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William Holland, civil rights champion, dies
By Mary Ellen Flannery, Palm Beach Post Staff
Thursday, July 25, 2002
LAKE PARK -- William M. Holland Sr., a "hero" who won a victory for all children when he almost single-handedly forced the Palm Beach County School District to teach white and black students together, died Tuesday.
Mr. Holland, 80, was the county's first black attorney and its pioneer in all matters of civil rights -- "an amazing man," said his wife, Margaret Holland. With legal know-how and personal strength, he successfully integrated schools, golf courses, department stores, the airport's taxi service, and the turnpike's restaurants and bathrooms.
He practiced law for 50 years, right up until he died at Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center, following open-heart surgery. He is survived by his wife, five children and a generation of Palm Beach County children whose lives he improved.
"He changed Palm Beach County," said Renelda Mack, a state's attorney working with Mr. Holland to preserve his papers and legacy. "The entire community is enriched by his efforts."
In the 1950s, when Mr. Holland embarked on his lifelong battle against racism and apathy, he stood mostly alone, Mack said. There were people who assisted him, particularly his partner, Judge I.C. Smith, but many others, even in the black community, wondered at his efforts.
"Bill was the most dedicated of all of us and he took the most flak because he got the most exposure," recalled Joe Orr, the school district's chief academic officer. "He's one of my heroes, make no mistake about it."
Mr. Holland told The Palm Beach Post in 1978: "It has always been my philosophy that the only way to make progress and to become an equal partner in the American way of life was to be exposed to the same things at the same time."
In 1956, Mr. Holland took his son, 6-year-old William Jr., to all-white Northboro Elementary in West Palm Beach, less than 2 miles from his home. "They met us at the door. Everybody was real nice," he recalled 23 years later. But they refused him entry, which gave Holland grounds to file a federal lawsuit against the school district.
At the time, white and black students attended different schools, taught by white and black teachers, respectively. Even the textbooks for white and "Negro" students were kept in different warehouses. Two years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that "separate but equal" was unconstitutional, but the ruling had been mostly ignored in Palm Beach County.
"All of our supplies were handed down from white schools," Mr. Holland told The Post in 1979. "Our books were out of date with pages missing. The blackboards were so old, they had holes in them.... Even our chalk was used. A lot of it was so short you had to cramp your fingers to use it."
His first suit for integration was dismissed by a federal judge in 1957. But Mr. Holland turned to the U.S. District Court of Appeals, which found that segregation existed and ordered an immediate end to the dual school system. Still, the school board refused to enroll black students at its white schools and, when William Jr. was turned down again, Mr. Holland filed a class-action suit on behalf of all blacks in 1958.
"Mr. Holland was a man before his time," said Debra Robinson, the Palm Beach County school board's only black member. "He opened the doors for hundreds of thousands of students... and it's up to us to carry out his goal of high-quality education for all students."
Token integration took place in 1961. That fall, four black students entered Lake Worth, Jupiter and Seacrest high schools. A fifth girl enrolled at Palm Beach Junior College, which was under the district's jurisdiction then. Two years later, when William Jr. was an eighth-grader, Mr. Holland got a court ruling allowing him to transfer to Central Junior High School, where he was one of six black students.
Over the next few years, Mr. Holland would return to court again and again, while white parents kept their children home, while bombs were found around schools, while police quelled riots at Suncoast High, Lake Worth High and Boca Raton High. Finally, on July 9, 1973, U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Eaton ruled the system was fully integrated.
Mr. Holland had won.
"My husband fought a victorious fight. Right up to the end, he was victorious," Margaret Holland said Wednesday.
During the years of court battles, Holland received numerous death threats, forcing him to cut off his phone service. His homes in West Palm Beach, and then Lake Park, were pelted with eggs, fruits, bottles and explosives. Somebody killed his fish with acid, and put a for-sale sign on his yard. When Holland tried to buy life insurance, he was told he was "too great a risk."
"There were times I felt very lonely," Holland reflected in 1979.
Mr. Holland grew up in Orlando, where he attended black schools. After a stint in the U.S. Army, he decided to go to college and become a lawyer, but Florida's state universities didn't allow blacks in the 1940s. So he went to Boston University. When he heard black people in West Palm Beach were looking for a lawyer, he drove here.
Over the years, Mr. Holland kept all of his legal filings, newspaper stories and death threats, creating a body of papers that describes his contribution to Palm Beach County's history. He and Mack planned to share it with the public, particularly the county's students, she said. His wife said Wednesday she still plans to.