William T. Coleman was a pioneering legal figure who argued major cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in defense of civil rights. The longtime lawyer and former director of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund died last Friday at his Alexandria, Va. Home. He was the oldest living former U.S. Cabinet member.
William Thaddeus Coleman was born July 7, 1920 in Philadelphia. Coleman’s middle-class upbringing was not without its barriers. In his 2010 memoir Counsel for the Situation: Shaping the Law to Realize America’s Promise he recalled an incident as just one of seven Black students at Germantown High School in Philadelphia. His 10th grade English teacher told him that he’d “make a fine chauffeur” after Coleman delivered a speech in his honors class. After he cursed at the teacher, Coleman who was then suspended.
After his graduation, Coleman proved that teacher very wrong. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Law School, then began his legal career in 1947 as a law clerk to Judge Herbert F. Goodrich of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. The following year, Coleman was named the first Black law clerk for the Supreme Court.
Coleman’s connection to the NAACP began when Thurgood Marshall recruited him to assist with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954. Coleman wrote the legal briefs in connection to the case. A decade later, Coleman argued in front of the High Court a case about the constitutionality of mixed-race relationships and cohabitation. Coleman also argued a case in 1982 that challenged President Ronald Reagan’s administration and its attempt to revoke a ruling that barred discriminatory schools from receiving federal tax benefits.
In 1975, Coleman became just the second Black U.S. Cabinet member after President Gerald Ford named him Secretary of Transportation. During his tenure car safety airbags became the industry standard. Coleman left politics at the end of Ford’s term in 1977 and went into private practice, along with helming the NAACP’s LDF in varying posts.
Among his many honors, President Bill Clinton bestowed Coleman with the President Medal of Freedom in 1995.
Coleman resided in a care facility with his wife of 70-plus years, Lovinda Coleman. Mrs. Coleman, two adults sons, one daughter, and four grandsons, survives him.
He was 96.