“Rev. C. Herbert Oliver was instrumental in our fight against police brutality & injustice,” noted civil rights attorney Ben Crump tweeted. “In 1960s Birmingham, he helped accurately document 100s of cases of police brutality & was a serious advocate for public school reform in predominately Black areas. #RestInPower”
Oliver, who graduated from Wheaton College near Chicago before moving to Brooklyn, told Wheaton Magazine he would read newspapers to find stories about people who had been beaten and arrested by police. “I would find the victim and ask them to tell us their story,” he said. “Invariably, the stories the victims would tell us were different from the stories the newspaper would put out.”
Oliver’s work documenting racial violence led reporter Harrison Salisbury to write in The New York Times: “Every channel of communication, every medium of mutual interest, every reasoned approach, every inch of middle ground has been fragmented by the emotional dynamite of racism, enforced by the whip, the razor, the gun, the bomb, the torch, the club, the knife, the mob, the police and many branches of the state’s apparatus.”
Oliver sat on a board in the 1960s that founded the Inter-Citizens Committee to detail cases of police brutality against Black people, and in doing so, they documented 98 incidents of “suspicious deaths in police custody,” according to The New York Times. That happened under the reign of T. Eugene Connor, who was known as Bull Connor and infamous for declaring that “as long as you live and as long as Connor lives, there will be segregation in Birmingham and in the South.”
He was only partially wrong. In the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision of 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. It, however, has persisted in a less brazen form using property taxes as the divider separating poor students from their well-off counterparts whose parents can afford to live in better school districts. The result is similar: Black students getting one quality of education, and white ones getting another.
The progress that has happened along the way can be attributed to activists such as Oliver.
A caption in a Getty Images photo of Oliver describes him leading members of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school board out of Brooklyn Junior High School 271. The caption reads:
“In an effort to improve test scores and help students, New York State attempted an experiment to decentralize three school districts; they appointed school governing boards that would give the mostly minority parents more say in school matters. When the board fired 13 teachers and 6 administrators, saying they were impeding the decentralization process, the United Teacher’s Federation union organized several strikes throughout the fall to close down the schools. Though the strikes were finally settled, the governing board continued to protest the terms of the settlement and marched into the school on December 2, 1968. A confrontation was avoided when the acting principal declared it ‘Open School Week’”
In Oliver’s words to Wheaton Magazine: “There was a lack of good education, and the teachers and principals were not from the community or invested in the students. We were trying to settle the unrest of the community centered in schools.”
“I believe that was the interest of the parents on the governing board and all people serving on the governing board,” Oliver added later, according to a Washington University archive. “We were not extremists. There were extremists in the community who wished to take control of things, but we stayed to the issue of education.”