April 14, 2008

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—was the guest speaker Friday afternoon for a lecture series, sponsored by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice.

In a Langdell South classroom filled with students, faculty and former colleagues, Coleman joined Professor Charles Ogletree ’78 for a wide-ranging conversation about race, his life and career, and Houston’s legacy.

In his introduction, Ogletree described Coleman as “someone who really is an amazing legend,” noting Coleman’s role in desegregating the schools, his involvement in national politics as secretary of transportation during the Ford administration, his service as chairman of the board of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and his distinguished legal career at O’Melveny & Myers. He presented Coleman with several books and a framed portrait of Houston.

Coleman described Houston as a “superb lawyer” whom he first met “under very difficult circumstances.” In 1942, Coleman had just finished his 1L year at HLS and sought Houston’s advice 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.

After that encounter with Houston, 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. At an airfield in Freeman, Ind., against direct orders to stay out, 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 also spoke at HLS on Saturday evening, at the annual banquet of the Harvard Law Review. Coleman was the third African-American, after Houston and William Hastie, to serve on the Review. He went on to serve as a law secretary to Judge Herbert Goodrich of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and as a law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. He was the first African-American to serve as a law clerk for the Court.