Dennis Hayes Biography
Lived Through Evils of Segregation, Built Private Civil Rights Practice, Led NAACP's Legal Battles
Think of civil rights and several names pop instantly to mind—Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, Emmett Till. These are people who have transcended their own humble humanity to become cultural, social, and historical icons. We know their stories and live with their legacies. But for each of these soul-stirring figures, an army of others have marched by their sides—literally, figuratively, and symbolically. Dennis Courtland Hayes is one of these soldiers. Growing up under the ugly thumb of segregation, Hayes was impelled to study law as a way to effect change. During a career that has spanned nearly three decades, he has done just that. "I think my work has helped black, white, yellow, red, and brown people to better understand and accept one another. This understanding leads to a happier society, a society more reflective of the democratic principles we say we espouse," Hayes told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB).
Lived Through Evils of Segregation
Dennis Courtland Hayes was born on January 29, 1951, in Indianapolis, Indiana. His father, Robert Frederick Hayes, Sr., a World War II veteran and hotel bell hop, and his mother, Nadine Whitlock Hayes, a factory worker, provided Hayes and his seven sisters and brothers with a close-knit, nurturing home. "The man I most looked up to was my father. He and my mother were both strong role models for all of us children," Hayes told CBB. "They believed that through education and hard work you can attain a status in life that will allow you to help yourself and others."
Hayes attended Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis. Though Brown v. the Board of Education—the landmark Supreme Court case that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional—had been passed in 1954, Hayes's school, like many in the nation, was slow to desegregate. Hayes became part of the process. "In high school I worked with other students to help desegregate my school," Hayes told CBB. "We discussed issues like segregation, bussing. We wrote compositions and held debates. We were knowledgeable about civil rights."
After graduating from high school, Hayes pursued a degree in history at Indiana University. His dream was to become a teacher, but after receiving his bachelor's degree in 1973, he decided to go on to law school. Though he briefly toyed with the idea of becoming an entertainment lawyer, he settled instead on civil rights. "Having experienced [segregation], and the effect it had on my thinking, it made me want to change it. I felt it was wrong, even evil," he told CBB. "It was worth devoting my whole life to working to change it."
Built Private Civil Rights Practice
While in law school, Hayes held a series of jobs that further reinforced his conviction to pursue civil rights law. At the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission he saw how racial disparities in work affected both black and white communities. As a bailiff in the court system, he was saddened to see that the majority of the defendants churning through the system were African American. During a stint with the Legal Services Organization he dealt with black people who had suffered everything from housing discrimination to unfair business dealings. "Those things resonated with me and made me want to do something," he told CBB.
In 1977, armed with a brand new law degree, Hayes opened his own practice in Indianapolis. "I sought out a few jobs with some corporate firms, but I don't believe I got any interviews," he told CBB. "I was happy to hang out my own shingle." Hayes practiced general law with an emphasis on employment discrimination cases. "I was able to help some and I lost others," he told CBB. "I also learned that some were tough to win and expensive to litigate. I stayed poor as a result of staying in that area. It was the divorce cases and bankruptcies that paid the bills."
While in private practice, Davis became involved with the Indianapolis branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). By 1981 he was appointed Chairman of the branch's Legal Redress Committee. "As a result of my consultations for the NAACP I got further involved in civil rights," he told CBB. He worked with many of the NAACP's top lawyers and served as local counsel on several federal cases. By 1985 the NAACP invited Hayes to join its staff full-time. He accepted a position as assistant general counsel and moved to NAACP headquarters in New York. Within a year, the NAACP relocated to Baltimore, Maryland; Hayes made the move with them.
Led NAACP's Legal Battles
Hayes's main duty as assistant counsel was the litigation of civil rights cases at the U.S. district court and U.S. Court of Appeals. He also supervised the association's voting rights docket. "Some of the proudest moments that stand out for me, are the times I was able to—for the first time in history—get blacks elected to government boards such as city councils," Hayes told CBB. His team helped usher in the adoption of single-member voting districts in cities throughout the South. These areas had previously employed at-large districts, a voting scheme that allowed all voters to vote for all candidates. As most of these areas were mostly inhabited by whites, blacks and other minorities living there found their votes effectively diluted. Single-member voting allowed individual districts to vote for their own representation. The result was an increase of minorities in elected office.
Hayes was appointed general counsel of the NAACP in 1990. Responsible for all aspects of the NAACP's legal department, Hayes oversaw legal proceedings in voting, housing, employment, and education discrimination and segregation. He also monitored the legal proceedings of all of the NAACP's departments, supervised NAACP legal offices nationwide, and handled cases involving the NAACP as a defendant. It was an expansive job and Hayes executed it well. Along the way, he became a sought after speaker at legal seminars and conferences across the nation and has been invited to contribute to dozens of prominent publications.
The NAACP board of directors, duly impressed with Hayes, twice called on him to fill in as interim CEO during lulls in leadership. In 1994 he served as CEO for one month after the tumultuous departure of Ben Chavis. Starting in 2004, after the retirement of longtime CEO Kweisi Mfume, Hayes stepped in for a nine-month stint. It was an active reign as Hayes worked to continue the mission of the NAACP. As he explained in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter shortly after his appointment, "For 96 years, the NAACP has remained true to its moorings and still pursues a mission to fight race discrimination and race prejudice while educating the public on its ill effects. Its overarching ideal still is to achieve for America a single society; that won't ever change." To that end, Hayes rallied against the Mexican government for issuing a postage stamp featuring a racist caricature; accused the Bush administration of playing the race card in its bid for Social Security reform; and issued corporate report cards on diversity. However, when CEO Bruce Gordon was hired in 2005, Hayes was happy to return to his legal work. "I am not particularly interested in being the CEO," he told CBB. "I'm more of a background person, a team player. And I have been very appreciative of the contribution I've made to civil rights through my position as general counsel." The nation he has helped make better, is appreciative as well.
Hollywood Reporter, March 18, 2005.
"Dennis Courtland Hayes, General Counsel," NAACP, www.naacp.org/about/leadership_hayes.html (July 29, 2005).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Dennis Courtland Hayes on August 8, 2005.
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