History in the Making

He was speaking for himself, but lawyer Leo Branton Jr. was voicing the sentiment of entire generations of blacks in L.A. when he remarked, "I was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Eventually I escaped the South and came to California."

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Branton is nearly 87, a civil rights and entertainment lawyer who's a local and national legend for representing scores of high-profile causes and clients, from Nat King Cole and Dorothy Dandridge to Angela Davis and the Black Panthers. He was the guest speaker at the annual Black History Month event at Village Green, the sprawling, outdoor condo complex at La Brea and Rodeo that's known for being one of the most integrated neighborhoods--Village Green really is its own neighborhood--in the city. I was there amongst the other guests and residents who filled roughly half a community room; given Branton's stature, it should have been packed. On the other hand, this is a town that peddles fame but rarely bestows it on its own deserving citizens. And the deserving black citizens have always had a kind of shadow life, at best--vaunted in their own communities, virtually unknown outside of them. This is pretty much how it's always been, even in my time.

The still very vigorous and hard-edged Branton was hardly deterred by the lack of a big crowd. As he told war stories about going back South and trying to help jailed protesters in the 60s, I realized that he's seen enough menacing crowds to almost prefer anonymity. He talked about one judge who slammed a .45 on his dais like a gavel before asking Branton what he wanted. He explained with obvious relish how he used his light-skinned appearance to gain access to prison wardens and other officials who assumed they were dealing with a white man - once he out-and-out fooled a Southern state trooper who called him "Sir" and gave him a light, much to the consternation of Branton's white traveling companion.

But Branton didn't come to entertain or wax nostalgic (in his line of work, that isn't really possible.) He came really to connect the dots between then and now, to be a kind of guide between the rough shoals of segregation that fueled his legal career and the vastly changed but still troubling racial landscape of today. Yes, President Obama is a wonder, he said. But Obama stood on many, many shoulders to get where he is. And he warned the audience that if they think that Obama's rise means we've solved all our racial crises and issues of injustice and unfair treatment, we've got another think coming.

Nobody challenged that. When Branton was done, we all adjourned for a Southern-style dinner of chicken, greens and pecan pie more sober than celebratory. But the satisfaction of hearing Branton at all, and of having him all to ourselves on a Sunday, was palpable. And I have to say, until Sunday, I'd never heard somebody white stand at the front of a room and direct the rest of us in singing the Negro national anthem, "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing." It was, in my small world, a bit of history made.

The image associated with this post was taken by Flickr user quinn.anya. It was used under Creative Commons license.

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