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, died March 31.
A pioneer in the struggle for civil rights, Coleman was a member of Thurgood Marshall’s legal team at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where he was instrumental in the school desegregation effort that culminated in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. In the 1960s, he was co-counsel in McLaughlin v. Florida, in which the Supreme Court overturned a Florida law that prohibited an interracial couple from living together. The case became a precedent for the landmark 1967 ruling in Loving v. Virginia, in which the Supreme Court held that anti-miscegenation statutes were unconstitutional.
Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow said: “Bill Coleman was truly not just one of the greatest lawyers, but one of the greatest Americans. His life and work are part of the fabric of the nation. Courageous and brilliant in his advocacy for civil rights, exceptionally wise as a counselor to presidents, clients, and generations of lawyers, he had superb judgment and character. He was also a trusted advisor to Deans of Harvard Law School and to the leadership of the University over many years, making this School and this University better. He urged every lawyer to be ‘counsel for the situation’, prepared and devoted to helping resolve any problem, and this mission and accomplishment he exemplified. We join the Coleman family in mourning his passing, and we will cherish his life of extraordinary purpose, achievement, and consequence.”
Coleman also broke barriers in the private sector. Despite serving as the first black U.S. Supreme Court law clerk, he was repeatedly rejected by white-shoe firms in Philadelphia. When he was finally accepted by a firm in New York—Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison—it was the first time ever that a major law firm in New York City had hired a person of color as an associate. After stints in public service, he returned to private practice again in 1977, when he joined the law firm of O’Melveny & Meyers, where he was a senior partner and senior counsel. Coleman also served on the boards of powerful corporations — PepsiCo, IBM, and Chase Manhattan Bank.
As Professor David Wilkins ’80, Lester Kissel Professor of Law and faculty director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School, notes: “William Coleman played a critical role in helping the American legal profession live up to its core commitment to equal justice under law in the profession itself. By demonstrating that a black lawyer could succeed at the very highest levels of corporate law practice, he opened the door for all those who had previously been excluded from this important sector to build careers in this country’s great law firms and corporations. William Coleman always used his prominent position in corporate America to continue to press for even greater equality in the legal profession and in society at large. His exemplary life in the law therefore stands as a powerful testament to the role that lawyers in private practice can and should play in our nation’s continuing struggle to achieve justice for all.”
A trusted attorney and public servant for more than 70 years, Coleman worked on behalf of several presidents, most notably as secretary of transportation under President Ford. Among his accomplishments were helping get the bankrupt Penn Central Railroad out of financial difficulties, overseeing the interstate highway building program and supplying the money to build subway systems in Atlanta and Washington, D.C.
He also served as assistant counsel for the Warren Commission (Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy), and was a member of Dwight Eisenhower’s Committee on Government Employment Policy. In 1995, President Clinton awarded Coleman 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. In 2009, he was honored by the U.S. Senate.
Coleman entered Harvard Law School in 1941, but his education was interrupted by almost three years of service in the Air Corps of the United States Army.
In a 2008 talk at HLS, Coleman recalled seeking advice from special counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Charles Hamilton Houston ’22 S.J.D. ’23 on why he should agree to serve in a segregated military. Houston shared his own experiences during WWI and told Coleman the reason it was important for blacks to serve was because “we have to change the country,” Coleman recalled.
Coleman went on to play an important role in an incident that ultimately helped desegregate the military. In 1945, he was part of a legal defense team that represented an all-black bombardment group denied access to an officers club because of their race. Against direct orders to stay out, the black officers entered the club, were arrested, charged with insubordination and ordered to face court martial proceedings. Theodore Berry, future mayor of Cincinnati, served as lead defense counsel and Coleman assisted, finding a 1919 statute that established that all officers clubs were open to every officer on the base. The officers were eventually acquitted and the incident forced a re-thinking of the military’s policy of segregation. In 1948, President Truman issued an executive order that mandated integration of the Armed Forces.
Coleman graduated first in the HLS class 1946 and was one of the first black editors of the Harvard Law Review. 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 at HLS.
After graduating from HLS, Coleman served as a law clerk for Judge Herbert F. Goodrich of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and he became the first black law clerk for the United States Supreme Court, when he clerked for Justice Felix Frankfurter.
One of Coleman’s mentees, Roger Fairfax ’98, senior associate dean and professor of law at the George Washington University Law School, said: “Secretary Coleman’s brilliant legal mind and commitment to professional excellence were matched only by his legendary generosity of time and spirit. His active mentoring and example helped launch and elevate countless careers in law practice, business, policy, and academia, and shaped generations of lawyers who continue to impact the legal profession and society in profound ways. I will be forever grateful for his investment of time, energy, and friendship in me, though I was some fifty years his junior.”
In 2013, Coleman received the Harvard Medal from the Harvard Alumni Association for his extraordinary service to the University. HLS Dean Martha Minow dedicated her commencement address to the Class of 2013 to Coleman, whose life and work, she said, offer us all inspiration. “When Bill Coleman published his memoir in 2010, he took his title from Louis Brandeis HLS Class of 1877, who coined the phrase ‘counsel for the situation.’ The phrase to Coleman means becoming expert quickly in whatever is relevant to solve a problem. He has never avoided a new challenge. He runs to see what he can do. He aims to be a counselor, problem solver, and negotiator while maintaining the highest standards of ethics, serving the public interest, and never taking a barrier as a reason not to try.”
He served as Overseer from 1975 to 1981 and was a member of five Overseer visiting committees, as well as a member of the Harvard Law School Dean’s Advisory Board (a post he has held since 1997). He also served as co-chairs of the Harvard Law School Campaign for the Third Century.
Coleman received numerous awards for his work—the Harvard Business School Distinguished Service Award, the HLSA Award, and the Harvard Club of Washington, D.C., Public Service Award.
In a 2010 talk at the law school, Coleman discussed his memoir, “Counsel for the Situation” (Brookings Institute Press), and told a packed room that there is still work to be done to fulfill the promise of civil rights in this country. (Watch video of the event here).