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To Hill, We Were All "Human Earthlings"

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The mark of a successful message is simplicity, and Oliver Hill's message couldn't have been any simpler.

Maybe the message was too obvious -- so simple that even some of the inheritors of Hill's public legacy still struggle to master it. Hill, who died Aug. 5 at 100, often spoke of his fellow "human earthlings," all journeying together toward a common future. He elevated the cause of common human dignity — basic table manners, if you will — to its rightful place as life's central and defining lesson.

It was with this most basic of human principles that he framed some of the most important and successful civil rights legal arguments of the 20th century. Put simply: Treat others as you wish to be treated.

"It's a concept that's huge, but simple," says Esther Vassar, a longtime friend and president of the Oliver Hill Foundation. "Calling us 'Earthlings' gives us a sense of just how small we are."

Small did not connote insignificance.

"We all are born, we live and we die," Vassar says. "What you do in between will give you glory or satisfaction — or disgrace."

Some of Hill's opponents in his early civil rights battles may have been the best students of his message.

"As a Virginian, people always think about what he did for African-Americans, but you've got to think about what he did for Virginia," prominent Richmond defense attorney David Baugh says. "I think because of his actions there are a lot more Virginians in heaven than there would have been. He saved a lot of the oppressed — and a lot of oppressors.

"It wasn't all about civil rights — it was about justice and injustice."

Richmond Circuit Court Judge Richard Taylor Jr.joined Hill's law firm, Hill Tucker and Marsh, in 1985 shortly after he passed the state bar exam.

"One of the things that stands out about Mr. Hill so much in my mind," Taylor says, "was that no matter what people want to talk about with regards to his accomplishments with civil rights, Mr. Hill would talk about the rights of the individual."

And in no other areas did Hill fight harder than in the area of criminal law and the rights of children accused of criminal behavior.

"He had a huge impact on the rights of the individual in cases involving crime," Taylor says, recalling one such case where a group of black men were accused of raping a white woman. Ensuring their fair representation was essential, Taylor says: "He handled a lot of cases where it wasn't very popular to handle the cases of the individuals."

Taylor was among the judges who worked to have the city's juvenile and domestic relations court named for Hill.

Though past achievements certainly were enough to justify public honors, Hill's legacy was ever-evolving, says Virginia NAACP Executive Director King Salim Khalfani, recalling his mentor's constant work on behalf of all "human earthlings."

"We talk about his legacy, but he was still intimately involved," Khalfani says, recounting Hill's work in 2003 on their shared but doomed fight against the new city charter that created the current elected-at-large mayor system.

In that fight, too, Hill argued on behalf of what he considered the common human dignity, that the new system would dilute the black vote.

"Later in life he really got to that level of 'human earthlings,'" Khalfani says. "People were born basically with the same capabilities and abilities — it was just who had the opportunity." S



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