The Mentor 

How a hero can change a life.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the crimson carpet and gold furniture in Hill's living room seem to absorb all the sunlight one room can hold. Here, Hill's awards are as ubiquitous as they are impressive. Dozens of glass tributes and framed certificates bearing Hill's name — from the U.S. Supreme Court, the NAACP, the president of the United States — top the fireplace mantel, end tables and bookshelves. Some even tilt up from the floor.

Shelton and the venerable lawyer sit in armchairs pulled close. Once a voracious reader, Hill is blind today. He relishes his books through others' eyes. Shelton reads aloud from chapter six of Alexs Pate's "Amistad."

"This is a story of slaves' mutiny on a ship," Hill remarks, his long brown fingers gliding palm to palm in his lap. Shelton reads intently a passage about power and freedom, gripping the book, hunched over it with his elbows on his knees. Hill has read the book many times. It is history, he says. He wears a Virginia Union sweatshirt and sits erect like a piano teacher listening for a mistake.

Next year, Shelton interjects, marks the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the historic U.S. Supreme Court case that Hill, Thurgood Marshall and other lawyers fought and won, the landmark case that ostensibly ended segregation in education. This equally humbles and invigorates Shelton.

The significance of that case is one reason his visits to Hill have become weekly custom. Hill bears them patiently and with intermittent commentary. Shelton says he can't get enough.

For Shelton, 37, an aspiring actor and meantime dishwasher at the Marriott, time spent with the venerable 95-year-old Hill is more rewarding than having his "civil rights" case heard before the U.S. Supreme Court.

His losses in court led him to Hill. Five years ago, Shelton was fired from his job as a teaching assistant with Richmond Public Schools after it was discovered he had a felony drug conviction from years before. Virginia law prohibits employing or retaining felons to work in its public schools.

Shelton decided to see if he could get his job back. Through the Freedom of Information Act, he says, he learned a white employee with the school system had a similar felony conviction but kept her job. (The employee was pardoned.)

Still, Shelton thought he had a civil-rights case. Shelton filed his complaint in Richmond General District Court. The court threw out his case. Shelton took it to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Once again, his case was thrown out.

Next, he petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court. It was a long shot and his last chance. Of the 10,000 cases the U.S. Supreme Court receives each year, only about 80 are actually reviewed. Remarkably, in September he received a letter from the U.S. Supreme Court saying it would consider his case. This news made headlines twice in one local paper, the Richmond Voice.

Elated by what he calls a "chance to change history," Shelton contacted national magazines like "Ebony" and the "Village Voice." He called local TV stations and newspapers. He says the response was the same: There would be interest in his story only if his case actually made the Supreme Court docket.

Two months ago Shelton got a letter from the high court turning down his case. Determined his struggle and story would not end in vain, he turned to Hill.

Hill declines to comment on Shelton's case and will only say the court "ruled he didn't have any standing to bring action."

Shelton now says he has a new chance to make a difference for himself and others. He credits Hill with opening his eyes. And he's more determined than ever to change a political system he says is flawed and unfair.

"With Mr. Hill's help, I want to reform state law," he says. Specifically, Shelton plans to lobby the Virginia Crime Commission and the 2004 General Assembly to change the law that prohibits felons who've done their time from working in public schools. He also plans to push for legislation to restore voting rights to felons once they've reformed. And he hopes to fight for a living wage for all Virginians.

To prepare for his role, Shelton says he's learning more and more about politics and the law every day. He's reading Hill's autobiography, "The Big Bang," for example.

Shelton's optimism is unfettered. "I'm going on the road to fight for justice, to level the economic playing field and eliminate racial bias," he proclaims.

In the warm and sunny living room, Hill sits quietly, keenly absorbing all Shelton's enthusiasm. He's helped shaped history with such ideals. What's more, he knows the commitment and rigor it takes to put them to use.

It's been more than two hours since Shelton finished reading Hill the chapter in "Amistad." The book rests at Shelton's feet. The two men, separated as much by experience as decades, seem to have found common ground.

They talk about current issues such as why — in their opinions — Richmond doesn't need an at-large mayor, why President Bush's push for a tax cut now is wrong and why it's about time for a statue of Lincoln to go up in Richmond. They both say they'd vote for Hillary Clinton for president. And they agree that Martin Luther King's dream of racial equality and harmony requires much work.

"Now we've got to stop talking about struggle and do something about it," Hill stresses. "Too many people have this victim mentality and don't exert themselves enough."

Shelton nods his head up and down, and says repeatedly, "Yes." Hill asks Shelton to read him some news. Obligingly, Shelton picks up the day's edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and begins.

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