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Est. April 5, 2002
April 06, 2017 - Issue 693

William T. Coleman, Jr.
Warrior for Social Justice

"Marshall’s decision to call on Mr. Coleman
was instrumental in the NAACP’s victory over
public school segregation in the Brown ruling."

A native of Philadelphia, William T. Coleman, Jr, corporate lawyer, warrior for education and social justice, presidential cabinet official, and confidential advisor to ten U.S. Presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush, was also an African American. However, he never wanted to be known as “the first or only black” in any of his positions and achievements, although he was immensely proud of his racial heritage.

He passed last week in his 97th year, having eliminated racial and educational barriers that negatively impacted the quality of life for all Americans as well as becoming the first African American to enter many venues. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania in 1941 and finished first in his 1947 class at Harvard Law School, after taking time off to become a member of the Tuskegee Air Corps. While enrolled at Harvard Law, he also earned an MBA from Harvard’s Business School in his spare time. After completing his legal studies, he became the first black to clerk for a federal judge in 1947 and the first African American U.S. Supreme Court clerk in 1948.

Unable to find a position in Philadelphia’s white shoe law firms and desiring to become a corporate lawyer, he had to go to New York City after his Supreme Court clerkship in order to be hired as a business lawyer by a mainstream law firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, & Garrison, where he became an early black partner. During his tenure there, he received a call in 1950 from Thurgood Marshall, then chief counsel for the NAACP, who asked him to help prepare the briefs to argue Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court. Marshall relied heavily on Mr. Coleman as he was at that time the only black to have worked in the inner sanctum of the Supreme Court and who had observed and witnessed the written legal philosophies of the nine Justices. He was able to help Marshall frame the briefs in such a way as to have the greatest appeal to the Justices’ legal sensibilities, especially that of Justice Felix Frankfurter, for whom he had worked, and who was also the Court’s intellectual heavyweight.

A historical review of that period reveals that Marshall’s decision to call on Mr. Coleman was instrumental in the NAACP’s victory over public school segregation in the Brown ruling. In 1960, he was instrumental in obtaining Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s release from Georgia’s Reidsville prison, a feat for which then Sen. John F. Kennedy, and his brother, Robert, received exaggerated credit because Sen. Kennedy had called Coretta Scott King to express his concern. Mr. Coleman found that Dr. King had been illegally denied bail and worked with black Atlanta, Georgia lawyer, Donald Hollowell, to obtain his release.

In1967, President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), nominated Thurgood Marshall for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. After southern Senators attempted to derail it, LBJ secretly summoned Mr. Coleman to the White House and asked him to agree to be a backup appointment if Marshall were blocked. President Johnson reasoned that Coleman, a third generation Republican, would be more palatable to racist southern Senators if he had to pull the Marshall nomination. Mr. Coleman, a close Marshall friend, politely refused and told LBJ that he would lobby Senators on Marshall’s behalf, along with the President and his staff, to secure the necessary votes. Coleman did and Marshall was eventually confirmed.

Later, he would be offered federal judgeships by both Presidents Johnson and Richard Nixon which he declined. But he did accept a cabinet position, Secretary of Transportation, from President Gerald Ford in 1977. Initially, Ford asked him to accept an appointment as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which was widely viewed as the “Negro job” since Dr. Robert Weaver was appointed as the first black cabinet member when the department was created in 1966. Thus Mr. Coleman broke new ground with his appointment. While in that position, he pioneered new policies whereby federal transportation contracts were required to meaningfully include the participation of minorities and women, a practice continued to this day.

In 1983, he argued and won the case, Bob Jones University v. United States, before the Supreme Court which denied tax exempt status to private schools that practiced segregation on the basis of race. President Reagan was silently supporting this exception as he was preparing to run for reelection and did not want to upset his southern base. Reagan had kicked off his early presidential campaign in Neshoba County, Mississippi in 1980, where three civil rights workers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, had been murdered in 1964. Mr. Coleman saw this victory as a further ratification of Brown in the private sphere. Had the tradition not been legally overturned, we can only imagine the exponential increase in the number of segregated corporate charter and voucher schools that are being established today. Mr. Coleman was a visionary as well as an aggressive advocate for social justice and equality.

My proudest memory of Mr. Coleman was in 1990-91, when he came to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to chair the Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewage District’s (MMSD) Executive Director’s Task Force on Discrimination in the Milwaukee Construction Marketplace (pro bono). Working as staff social scientist to the Task Force, I had numerous opportunities to engage with Mr. Coleman on his lifelong legal assault on racial and gender inequality. During our first meeting with MMSD staff attorneys, a MMSD secretary rushed into the meeting to inform Mr. Coleman that President George H. W. Bush was on the phone for him. The President was calling to ask for Mr. Coleman’s final approval of the 1991 Civil Rights Bill before he signed it. The law “…represented the first effort since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to modify some of the basic procedural and substantive rights provided by federal law in employment discrimination cases” and “… provided the right to trial by jury on discrimination claims and introduced the possibility of emotional distress damages ….” Mr. Coleman signed off, and the Act became the law of the land.

Subsequently, the Task Force proceeded to gather the necessary data to reinstitute M/WBE set-asides which provided business opportunities to Milwaukee’s minorities and women. The set-asides had been discontinued in 1989 in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s City of Richmond v. J.A. Croson Co. decision, which had banned them unless historical discrimination could be documented. There are many other educational and racial obstacles that Mr. Coleman dismantled, making our nation a better place to live, but his indelible mark on public education is one of his most significant. He did not seek the limelight or civic adulation, but his contributions are embedded in the bedrock of contemporary society. Rest in everlasting peace, Mr. Coleman.

links to all 20 parts of the opening series Columnist, Dr. Walter C. Farrell, Jr., PhD, MSPH, is a Fellow of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder and has written widely on vouchers, charter schools, and public school privatization. He has served as Professor of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and as Professor of Educational Policy and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Contact Dr. Farrell. 




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Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
Managing Editor:
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Peter Gamble

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