WSJ April 8, 2017


William Coleman Fought Civil-Rights Battles From the Inside

By James R. Hagerty | 786 words

William Coleman during a television appearance in 1975. He was transportation secretary for nearly two years under President Ford. William T. Coleman Jr. was part of a team of lawyers who persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, to rule in 1954 that state-sanctioned racial segregation violated the Constitution.

He graduated at the top of his Harvard Law School class, served in President Gerald Ford’s cabinet as transportation secretary, argued 19 cases before the Supreme Court and was a director of companies including International Business Machines Corp. and PepsiCo Inc. He was one of the few blacks of his generation to become a top-level insider in business and government.

In his later years, he also was frustrated that American schools and neighborhoods remained largely segregated. “We underestimated the complexity of achieving sustained integration,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir, “Counsel for the Situation.”

He shunned extreme language. “You accomplish things by being in the room when the deal is made, and it’s just not in your interest to take positions where you’re not going to get in the room,” he said in an oral history.

Mr. Coleman died March 31 at a retirement home in Alexandria, Va. He was 96.

William Thaddeus Coleman Jr. was born July 7, 1920, in Philadelphia. His father, who had a college degree in sociology, ran a boys’ club, and his mother had been a teacher of German and history. When young Bill was in second grade, his father showed up at his school and caught him clowning in class. After thrashing him, his father ordered him to apologize to the teacher. “My days as class clown came to an abrupt end,” he wrote.

In high school, a swimming coach told him blacks weren’t allowed on the swimming team. When his father complained, the school eliminated the team rather than integrating it. The same coach, also a history teacher, gave him high grades and a recommendation to the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied political science and economics and graduated summa cum laude. On arrival at Harvard Law School, he met Elliot Richardson, who became a lifelong friend and served in the Nixon and Ford cabinets.

Mr. Coleman became an editor of the Harvard Law Review. After World War II service in the U.S. Army Air Corps, he finished his Harvard studies and served as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. When he began looking for long-term employment, top law firms in New York and Philadelphia snubbed him. One firm’s partner confided, “Our clients simply would not understand. ”He finally won a job from the Paul Weiss firm in New York and later jumped to a Philadelphia firm where he rose to become partner.

Thurgood Marshall, later a Supreme Court justice, recruited Mr. Coleman to help devise strategy for the legal fight to end school segregation. They argued that only by mingling children of different races at an early age could there be the types of friendships and cultural understanding that could lead to equal opportunities. To avoid alarming conservative justices, they used the term “desegregate” rather than “integrate.”

Mr. Coleman eventually became chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s legal defense fund. As a legal counsel to the Warren Commission, investigating the assassination of John F. Kennedy, he saw no evidence supporting the idea that it was a conspiracy involving Cuba or Russia.

President Ford initially offered to make him secretary of housing and urban development. He resisted, partly because he thought federal housing policy was misguided. “America’s inner cities were cluttered with federally subsidized high-rise housing projects that spawned vertical black ghettos,” he wrote. He accepted the offer of transportation secretary and served in the Ford cabinet for nearly two years, dealing with issues including landing rights for Concorde supersonic jets and the introduction of air bags in cars.

Later he was a senior partner at the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers, where he handled commercial-law cases. He relished legal problem-solving, and it allowed him to live well. Blue-chip companies “pay me a hell of a lot of money to tell them what to do and what not to do,” he said in an interview with the National Visionary Leadership Project.

He also remained active in civil rights. In the case of Bob Jones University v. United States, he helped deny tax exemptions for private schools practicing racial discrimination. President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995. Writing his memoir late in life, Mr. Coleman counseled patience: “Incremental progress is usually the best course. Our nation is too large, diverse and complex to adjust to radical, comprehensive change efficiently.” He is survived by his wife of 72 years, Lovida, their three children and four grandsons.

Write to James R. Hagerty at