RICHMOND, Va — When he was a child growing up in Virginia, Dr. Oliver Hill Jr. was not allowed to answer the phone for fear of who might be on the other end of the line and crosses were burned in his front yard. The son of civil rights attorney Oliver Hill grew up, literally and figuratively, in the middle of the American Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century.
The recently retired psychology professor, who ended his career at Virginia State University, has been watching the unfolding protests against police brutality and racial injustice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd with great interest, finding encouraging signs compared the the era he grew up in.
“It seems like some sort of breakthrough happened recently. Something has penetrated in the last couple of weeks, in terms of the collective consciousness of the nation about the impacts of racism,” Dr. Hill said. “One of the things that’s different now is I think we’re actually starting to have a real conversation.”
Oliver Hill Sr. filed dozens of civil rights lawsuits in Virginia during the 1940s and beyond, but his most well known case was one of five included in the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which barred segregation in public schooling in 1954.
Following the Brown decision, Dr. Hill said lawyers on both sides of the case returned to Washington the following year for remedy sessions on how the ruling would be implemented.
“The lawyers for the school districts came up with the proposal that it should start in 2020. This was 1954! So my father always said, he hoped he was alive in 2020 when they started to implement some of these changes,” Dr. Hill said. “You know, my father would always say, when they got that Brown decision in 1954, they thought things were going to change the next day, That this was the law of the land, so schools are going to be integrated -- end of story. They had no idea about massive resistance or other kinds of resistance that would be mounted.”
As Richmond enters is twelfth consecutive day of protests, voices across the country and globe have joined in speaking out against systemic racism against people of color, which organizers say is inherent in American society. Calls to reform or “defund” police departments, rethink municipal budgets, end discriminatory housing policies, and fix inequitable education opportunities have echoed through the street in Central Virginia and the Commonwealth.
Dr. Hill said he is hard pressed to think of another moment where the tide has shifted so quickly in modern American history. Health care disparities that became clear in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and the video of George Floyd’s murder laid bare the issues black Americans new to be true for generations, Hill said.
Watch the full conversation with Dr. Oliver Hill Jr. below.
“I do get the feeling there is this paradigm shift. It’s the same feeling I got a few years ago with the issue of gay marriage. Everybody was against it, and then there was this sudden shift, and everybody was for it.” Dr. Hill said. “I think it’s definitely more than police brutality. It’s an attempt to address the broader issue of racism and racist institutions in our society.”
Those societal constructs include the treatment of workers, public education, the criminal justice system, and a larger issue with the American story, according to Dr. Hill.
“There was this narrative that had to be told in larger white society to justify the fact they were treating human beings like animals, selling them,” Dr. Hill said. “Kind of the ‘John Wayne’ version of American history. I think in particular people are unaware of the real terrorism most black people suffered in the South from Reconstruction up until the late 1960s. . . if you got out of line, you could disappear, and often times, law enforcement was at the center of it, which creates some of the distrust of the police that’s still there in the black community.”
In years past, despite widespread protests following the killing of black people, football players taking a knee during the national anthem, or the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, the national conversation shifted to the next topic with little reform. Dr. Hill said the most encouraging sign for him is seeing the number of white Americans standing with Black Lives Matter organizers.
“You see this evolution of the protests. I’ve just been really struck by the diversity of the crowds. In many of the crowds, the white participants outnumber the African Americans in many cities,” Dr. Hill said. “When talking about race, it’s not about white people feeling guilty or anything. It’s the reality of where we are given that history that would allow us to become a really egalitarian society. What kind of changes do we need to have in these different institutions? What should our policing look like? What should our education system look like? What should our criminal justice system look like, if we really were to have a true and just society.”
Those answers can only come, Dr. Hill said, if Americans can come to a common understanding of the past by examining the narratives that have been entrenched our understood history.
“I think having the opportunity for everyone’s story to be heard is part of the healing process. Because when we hear each other’s stories, we know how we all fit together, then there’s some basis for understanding our common humanity,” he said. “I think that’s the most exciting thing to me: this opportunity of almost reimagining America, and coming up with the country we always thought we had but we didn’t.”
Dr. Hill suggested a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” like the one formed by South Africa after the end of apartheid in the 1990s.