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Paul E. Sullivan dies at 87; analyst earned a spot in history of civil rights

U.S. Defense Department analyst Paul E. Sullivan was the lead plaintiff in a 1969 Supreme Court case that ruled against his Virginia swim club's whites-only policy. 'He just felt right was right,' says his daughter.

By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times

6:09 PM PDT, May 9, 2011

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Paul E. Sullivan, an analyst with the U.S. Defense Department who won an important civil-rights victory in 1969 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the whites-only membership policy of his Fairfax County, Va., swimming pool club, has died. He was 87.

Sullivan died March 14 of complications from a stroke at his Fairfax County home, his daughter Maria Sullivan said last week.

In 1965, Sullivan, who was white, moved from his home in Fairfax County's Bucknell Manor development and rented it to Theodore Freeman, an African American economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who lived there with his wife and two children.

When Sullivan bought the home, it came with membership in the nearby Little Hunting Park swim club; the club's bylaws allowed the membership to be assigned to tenants. But when the Freemans tried to claim their membership, the club refused to admit them. Sullivan, who lived nearby and was still a member, complained to the board, which responded by expelling him and his family.

Sullivan was incensed. "Here is a Christian community that talked about decency, fair play and sportsmanship, and they were treating people like this," he told the Washington Post several years later.

He became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit with Freeman that sought damages and restoration of their membership rights. The trial court, however, ruled against them, arguing that the club was private and therefore exempt from civil-rights laws that governed public accommodations.

As the case wound through the appeals process over the next four years, life for Sullivan, his wife and eight children was not pleasant. Hate calls were constant, and their mailbox was blown up every Fourth of July.

When Sullivan, a Roman Catholic, asked his priest to give a sermon addressing the pool club's discriminatory treatment of the Freemans, the priest refused, saying that civil rights were not a church issue. Sullivan stopped worshipping there and joined a predominantly black parish, where he remained an active member for the rest of his life.

In 1969, the case was finally taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court. Sullivan was represented by civil-rights lawyer Allison Brown, who argued that the Little Hunting Park club was in violation of an obscure 19th century law — the 1866 Civil Rights Act — that granted blacks the same contract rights as whites. He maintained that the club could not invalidate Freeman's membership simply because Freeman was black.

In December 1969, the justices ruled 5 to 3 in Sullivan's favor.

Justice William O. Douglas, writing for the majority, rejected the Virginia courts' conclusion that Little Hunting Park had special status as a private social club. "We find nothing of the kind on this record," Douglas wrote. "There was no plan or purpose of exclusiveness. It is open to every white person within the geographic area, there being no selective element other than race."

By the time the ruling came down, Freeman was no longer Sullivan's tenant, having taken an assignment in Tokyo. But as one of the first successful challenges to the exclusionary practices of pool clubs, the case was credited with helping to eliminate racially restrictive policies at other community pools. In 1973, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the Sullivan decision in a case involving a Maryland pool club's refusal to admit a black doctor and his family.

Despite the harassment from neighbors, Sullivan never moved from his Fairfax County home. A graduate of the foreign service program at Georgetown University, he worked as an intelligence analyst for the Defense Department for 30 years, until his retirement in 1980.

He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Flora; five daughters; 12 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

His determination to fight injustice in his Virginia suburb may have come from his early experiences as the son of poor Irish immigrants in Boston, where he was born on May 26, 1923.

"When he was growing up in Boston," Maria Sullivan said, "the Irish were treated like blacks in the South. He just felt right was right. He felt he was his brother's keeper."

His membership in the pool club was reinstated after the Supreme Court decision. His family happily returned. But Sullivan, who had been an avid lap swimmer, refused to accompany them and never swam there again.

elaine.woo@latimes.com