Ellis Receives Virgil C. Lott Award

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Remarks of Senator Rodney Ellis

I want to thank the UT Law Center for awarding me this honor, and recognize some folks here tonight, including Mr. Lott’s daughters, Joycelyn Toliver and Adrienne Reeder, their families, as well as my good friend President Bill Powers and his wife, Kim.

It is a pleasure and privilege to be here tonight and to accept this award honoring a true pioneer in the struggle for equality. I am honored to join past recipients such as Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court Wallace Jefferson.

During the tumultuous Civil Rights Era, the sometimes titanic battle Heman Sweatt waged to ensure equal educational opportunity in Texas garnered the most attention, and why not? As the lead figure in the fight to desegregate higher education, he was the focal point of a movement. He enjoyed the support of tens of thousands, but he also suffered the bitter wrath of those fighting progress. He suffered ulcers and required hospitalization; he had at least one heart attack. He faced death threats and resigned from his job at the post office. But after four years of struggle, Sweatt enrolled at the UT School of Law in September 1950.

After all the turmoil, now it was time for the job of law school, and he struggled. He was emotionally and physically exhausted. His health was poor and his grades suffered from the stress and challenge, and he withdrew from school in 1952.

But he was not alone. He opened the door and other classmates strode through. Virgil Lott, was one of the first, and he became the first African American UT Law graduate in 1953. In 1965, Lott became the first African American judge in Texas, when he was appointed to preside over Corporation Court…for one week.

Texas in the early and mid-1950s was still a hotbed of Jim Crow segregation and racism. Sure, the US Supreme Court ruled in Sweatt’s favor in 1950 and, four years later, Brown v. Board of Education desegregated primary education, opening the school house doors for African Americans across the south. And, in 1956, UT became the first major university in the South to admit African Americans as undergraduates.

But, progress did not happen right away, nor did it happen smoothly.

Governor Allan Shivers tried to block funding to schools that desegregated, and called out the Texas Rangers to prevent equality; by 1957, schools in Houston, Dallas, and Fort Worth remained segregated, with integration lawsuits still pending.

In 1953, lunch counters, movie theaters, hospitals, hotels and facilities were obviously still segregated, and the NAACP and church organizations were actively protesting Jim Crow “back of the bus” laws.

Virgil Lott’s Austin remained a highly segregated city, and by design. East Austin was designated the “Negro district” in 1928, and the former plantation lands on the other side of East Avenue (now IH-35), were home to some 150 small businesses, more than thirty churches, and two black colleges, Tillotson College and Samuel Huston College. Integration of Austin public schools was continually postponed, first due to a fire at one school, then due to “overcrowding”. It was not until 1958 — four years after Brown — that fourteen-year-old Sandra Kay Hall became the first African American in Austin to attend a white junior high school in Austin.

Just one year after Lott became the first UT Law graduate, the university opened a new dormitory on campus and named it in honor of William Stewart Simkins, a law professor from 1899 to 1929. Simkins had helped establish the Ku Klux Klan in Florida and pushed that world view to Texas law students. Simkins’ was used as a rallying point for resistance to integration in the 1950s. Simkins’ name was removed in 2010.

That was the Austin and Texas in which Virgil Lott lived and worked. Jocelyn, I remember reading in the Statesman your wonderful description of what you saw and remember of your father during that time, “When Austin was Still a Jim Crow City”.

The struggle in the dilapidated basement near the Capitol building where he and Henry Doyle spent their first two semesters, literally separate but “equal” to other UT Law students. The long nights studying with “Uncle Red” in your house in East Austin; the trips to the law school library. You described the contrasts, the “normal” law school and family experiences, in anything but a normal time.

These are the shoulders on which we stand today. Men and women who paved the way for a brighter future for millions of Texans and Americans striving to build a life and live out the American Dream. Tiny step followed by tiny step followed by large steps and halting forward progress.

Unfortunately, even as the United States, Texas and the University of Texas have come so far, there are still those who advocate policies which would, in some ways, return vestiges of the discrimination Virgil Lott, Heman Sweatt and all other persons of color faced over a half a century ago. That is not hyperbole. The last time this fight was waged — in the mid-90s following Hopwood — minority enrollment at our flagship universities plummeted. In 1999, the percentage of first-year African American law students at UT was lower than 1950.

Fighting to ensure diversity is maintained and protected remains a just and necessary endeavor because race and poverty are sadly still intertwined. In Texas, the overall poverty rate is 20 percent, but it is 35 percent for African Americans, compared to only 13 percent for Anglos. Though the problem is particularly pernicious in the Deep South, where nearly 17 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, race and poverty are major issues all across the country. African Americans still earn less, die earlier, and are imprisoned at disproportionate rates.

The future of our state and our nation truly depends on erasing these differences and ensuring that all Americans have the tools and ability to succeed. The key today, just as it was over a half century ago for Heman Sweatt and Virgil Lott and the Little Rock Nine, is that our public schools are united and equal, not separate and unequal.

We must continue to strive for a diversity and real investment in our institutions of higher education. Our future depends on honoring and fulfilling the sacrifice of the men and women of our past, who paved the way for generations to genuinely live the promise of this state and this nation. Steps back dishonor their memory and diminish the scope of achievement open to their heirs. That is why we must all focus on these issues and work together to ensure a better future for all.

It is an honor to be here tonight, it is an honor to receive this award and it is an honor to recognize the effort and achievements of Virgil C. Lott.

Thank you.

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