In commemoration of Black History Month, U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa.) offered a tribute in the Senate to William T. Coleman Jr. ’46, the former secretary of transportation and one of the lead strategists and co-authors of the legal brief for the appellants in Brown v. Board of Education, on Monday, February 23.
In a statement delivered to the Senate gallery, Casey said, “I rise to honor the lifetime of achievements of a man whose life story has embodied Lincoln’s vision of a nation committed to the rule of law and equal justice under the law. William Thaddeus Coleman Jr. built upon the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and distinguished himself and continues to distinguish himself as a pioneer in legal advocacy and the struggle for civil rights.”
Casey praised Coleman’s service as a “trusted attorney and public servant of our nation for more than 50 years,” describing him as “an American whose life of public service and advocacy, whose life of integrity and excellence, courage and commitment to justice under the law has helped to make our great Nation a more perfect Union.”
Senator Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) joined Casey’s tribute to Coleman. Specter recalled working as an assistant counsel with Coleman on the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President Kennedy. “Bill Coleman was one of the senior lawyers and I one of the junior lawyers, although when the masthead was finished, we were all assistant counsel. The one thing I never understood about Bill Coleman’s assignment on the Warren Commission was how he avoided being assigned the ‘single bullet theory.’’ And certainly I would have yielded that to Bill, but he managed to avoid it.”
Following the Senate tribute, Casey convened a symposium and reception at the Capitol Visitors Center. A panel discussion during the symposium—moderated by Elaine Jones, president and director-counsel emeritus of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund,—included Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Stephen Breyer ’64, U.S. District Court Judge Louis H. Pollak, HLS Professor Charles Ogletree ’78 and Attorney Michael Reed.
Coleman entered Harvard Law School in 1941, but his education was interrupted by almost three years service in the Air Corps of the United States Army. He was an editor of the Harvard Law Review and graduated first in his class with the Class of 1946. After the war, the Law School neglected to award him the Fay Diploma for earning the highest combined average for all three years of the J.D. Program. To correct this, Dean Elena Kagan conferred him with the Fay Diploma in a ceremony on campus. Coleman was the first Black to serve as a clerk in the United States Supreme Court. He was a member of Thurgood Marshall’s legal team at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He was instrumental in the school desegregation effort that culminated in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. He later became the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and served in four administrations, most notably as Secretary of Transportation under President Ford. In 1995, President Clinton awarded Mr. Coleman with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. In September 2004, Coleman was appointed to the United States Court of Military Commission Review.
Coleman shared stories from his 60-year career as the guest speaker at an April 2008 HLS event, sponsored by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. Watch a video of Coleman’s talk with Professor Ogletree.