charlottesville. Denied again, they drove to Charlotte, N.C., to visit another 4th Circuit judge. And then they drove to Washington, where they wound up a little after midnight on February 2 in the living room of Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson's apartment at the Wardman Park. Vinson was unpersuaded. At 8 a.m. the executions began.
Four were electrocuted that morning, the others three days later. The courts never accepted the sentencing disparity argument. Still, looking back many years later, Tucker said the Martinsville case was one of the most influential he'd ever worked on. Coming at a time when lawyers were challenging segregation in education and other fields, he saw it as part of a unified legal assault on unequal treatment based on race.
In April 1951 students walked out of Farmville's all-black Moton High School to protest overcrowding. The NAACP's Virginia representatives, Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson, agreed to take on the students' case on condition that they sue for desegregation, rather than for equalization of schools. In time, the resulting Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County became one of the five suits the Supreme Court grouped under Brown v. Board of Education. That landmark 1954 ruling scrapped “separate but equal” in public education. A year later, the court directed all localities to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.”
S.W. Tucker became the state NAACP's lead lawyer in the ongoing legal challenge to segregation. He filed suits in nearly 50 counties and cities, including Arlington, Fairfax and Alexandria, seeking to force local officials to comply with the rulings of the nation's highest court. But the political machine of U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. stood its ground. “Massive resistance” became its rallying cry. Prince Edward County closed its public schools rather than desegregate, with the state providing tuition grants to white students so they could attend all-white private academies. Moderates in the legislature rallied behind state Sen. Armistead Boothe, by now convinced that segregation was doomed. But the Byrd juggernaut rolled over Boothe's “Young Turks” at a historic special session in 1956, in which the General Assembly passed measures requiring local school districts to shut down rather than desegregate.
The laws aimed at derailing not only desegregation but also the NAACP's legal crusade. The special session considered seven statutes designed to stop the association's attorneys from giving legal aid to those seeking to challenge the constitutionality of segregation. Appearing for the NAACP, Tucker told legislators there was no point to his testifying about their bills, because they had already made up their minds.
He was right about that. If it couldn't kill the message coming from the high court in Washington, the Byrd machine was determined to kill the messengers. The assembly passed all seven statutes. One of the first lawyers targeted under the new laws was S.W. Tucker.
On a crisp February morning in 1960, more than 200 blacks crammed into the 125-seat courtroom at the Greensville County Courthouse in Emporia. The only whites were court officials and a few reporters. The crowd included out-of-town luminaries like the NAACP's Roy Wilkins. Local folks took off work to attend and show their support for the defendant. Tucker was there before a three-judge panel of the Virginia State Bar to “show cause, if any he can, why his license to practice law should not be revoked.”
The state Committee on Offenses Against the Administration of Justice — the notorious Boatwright Committee — had accused Tucker of soliciting on behalf of the NAACP “not less than 10 cases involving litigation.” It alleged that the plaintiffs in these cases didn't realize they were being made parties to litigation, and in some cases had been signed up under false pretenses. Tucker and other lawyers associated with the NAACP, including his brother Otto, fought the allegations every step of the way. The NAACP argued that the lawyers' actions were “an example of outstanding public service rather than unethical conduct.” But the Boatwright Committee had virtually convicted Tucker and his colleagues in advance.
Commonwealth's Attorney Harold Townsend launched breezily into his case, asserting that Tucker didn't have the right to confront, or even identify, his accusers, nor did the charges have to be specific. After all, this wasn't an actual trial, merely a bar proceeding. Tucker's all-black defense team attacked the charges as petty and vague. The three-judge panel ordered Townsend to return with specific charges.
He came back in November with three main allegations of misconduct, stemming from the cases that had most galled Southside Virginia's white legal establishment: that Tucker had unethically solicited business from Jodie Bailey when he visited him in the Brunswick jail; likewise with Tabb Watts, a black sharecropper convicted of assaulting his white landlord; and that Tucker had interfered with justice when he insisted upon helping to prosecute a case in Isle of Wight County in which a white man had raped a 16-year-old black girl — a crime commonly ignored in Southside.
The three judges ruled the charges “non-suited without prejudice” — meaning they could be filed again. Though he was losing on the NAACP-related allegations, Townsend wounded Tucker with a fourth claim that the lawyer had mishandled a private estate case. “It is just a new experience for me in my life, frankly,” Tucker said in court, “to be called on the carpet, or have it suggested that I have mistreated somebody. I have tried all my life never to mistreat anybody.”
Tucker had just formed the firm of Tucker and Marsh, based in Richmond (Oliver Hill, an old colleague, joined them in 1966), and he told his new law partner, Henry Marsh, “Look, I'm a target. If you want to dissociate yourself from me, it will be okay.” Marsh didn't budge. And neither did Tucker.
Both sides returned to court in January 1962. The evening before the session was a tense one in Tucker's camp. Two of the three judges to hear the case were militant segregationists. Worried about how they would rule, the NAACP brain trust proposed using a prominent white attorney with political clout in Richmond who was offering to speak in Tucker's defense.
Tucker would have none of it, recalled Marsh. With a rare show of temper, he declared that to use a white attorney would concede everything the legal establishment was asserting about black inferiority. He said he'd rather be disbarred. The argument got heated, but Tucker wouldn't budge.
The venue had changed to Sussex County, but the courtroom was again packed. Townsend reiterated the charges. Then William Ming, a black attorney from Chicago, rose for the defense. The alleged offenses were a decade old. They had been declared violations after the fact, flouting the constitutional prohibition against such legislation. But most important, Ming went on, they were false. S.W. Tucker had come to the aid of the poor and defenseless, in the noblest traditions of the legal profession. Wheeling accusingly at Townsend, Ming declared that he was the one who ought to be disbarred. It was “the greatest speech I have ever heard in a courtroom,” Henry Marsh said.
The judges reprimanded Tucker's handling of the murky estate case. They dismissed all other charges. A throng of jubilant supporters swept Tucker from the courthouse. The segregationists' scheme to purge NAACP lawyers throughout the South was dead. That night at the Royal Baptist Church across from his office, Emporia's black schoolchildren presented Tucker with a trophy for his ordeal.
Still, he never forgot the insult. In 1987, Tucker and Hill received Virginia Commission on Women and Minorities in the Legal System awards from Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell. Tucker was too polite not to apologize for what he was about to say — and too proud not to say it. “A committee of this bar allowed itself to be used for such nefarious purposes” as disbarring him, he told the group. The panel had attacked him “for the very thing for which I'm being recognized today.”
Case by case, county by county, S.W. Tucker and the NAACP systematically attacked school segregation. In Prince Edward County, the state had ordered public schools shut down while providing tuition grants for whites to attend private academies. Tucker had to fight his way through a thicket of federal courts and judges, some of whom were cool toward enforcing the Supreme Court's original ruling. One of those least sympathetic was federal appeals court Judge Clement Haynsworth Jr., who rejected Tucker's claim that the black children of Prince Edward had been denied equal protection under the 14th Amendment because, Haynsworth said, the decision to close the schools had affected blacks and whites equally.
The Supreme Court eventually struck down the state's case, and reopened the county's public schools in 1964. By then the state had retreated from its policy of massive resistance, adopting in its place a new and less confrontational concept officials called “freedom of choice.” Either way, the result was the same: Most schools remained all-black or all-white. “Freedom of choice is still massive resistance, no matter what you call it,” Tucker told a federal appeals court in 1964.
New Kent County, population 4,500, had only two kindergarten-through-12th-grade schools — one for whites and one for blacks. After the Brown decision, the county decided it would accept applications from members of each race to attend the other school. But no whites applied to attend the black school, and 85 percent of the county's black students remained in the all-black school. Tucker argued in court that the burden was on the board to come up with a realistic desegregation plan.
The case finally got to the Supreme Court in April 1968 — the day before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. As he had done two decades earlier in attacking racial injustice in the criminal courts, Tucker presented a statistically based argument that showed the county's freedom-of-choice plan was nothing more than segregation by another name. “Such are the facts, 14 years after this Court concluded that in the field of public education the doctrine of separate but equal has no place,” he declared to the justices.
The court unanimously agreed. “The time for mere ‘deliberate speed' has run out,” Justice William Brennan pronounced emphatically in the ruling of May 1968. Schools must desegregate “now.” The case, known as Green v. County School Board of New Kent County, became widely recognized as the second most important, after Brown, because it compelled school districts nationwide not to simply come up with desegregation plans but to actually produce results — and it ushered in an era of judicially enforced busing.
The day after the ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Merhige Jr. arrived at his 0ffice in Richmond to find S.W. Tucker waiting for him. It wasn't a courtesy call. Tucker plunked on the judge's desk some 40 desegregation cases he wanted reopened in the wake of Green. For most of them, the required remedy was busing. Merhige became the judicial instrument of social change — and, for a time, a pariah in the white community. “I would say there was a time when he [Tucker] and I were two of the most hated men in the entire commonwealth,” Merhige later said.
Tucker never backed down. A year later, he appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to oppose President Nixon's nomination of Haynsworth to the Supreme Court. Tucker's case was simple and logical. He criticized Haynsworth for voting to uphold a Charlottesville scheme to perpetuate segregated schools eight years after Brown. He then focused on Haynsworth's amazing claim in the Prince Edward case. “Here Judge Haynsworth is saying to the Negro children of Prince Edward County that their case . . . was an exercise in futility because, in the final analysis, public education is something gratuitously extended which may be withdrawn for any reason or no reason,” Tucker told the committee. He went on to outline in detail all of Haynsworth's rulings upholding school segregation that the Supreme Court had reversed.
“Judge Haynsworth has championed the cause of those who would defy and seek to evade the supreme law of the land,” he concluded.
Committee member Sam Ervin was considered the Senate's most revered authority on constitutional law, but he was also an articulate apologist for segregation. The two self-styled “simple country lawyers” squared off. Ervin asked if it was Tucker's position that “segregation must be replaced by federally imposed integration, regardless of what the wishes of the parents of children, black and white, may be?”
When Tucker sought to cite the Supreme Court's rulings on the subject, Ervin intervened, demanding, “Would you answer the question?”
Tucker: “My answer is yes.”
Tucker: “An unequivocal yes.”
Ervin: “In other words, we must have integration even if we have to sacrifice the liberties of the people to get it?”
Tucker gave no ground: “Sacrifice the liberties of the people? That is where I disagree with you, sir . . . There is no liberty in segregation. There is no vested right in segregation.”
Ervin: “In other words, the wishes of the parents and the wishes of the children must be ignored, and any means that are necessary to mix up the races in the public schools against their wills must be resorted to?”
Tucker was having none of it. The gray-haired Southern senator and the champion of civil rights fought to a draw that day. But Tucker had the last word.
Sen. Phil Hart, a Michigan Democrat, sought to assuage his feelings: “Mr. Tucker, if you have not changed Senator Ervin's mind on this point, do not feel that you are alone.”
To which Tucker replied, “Senator, I have tried in every case I have presented . . . to change Judge Haynsworth's mind.” (Haynsworth was approved by the committee, but was rejected by the full Senate, 55 to 45.)
But changing minds was, ultimately, not S.W. Tucker's goal. Rather, it was to ensure that the law was enforced. “I think that the greatest tragedy that has befallen this country in the last 10 or 15 years is the fact that children have grown up seeing that public officials who have taken the oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States have so blatantly laughed at the law and disregarded the law,” he told the committee. “I think those lessons in civics have been burned indelibly upon the minds of young people.”
On a humid Saturday last August at the Kate Waller Barrett branch of the Alexandria public library, nine actors commemorated the 60th anniversary of the protest by reenacting it at the original site. A loudspeaker played Marian Anderson singing “Deep River.” Julia Tucker sat in the audience. She wept quietly as the five actors playing the demonstrators, silently took their seats.
So much had changed in 60 years. Alexandria's library and public schools had long been desegregated. The former Robert Robinson Library — the Jim Crow library built to thwart Tucker's campaign for integration — is now the Alexandria Black History Resource Center. “Out of Obscurity,” a new documentary about the library protest, narrated by Julian Bond, plays on a monitor near the Wythe Street entrance.
Julia Tucker told a Washington Post reporter that day that she cried because her husband's life work was still not complete. “I don't know why I was so sad, but I was. I suppose the feeling is that we have opened the door to so many public facilities, including libraries, but we really haven't opened people's minds very far.”
But there was more to it. Looking back, she said she felt S.W. Tucker's presence in the room. “I could virtually see him sitting there,” she recalled.
S.W. Tucker appeared four more times before the Supreme Court on civil rights cases. He ran for Congress twice from Virginia's 4th Congressional District against arch-segregationist Rep. Watkins Abbitt in preordained losses — Tucker knew he couldn't win and never got more than 30 percent of the vote, but he ran to register the aspirations and protests of the district's black voters. During Democratic administrations, his name was mentioned as a possible appointee to the federal bench, but it never happened. He died in 1990, and shares a grave site with his brother George in Arlington National Cemetery.
In so many ways, his life was about education — about getting a good one in an era when most blacks were systematically denied the opportunity, and about ensuring that the next generation of black children at least had a chance to go to a decent school. And so it seemed fitting that on November 16, 1999, the Alexandria School Board voted to name a new elementary school, its first new school building in 30 years, the S.W. Tucker School.
S.J. Ackerman is writing a biography of S.W. Tucker.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard