Staging a battle for civil rights Play explores principal's fight

January 20, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

Walter Mills sought not acclaim, but justice. And in the pantheon of the civil rights movement, his name is not generally included.

Not yet, anyway.

Playwright and director T. G. Cooper wonders if he might change that. He says Mr. Mills, a retired principal of Parole Elementary School in Annapolis, is "one of our American heroes," a man who stood up for equality years before Rosa Parks took a seat in the front of the bus.

It was Mr. Mills, now 84 and living in Annapolis, who successfully sued the Anne Arundel County Board of Education in 1938 to bar the county from paying black teachers less than white teachers. In his one-act play, "The Lion and the Fox," opening tomorrow at the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, Mr. Cooper takes the audience inside the federal courthouse in Baltimore as Mr. Mills and his NAACP lawyer, the young Thurgood Marshall, await the judge's decision, which came in November 1939.

"I'm trying to get this case to be looked at more seriously," said Mr. Cooper, a professor of theater at Howard University in Washington. "When people start making the same salary, that line of segregation gets diminished."

When Mr. Mills first filed the suit in 1938, the top salary for white teachers in Anne Arundel County was $1,250 a year, nearly 80 percent higher than the $700 top salary paid to black teachers, according to the book "A Century of Separate But Equal Education in Anne Arundel County." As an elementary school principal, Mr. Mills was making $1,058 a year while his white counterparts were paid $1,800.

The "Lion and the Fox" takes place both in the courthouse and in the mind of Mr. Mills, whose thoughts drift off to his meetings with George Fox, superintendent of schools, and with Muscid Brown, a fictional character representing the many black teachers who declined to show support for Mr. Mills for fear of losing their jobs. The "Fox" in the title is George Fox, the "Lion" is Mr. Mills, born under the astrological sign of Leo.

Mr. Cooper, who is Mr. Mills' real-life son-in-law, calls his play "fact-based fiction," a mixture of research and imagination.

The playwright learned about the events by talking with his father-in-law and reading law books and newspaper clippings of the time.

He invented the dramatic situations and the dialogue, while quoting extensively from the actual decision by U.S. District Judge W. Calvin Chestnut.

Mr. Marshall, who went on to serve as associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1967 to 1991, had lost pay parity cases in Florida and Virginia and settled one out of court in Montgomery County before taking on the Mills case. The Mills case was the first such case to be won in Maryland, Mr. Cooper said, putting all teachers in Anne Arundel County on the same pay scale in September 1940.

Judge Chestnut's decision was important both for the legal precedent and for the support it helped to win for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said David Bogen, associate dean of the University of Maryland Law School in Baltimore.

Mr. Bogen, who specializes in constitutional law, said the Mills case was one of several victories by the NAACP that helped pave the way for the Brown vs. Board of Education case of 1954, in which the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in schools.

"To persuade the court to overturn segregation, it can't be done overnight," said Mr. Bogen. "Each victory is important in gathering support for going on to the next" case, he said.

For his part, Mr. Mills was not making any statements about the case or his son-in-law's play, to be performed by the Pamoja theater company Thursdays through Sundays until Jan. 31. Mr. Mills' wife, Irene Mills, also declined comment, saying "I'm sure the play will speak for itself."

Mr. Cooper says he'd like the play to say more. With an eye toward getting a producer to consider the script for a television movie, Mr. Cooper said he plans to further develop the character of Mr. Marshall, and to delve deeper into the motivations of Mr. Mills.

"The question is, what makes a hero? Why do you do that?" said Mr. Cooper. "That's what I think is missing."

Mr. Cooper's wife, actress and singer Valerie Mills, said her father always urged her to do what her heart told her was right. She said he never talked a lot about the lawsuit, never considered himself heroic or imagined that he played a role in American history.

After he won his case he returned to his post at Parole Elementary and remained there until he retired, without fanfare, in 1978.

He had served for 49 years.

"I don't think he holds any animosity" for the whites who opposed him at the time or the blacks who failed to show their support, Mr. Cooper said. "But I don't think he's forgotten, that's for sure."

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