The action was affirmative

“The Mystery Hour”

In the fall of 1953, three professors in the Law School combined their individual classes in contracts, equity, and damages into a single, dense course. It was so hard that students began to call it “The Mystery Hour.”

One day after lecture, a first-year student named Roger Wilkins, BA ’53/JD ’56/HLHD ’93, needed clarification on a difficult point. He knocked on the door of the expert on contracts, Professor William Burnett Harvey, JD ’48.

From behind the door, a voice commanded: “Come in.”

Wilkins had reason to feel a little uncomfortable. He didn’t know much about Professor Harvey. But he did know Harvey was the Law School’s admissions officer. He also knew Harvey was a southerner. And as Wilkins would write later, “the South was a place I hated and feared.”

“Never at peace with my Blackness”

Roger Wilkins, BA '53/JD '56/HLHD '93 as a very young man

Wilkins quickly made a name for himself in campus politics. (Image: University of Michigan Law School.)

Born in 1932, Wilkins had spent his teenage years in the 1940s as the only Black kid in lily-white north Grand Rapids, Mich., where his stepfather was a physician, his mother an executive of the Young Women’s Christian Association. (His father had died of tuberculosis when Roger was six.) Wilkins also was the nephew of Roy Wilkins, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), one of the most prominent Black leaders in the U.S.

Among his white friends in high school, Wilkins wrote later, he was “never at peace with my Blackness … Race was never mentioned. Ever. I carried my race around me like an open basket of rotten eggs. I knew I could drop one at any moment and it would explode with a stench over everything. I knew that my white friends, being well brought-up, were just too polite to mention this disability I had.”

Propelled toward college by parents who insisted on it, Wilkins chose Michigan. It was racially integrated, but barely. Still, he made a name in campus politics. He was elected to the student legislature; chosen as president of his class; and tapped for the elite senior men’s honorary society Michigamua — activities that diluted his commitment to classwork. So he was half-surprised to find himself admitted to the Law School’s entering class of 1953.

The lowest average

In Professor Harvey’s office, Wilkins began by asking a few questions about the day’s course material. Harvey patiently answered.

Wilkins then ventured an offhand personal remark. He mentioned his Law School application, noting: “I must have had the lowest undergraduate average in this class.”

He was confident Harvey would reassure him this wasn’t so.

But the professor replied: “That’s right, Mr. Wilkins.”

That put the subject of race on the table, and Wilkins flared in anger.

“Well, why did you admit me?” he demanded.

Harvey’s tone remained even.

“If you had gone to some other college, you surely wouldn’t have gotten in here,”  he said. “But we could check with your professors and we have had some sense of your extracurricular activities. They all judged you to have far more academic ability than you displayed. So we took a chance.”

To Wilkins’ surprise, Harvey defied the stereotype of the era’s white southerner.

“The moral implications”

William Burnett Harvey

William Burnett Harvey, JD ’48, was the admissions officer at Michigan’s Law School when Wilkins was accepted in 1953. (Image: Maurer School of Law Indiana University.)

Harvey was more than an expert in contract law. Before World War II, he had considered pursuing an academic career in philosophy. After naval service in the war — when he took part in the invasion of Normandy — he enrolled in U-M’s Law School and ultimately became a professor. He joined the U-M faculty in 1951, and as his career evolved, Harvey departed from the legal scholar’s traditional focus on existing structures of law. Instead, as an observer put it, he began “to probe into the moral implications and consequences of any given legal system.”

In the 1950s, that meant he would confront the structures undergirding segregation in the U.S. and colonialism abroad. So he embraced inquiries that attracted few white scholars of his era — a study of anti-lynching legislation, for example, and of the new legal systems of post-colonial Africa.

A journalist once described Harvey as a person who “speaks with taut precision, hitting every idea right on the head with the first blow.”

That’s how he completed his chat with Roger Wilkins.

“Why did we take a chance?” Harvey said. “Well, it’s because we here [in the Law School] think the Negro people in this country need leaders — well-trained leaders. And we want to do our part in helping to train them. So we took a chance on you.

“Now, that doesn’t mean you won’t have to do the work,” he continued. “You will. If you don’t, you won’t stay. But that’s why we took a chance.”

Many years later, in his celebrated memoir A Man’s Life (1982), Wilkins said these few moments with Professor Harvey — whom he called “the instrument of the Law School’s affirmative action program for 1953” — made a profound impact.

“I worked hard enough to stay,” he wrote, “and did far better than I had done in undergraduate school.”

After Michigan

After graduating, Wilkins went to work for the future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, then director and chief counsel of the legal arm of the NAACP. In the 1960s, he worked for the Kennedy and Johnson presidential administrations; helped to lead the fight for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965; and served as assistant attorney general of the U.S.

He won the Pulitzer Prize as a Washington Post reporter contributing to the Watergate coverage; he also was a columnist at the New York Times. Wilkins spent 20 years as a professor of history at George Mason University. He died in 2017.

Professor Harvey left Michigan to become dean of the law faculty of the University of Ghana, where he publicly criticized the repressive regime of President Kwame Nkrumah. Expelled by the Ghanaian government, Harvey was soon named dean of the law school at Indiana University.

In Bloomington, Harvey sought to reform the curriculum, ruffling feathers among influential conservatives in the state’s legal establishment. When student protests against the U.S. invasion of Cambodia hovered on the edge of violence in the spring of 1970, Harvey went out in the streets, calmed tempers, and persuaded the police to withdraw.

He soon left the deanship amid tensions with the university’s leaders. Harvey completed his career on the faculty of Boston University, and died in 1999.
 
 
This is an expanded version of an excerpt from the author’s book, Michigan Law at 150: An Informal History (2009). Sources included Roger Wilkins, A Man’s Life (1982); William Burnett Harvey, As I Was Saying: A Selection of Lectures and Informal Talks on Law and Universities and the Communities that Usually Tolerate and Sometimes Support Them (1999); and the Michigan Alumnus. The lead image of Wilkins comes from Wikipedia.

Comments

  1. Ronald Buermele - 1961

    I loved this story. We need more stories about graduates and faculty.

    Reply

  2. Lettie Carr - I oM Law, JD 1986

    This illustrates what many have been advocating for years. A person is more than the sum total of their gpa. Recognizing the potential in him was extremely astute and I am grateful to be associated with a school that could see more than grades. He was a stalwart advocate in the legal field, the effort to advance civil rights and serving the nation as a whole.

    Reply

  3. Akbar Ali - 1994

    Impressive and inspirational. I like that he had the courage to ask why he got in even though he felt that he didn’t entirely belong. I love that he worked hard to rise further after he learned why.

    Reply

  4. john branston - 1971

    Thanks for this story. I grew up in Grand Rapids but not near Creston High School, where Wilkins graduated as president of the student council. An excerpt of his memoir can be found in “Thin Ice: Coming of Age in Grand Rapids” by Reinder Van Til and Gordon Olson, which is an excellent look at Michigan’s second largest city. Grand Rapids in 1950 was not quite “lily white” however. There were more than 1,000 black students concentrated in four of the public schools, as Todd Robinson notes in his book “A City Within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan.”

    Reply

  5. . Mary Schulze - 1981

    Very interesting article about Wilkins, Harvey and the U. However, as first stated, he died in 2017, not 1999 as stated later.

    M.S.

    Reply

    • Deborah Holdship

      Wilkins died in 2017; Harvey in 1999, as stated in the piece.

      Reply

  6. Stephen Hatchett - BS 1968

    This is a story about real leadership, leadership based on values, not the quest for power. Harvey, seeing a societal need and wanting to train a new leader to help meet that need and using his leadership to make that happen — we need more heroes like that!

    Reply

  7. Gregory Todd - 1983 J.D.

    Great story! Shows Michigan’s long-standing commitment to solid values.

    Reply

  8. Jerry Manning - 1960

    “Leadership” long an interesting question for me. Is it an elitist quality? As a GDI in my years at the U, I always had the sense that the “leaders and best” often came from the Greek combine because of their political power. And I suspect that is true in corporations and other organizations. There may be some altruistic leaders but I suspect many leaders may not be the “best” but acquire their status because of their ambition and their political skills/ support.

    Reply

  9. Betty Brown-Chappell - BA '69 MSW '71

    Roger Wilkins was an outstanding individual. I had the opportunity to meet him after he gave a speech to the Black Alumni. The world is a far better place because he was in it. Condolences to his family.

    Reply

  10. Walter Seymour - 1961 B.A. 1964 J.D. Both degrees from U of Michigan

    I did not think my grades were good enough for Michigan Law School, so in the summer of 1961, I had an appointment with Roy L. Steinheimer, Director of Admissions. He noted that my grades had substantially improved my last three semesters and he suggested I take the Law School Admissions Test a second time. I did and I was accepted 13 days before the semester started. On May 22, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson shook my hand in Michigan Stadium as I graduated from MichiganLaw School.

    Reply

  11. Lawrence Serlin - 1981

    I have had a keen interest in affirmative action and so-called reverse discrimination ever since writing my poli sci honors thesis on the Bakke case, which had been fully briefed at the time but not yet decided. Ironically, the issue next was considered in connection with the Law School and the undergraduate programs at Michigan, after I had graduated. This article is just one example of the benefits of such programs, whether formal or informal in nature. I hope when the Supreme Court considers the issue this Fall in connection with Harvard they will not eliminate affirmative action altogether, mistakenly claiming we are now a “post-racial” society.

    Reply

  12. Darryl Anderson - BBA 1966; MBA and JD cum laude 1970

    My application to the law school was rejected. I then met with Admissions Director Roy L. Steinheimer. After that meeting, and some additional work on my part, I was admitted. I loved the law school, and love it still, and I always have been grateful to Professor Steinheimer. For me, he embodied the character and strength of the law school. I am not surprised by the story of Roger Wilkins’ admission. May it ever be thus.

    Reply

  13. MaryAnn Sarosi - BA 1984 JD 1987

    I so enjoy these pieces of history. There’s a skill to finding the story within a story that transports us into the past and allows us to see the University as a living thing. Keep ’em coming, James Tobin!

    Reply

  14. norman Otto stockmeyer - 1963

    I’m glad the “Mystery Hour” was no longer offered by the time I arrived as a student. But now, with 35 years of experience teaching Contracts and Equity/Remedies (which includes Damages), I’d love to reach such a course.

    Reply

  15. David Marlin - BA,1950, LLB, 1957

    Roger Wilkins was enormously talented. We were friends in law school and worked in civil rights at the Department of Justice; I was a trial lawyer in the Civil Rights Division from 1961-65 and Roger headed the Community Relations Service whose mission was to resolve the serious conflicts, North and South, that resulted in communities coping with new federal and state laws and practices ending segregation and mandating new rights. His work as a journalist for the Washington Post and New York Times, and at George Mason University demonstrated his skills.

    Reply

  16. T Michael Jackson - 1958

    Roger lived not far from us in the same neighborhood in Grand Rapids and I attended Creston High School with Roger and knew him well, although he was four years older than me. Roger was looked at as just another one of the guys and i never recall race being an issue at all. We kept in touch following his high school graduation. He was an inspiration and his election as class president was one of the reasons that inspired me to seek that position, which I successfully did in 1958.

    Reply

  17. Delia Jacob - MA, 1975

    I applaud this excellent piece of historical and memorable journalism by James Tobin. He made these men come alive and inspire with a slice of their interaction.

    I will not forget the achievements and character of each man:

    Roger Wilkins for his bravery in seeking the truth, his intellect gifts and social activism passions. He clearly met and exceeded the bar at U of M Law and in his career.

    William Harvey for incisiveness, focus of his legal inquiry and internal well of justice and compassion. He lived his life committed to his values.

    This story beautifully illustrates the value of affirmative action and what can come of taking a chance on a student who doesn’t meet the traditional admission criteria but whose record is viewed with a future perspective.

    Thank you James Tobin for another jewel! You are truly gifted.

    Reply

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