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Bill Higgs


By Curtis Hessler

Eight years ago Mississipian Bill Higgs graduated from Harvard Law School with modest grades, unpretentious ambitions, and an unshaken faith in racism. He served an Army stint and disappeared quietly into a Jackson, Mississippi law practice. Today he is one of Washington's most militant lobbyists for integration, an attorney for SNCC, and the author of several titles of the present civil rights bill. As his close friend, Roy Wilkins, noted here last week: "When a Southerner changes, he's very thorough about it."

Higgs was in Cambridge last week, interviewing students for his project in Washington this summer. Inevitably the interview degenerates into a tug of war with Higgs carefully outlining his work and the student anxiously trying to probe the bizarre details of this man's history. The student usually lost, for Higgs is reticent about his past, and his "conversion" has left no visible scars. Still the complete Southern gentleman, he drawls softly and easily, smiles often, listens courteously--with apparent interest--to any argument, and seems incapable of anger or depression. His 6 feet, 3 inch frame moves with an awkward rural grace, out of place, and charming, in both the halls of Congress and the dining room of Leverett House. The aloof informality suggests anything but a stormy past.

Higgs gave little thought to the race issue before 1959; that year, in fact, he ran for the legislature as a "stauch segregationist." However, at that time he also began accepting Negro clients "out of curiosity." "They came to me beaten, their eyes knocked out, their land stolen. I found that there was no remedy in the courts or in politics. I began to investigate my beliefs."

The step from investigation to action was a quick one. Early in 1961 Higgs was approached by a young Negro wearing a purple shirt, leather jacket, sunglasses, and a determined frown. "You've spoken well of us, Mr. Higgs, but we've all heard enough talk. I plan to enter Ole Miss this year. Help me." The lawyer agreed, and eighteen months later James Meredith walked on to the Oxford campus.

Higgs soon received prestigious civil liberties awards in New York and Los Angeles--and death threats from the sheriff's office in Clarksdale, Mississippi. His parents began to receive endless insults from town folk and economic intimidation from local grocers. Finally, early last year, the Jackson District Attorney told him to expect "unlimited jailings" upon returning to the state.

Understandably, Higgs has not returned and won't "until the state undergoes a major political revolution--Negroes in all levels and offices, submitting rights bills of their own in Congress." When asked how long this will be, Higgs frowns pensively, rubs his chin, and drawls slowly, "two years maybe less . . . it will probably take total Federal occupation, of course." This penchant for precise numerical prediction is most interesting when focused on the civil rights bill, for Higgs has displayed an incredible touch for Washington politics. Last summer he and several law students drew up an "ideal" civil rights bill, which seasoned observers ridiculed as utopian. Last month the bulk of that bill sailed through the House without a hitch. Higgs had picked his allies cannily, cultivating the friendship of Democratic Congressman Corman and Congressmen McCulloch and Lindsay of the GOP.

And in the Senate? "Perhaps it's the giddiness of victory, but I say three-to-two for passage of the whole thing and three-to-one that all the big titles stay." When reminded that the New York Times is more pessimistic, Higgs laughs: "The trouble with Harvard is that everyone here reads the Times, and it hasn't been right about this bill yet."

Higgs' enthusiasm often races beyond enactment to enforcement of the bill, which will be the focus of his program this summer. "We must force the President to prove his liberalism, to fish or cut bait." Higgs fears Johnson will make an election-year deal with the Southern Senators on the enforcement issue, and the prospect infuriates him. In discussing it, his drawl tightens, the words shooting out singly and passionately; he is no longer the patient, understanding lobbyist. Before catching himself, and smiling at his anger, Higgs reveals both the pain and power of his commitment. His beliefs exiled him, but only by putting them into practice can he return home.

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