Wiley Austin Branton

by Clifford L. Muse, Jr., Ph.D.

     A prominent attorney and noted civil rights activist, Wiley Austin Branton was a strong advocate of voting rights for all Americans. Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas on December 13, 1923, he received his elementary, junior high, and high school education in Pine Bluff schools. An Army veteran of World War II, Branton spent time during the post-war period teaching Blacks how to mark an election ballot. His efforts resulted in his being convicted of a misdemeanor for "teaching the mechanics of voting."

     Branton attended Arkansas A.M. & N. College (now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) where he received the Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration in 1950. As a law student at the University of Arkansas School of Law at Fayetteville, where he received the Doctor of Laws degree in 1952, he was the fourth Black student to enroll at the institution and the third Black student to graduate.

     Branton achieved national prominence when he served as the chief counsel for the Black plaintiffs in the 1957 Little Rock Desegregation Case. However, during his long distinguished legal career, he made significant contributions in the voting rights arena as both a public officer and private citizen. First, in 1962, the major American civil rights leaders, which included Roy Wilkins, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Whitney Young, Jr., unanimously approved the selection of Branton as the first Executive Director of the Southern Regional Council's Voter Education Project, based in Atlanta, Georgia. The Project was a cooperative effort that successfully registered over 600,000 Black voters in eleven states and helped create the momentum for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. During the early sixties, Branton also represented "freedom riders" in Mississippi and Blacks engaged in voter registration drives throughout the South.

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November 1999