Whether you’re participating in recent protests or watching them online, why not take a moment to reflect on the contributions of three groundbreaking Civil Rights attorneys with Pine Bluff connections. We owe a debt of gratitude to these brave men who had the courage to use their legal talents to disrupt the status quo.
Wiley Branton, Sr.
Wiley Branton, Sr. was one of the first black law graduates from the University of Arkansas. He served as co-counsel for the Little Rock Nine during the Central High School crisis of 1957 and successfully argued the landmark Cooper v. Aaron case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Wiley Branton, Sr. defended Freedom Riders and Civil Rights workers in Arkansas and Mississippi, even as he had to engage armed guards for his Pine Bluff home after a cross burning and numerous death threats. He was also a major player in the integration of the University of Arkansas Law School by Silas Hunt and worked with Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Little Rock. Wiley Branton, Sr. was recommended by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders to Vice President Lyndon Jonson to head the Voter Education Project in 1962. He registered 700,000 black voters in the 1960s, transforming the Southern political landscape forever. Wiley Branton, Sr. served in several other capacities, heading civil rights efforts within the federal government before becoming dean of the Howard University School of Law.
Image Caption: In a 1947 case, Harold Flowers (left) won a landmark victory in the courts by winning death sentence commutations for two brothers accused of killing two white men. The victory was partly due to his demanding and receiving the appointment of black jury members, who served for the first time in the county since Reconstruction. (Image courtesy of John Flowers)
Known in Arkansas as the “Dean of Black Lawyers,” Harold Flowers moved to Pine Bluff in the 1930s. Flowers was a key figure in the fight for desegregation and the first lawyer in Arkansas to accept Civil Rights cases. He led the court fight to integrate south Arkansas schools in the 1930s and 1940s, organized campaigns to register black voters in the 1940s, and led the NAACP in Arkansas, laying the groundwork for his friend and mentee Daisy Bates. Harold Flowers played pivotal roles in the two most notable Civil Rights events in Arkansas: The Little Rock Nine and the integration of the University of Arkansas Law School. He led the Pine Bluff delegation escorting Silas Hunt (the first African American to enroll in a graduate program in the south) to make sure that he was enrolled in law school. In 1947, Harold Flowers won a landmark case, marking the first time a black man had not been sentenced to death for killing a white man in Arkansas. Harold Flowers served as Gov. Bill Clinton’s appointee on the Arkansas Court of Appeals in 1980, and championed civil rights causes his entire life.
Leo Branton, Jr.
Image Caption: Leo Branton, Jr. (right) is shown in 1972 with black Panther activist Angela Davis (left), who he successfully defended as the lead attorney in the sensationalized case that many called the “trial of the century.” (Image courtesy of Bettman/Corbis/AP Images)
Pine Bluff native Leo Branton, Jr. was the only African American graduate of Northwestern University's law school in 1948. He returned to Pine Bluff to help his brother, Wiley Branton, Sr., defend Civil Rights activists. Leo Branton, Jr. then moved to California and became the first African American to practice entertainment law in California. A legendary California-based litigator, he represented the likes of Dorothy Dandridge, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, and the Platters. Leo Branton, Jr. remained active in the Civil Rights movement, helping singer Nat King Cole integrate an exclusive Los Angeles neighborhood and helping his brother, Wiley, defend the Freedom Riders. Leo Branton, Jr. also defended Black Panthers from false charges. His moving closing argument in a racially and politically charged murder trial in 1972 helped persuade an all-white jury to acquit Black Panther Party member and academic Angela Davis. He had argued numerous cases of police abuse in the 1950s, and he urged jurors to view her behavior in the context of centuries of slavery, racism, and abuse against blacks. Leo Branton, Jr.’s closing argument in the Angela Davis case is considered a textbook argument that is still taught in law schools today.
Sources: African Americans of Pine Bluff and Jefferson County; Wikipedia