Civil Rights Legend, NAACP Leader Dies

Published August 13, 2009

Pioneering civil rights lawyer Margaret Bush Wilson, a former national chair of the NAACP, has died in her native St. Louis. She was 90.

Wilson, whose life passion was being a lawyer, had continued practicing law until June. She died Tuesday at Barnes-Jewish Hospital of multiple organ failure, her son, Robert E. Wilson III, said. Funeral arrangements are pending.

"She just loved working," her son said. "Her gasoline in life was giving, and the law profession was a perfect vehicle for that."

Wilson was born in 1919, one year before women won the right to vote, and broke barriers in her career.

She was the second Black woman to pass the Missouri Bar after graduating from the now-defunct Lincoln University School of Law, a "separate but equal" institution that had been created for Blacks in Missouri.

She and her husband, Robert E. Wilson Jr., started a law firm in St. Louis after World War II.

She joined the legal team on the historic Shelley v. Kramer case, which challenged housing covenants that excluded Blacks and Jews from neighborhoods in St. Louis and other cities. The case, which came out of her father's real estate dealings, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1948 that the covenants were unenforceable.

"She was a pioneering figure and a real path breaker," said Julian Bond, chairman of the national board of the NAACP. "She was always a gracious lady but had a will of steel. I can tell you, they don't make them like her anymore."

In the mid- to late 1960s, when Blacks were demonstrating in front of St. Louis banks, businesses and City Hall and boycotting downtown stores to force minority hiring and public accommodation, she and her husband teamed up in the movement, former U.S. Rep. Bill Clay recalled.

Her husband represented thousands of Blacks who were arrested in the demonstrations, and she offered legal advice and organized support for their cases.

It was in Wilson's dining room where she and Clay, then a novice St. Louis city alderman, drafted a resolution he introduced in 1959 to investigate employment discrimination in government-funded housing.

"She was involved in every civil rights issue from 1944 to her recent death," Clay said of his mentor. "She had intellect, inner strength. She was a model for other women and minorities. She was there for them giving leadership on all the issues that affected them."

Wilson's mother had helped organize the state NAACP and her father had paid the attorney fees in the Shelley v. Kramer case.

After presiding over the city and state NAACP, Wilson became the first Black woman to head the national NAACP board for nine terms starting in 1975.

She served as U.S. attorney for the Rural Electrification Administration and assistant attorney general in Missouri.

Wilson lived what she taught — to be receptive to others' points of view, Washington University Chancellor Mark Wrighton said.

Last year, as emeritus trustee at the university, she volunteered to award Phyllis Schlafly an honorary degree at commencement, where hundreds staged a protest of the conservative activist's views on gays, women and immigrants.

"(Wilson) didn't agree with all the views of Phyllis Schlafly, but knew she in her own way had made important contributions," Wrighton recalled.

In an interview last May, Wilson suggested she and Schlafly might have political disagreements.

"Whether you agree or disagree (with Schlafly), as far as I was concerned this was about free speech," she said. Besides, she added, "I knew the chancellor was under a lot of heat."

Besides her son and his wife, Wilson is survived by a sister, two grandchildren and nieces and nephews.

Written by Associated Press

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