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Hill's Mountain

The last of the civil rights pioneers reaches the century mark.



Oliver Hill turns 100 this week.

He's among the last survivors of the earliest years of the civil rights war. Though that war's battles have subsided somewhat over the years, Hill retains a bright spark of the old fire.

It's his spark that took the civil disobedience of a single 16-year-old girl and helped parlay it into a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Hill knows he's a living monument. Knows the various parties thrown in his honor over the past few weeks are as much a celebration of his achievement as they are an opportunity for his would-be successors to touch the hem of his garment.

"I'm excited, and I'm not excited," Hill says, elaborating on his muted enthusiasm for the festivities. "It's going to be an affair, and some people are going to enjoy being present. They'll have some carrying on."

His body is confined to a wheelchair, his voice faint as if coming as a whisper from a different time. But his mind remains clear. Like so many people of advanced age, he conveys his wisdom as allegory. He relates seemingly disparate memories from his youth to the message he's held as his career's guide star: We're all the same; we're all frail "human earthlings" occasionally in need of a helping hand.

"We were over at a lake in Glen Allen [in 1925], and there was one young white boy — and he was running off at the mouth, 'Those negroes can't swim,'" Hill recalls. "Anyway, all of a sudden I heard a splashing and everybody started laughing, and I turned around and here was this fellow down in the water — two or three feet of water — struggling like hell. He hit that water and had gone completely haywire.

"I was laughing like everybody else, and suddenly it dawned on me if somebody don't pull this fool out of this three feet of water, he's going to drown. I jumped in and somebody grabbed him by his lower limbs and I grabbed him up under the shoulders and we got him under control and finally we threw him up on the wall," Hill says with a laugh, his thin lips breaking into a smile. "That darned fool, not only he couldn't swim, he didn't have the sense to stand up and walk out of three feet of water. Course, I couldn't swim either."

Partially blind and certainly less spry than in his youth, Hill keeps a busy dance card. Last week, between celebrations of his own birth, he made time to appear at U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott's birthday party in Hampton Roads. Hill's also helping to raise money for a friend's business venture.

And he's still hopeful that his own achievements will provide a "starting point" for an eventual end to what keeps us all from, ultimately, just getting along.

"The big thing is bringing people together, as human earthlings" Hill says, "as opposed to being divided up by nationalities, cults, religions and all these other different things.

"We're all human earthlings," he continues. "We need to get rid of this nonsense about Frenchmen and Chinese and white folk and Americans and all that crap. We can also do away with poverty. And we've got to do something about this nonsense about killing yourself because of somebody else's [religion]. They call them terrorists. We've been terrorized all these years; between Reconstruction and 1941 there were more than 20,000 persons lynched in the United States. We've have had our own terrorists."

Is it any coincidence that many of those Hill labels as terrorists during the civil rights battle did so in the name of religion, too? Hill says he doesn't think so.

A friend of Hill's relates a story of watching the TV news with the retired lawyer. A controversial statue of the Ten Commandments was being removed from the Alabama Supreme Court building, and the TV talking heads fretted over whether it would be broken in the move.

"Break it? This country has broken the Ten Commandments plenty of times," railed Hill. He then paused as the lawyer in him prepared to challenge the fundamentals of Judeo-Christian justice. "And speaking of the Ten Commandments, all this honor thy father, honor thy mother. What about honoring thy child?"

Hill hasn't yet had the opportunity to file that brief — another noble and colorblind fight that champions human dignity and justice over convention and assumption. But when he does get his chance to argue that monumental case, there's hope that he'll win another one for us all. S

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