Law and Society
William T. Coleman, Jr.’s Lifelong Dedication
William T. Coleman, Jr., recipient of the Judge Becker Award, in the College’s library
MOST ATTORNEYS WORK A lifetime and never achieve a quarter of what is listed on the curriculum vitae of William T. Coleman, Jr. During his more than 60 years in law, Coleman, a native of Germantown, Philadelphia, has been an advisor to seven U.S. presidents, including the current President Bush. He was the first black in Philadelphia history to join a white law firm, the first black to clerk for the U.S. Supreme Court and the first black to serve in a cabinet level position, 1975–1977, in a Republican administration as secretary of Transportation under President Ford.
As U.S. Transportation Secretary, he was involved in the reorganizations of several major railroads; the substantial completion of the nation’s interstate highway system; the start of the Washington, D.C. subway system; U.S. landing rights for the British-French Concorde; and the U.S. requirement for airbags in autos; as well as the beginning of the deregulation of the trucking, airline and railroad industries.
While working for a prominent New York law firm, he volunteered his services to Thurgood Marshall, then head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and co-authored the historic legal brief presented to the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the landmark case that desegregated America’s public schools. He later became the future Supreme Court justice’s personal lawyer. Coleman also served as co-counsel on the landmark case McLaughlin v. Florida (1964), which established the constitutionality of interracial marriages.
Closer to home, he successfully represented the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1965 in a lawsuit against the then racially segregated Girard College in North Philadelphia, which paved the way for the school to desegregate.
“I realized that you had to change this country around to permit many more people to get opportunities, which I think we were successful in doing,” he said.
Today, Coleman is a senior partner and the senior counselor at O’Melveny & Myers LLP of Washington, D.C., a national and international law firm. Recently, he shared his thoughts with Pathways on his life as a civil rights pioneer, how he became interested in the law, the importance of education and the U.S. presidential primary races.
"There are always obstacles in life. That’s one of the challenges you have. It’s just a matter of being able to take opportunities," Coleman said when asked how he succeeded against tremendous odds.
"He was the first black in Philadelphia history to join a white law firm, the first black to clerk for the U.S. Supreme Court and the first black to serve in a cabinet level position"
In recognition of his dedicated life of public service, Community College of Philadelphia bestowed its Judge Edward R. Becker Citizenship Award on Coleman on Feb. 26. The Judge Becker Award was created in honor of the Honorable Judge Edward R. Becker (1933–2006), a Philadelphia native, who served as judge on the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Becker was one of the federal appeals court judges most often cited by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In accepting the Becker award, Coleman praised Judge Becker and Community College of Philadelphia, its faculty, staff and students. “It’s very important that institutions like this continue to educate the young because that’s the only way our nation will prosper,” Coleman told a room overflowing with more than 100 dignitaries, faculty, staff and students who attended the award ceremony in the College’s Center for Business and Industry.
Coleman is the second person to receive the Becker award. U.S. Senator Arlen Specter received the award last year.
Judge Becker’s son, Charles “Chip” Becker, Esq., who presented the award to Coleman, said there is no finer citizen of this city. “Mr. Coleman has lived a life of firsts, smashing glass ceilings the way Paul Bunyan chopped down trees,” he said.
Indeed, Coleman has had such a profound impact on America that in September 1995, President Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. “I can honestly say, if you are looking for an example of constancy, consistency, disciplined devotion to the things that make this country a great place, you have no further to look than William Coleman, Jr.,” Clinton said at the time.
This past February, President Bush, during a ceremony at the White House in honor of Black History Month, praised Coleman as a man who has made “great contributions to our county,” and said that for Coleman’s work on Brown v. Board of Education and other landmark legal cases, America owes him “our lasting thanks.”
As a trailblazing civil rights lawyer, Coleman helped pave the way for female presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, and black presidential candidate, Barack Obama. Yet, Coleman, who is a Republican, downplays his role and said he has given campaign contributions to a variety of presidential candidates, both Republican and Democrat, because many of them he knows personally and respects as bright and competent.
"I hope we’ve gotten to the point where we will pick the best person," he said, adding that the residents of Iowa should receive a medal because even though the state has a very small black population, they voted overwhelmingly for Obama in their Democratic primary.
In that same vein, he is happy that the American legal profession has shed some of its discriminatory practices to the point where Hillary Clinton, a lawyer, can run for president. He said in 1878 a woman could not even become a member of the bar of the state of Illinois. “Now, we’ve had two women sit on the Supreme Court of the United States,” he said.
Coleman knows the Clintons personally. He said it was through his son, William T. Coleman III, that he got to know President Clinton. Coleman’s son roomed with Clinton for a year at Yale Law School.
Harvard University is how he knows Obama, who was the president of the Harvard Law Review years after Coleman graduated magna cum laude at the top of his class from Harvard Law School and was the first black to serve on the board of editors of the Harvard Law Review, just after World War II. “I missed being president (of the Harvard Law Review) by four votes, so I think he must be brighter than I am,” Coleman quipped.
"It’s very important that institutions like this continue to educate the young because that’s the only way our nation will prosper"
Growing up in Germantown, Coleman said he was blessed with good parents and good schooling. He was the second of three children in a middle-class family that counted six generations of teachers and Episcopal ministers on one side of the family, and numerous social workers on the other side of the family. “A lot of people thought I was going to be an Episcopal minister,” he said.
His father, William T. Coleman, Sr., was the director of the Quaker-supported Germantown Boys Club for 40 years. It was through his father and other family members that Coleman met black leaders who would shape his world view. “I heard about people like Bill Hastie, Thurgood Marshall and Charlie Houston and others, and it just appealed to me,” Coleman said, referring to pioneering black civil rights attorneys and judges who he admired.
In a way, Coleman said, it also was his sister who led him to becoming interested in the law. He and his sister would come downtown from their home in Germantown to shop before the Christmas holidays at the old John Wanamaker’s department store, a Philadelphia landmark that has since been replaced by Macy’s. His sister wanted him to wait while she shopped, but not wanting to stay in the ladies’ section of the store, where clothes were fitted, he would scurry over to the court rooms in nearby Philadelphia City Hall, where he fell in love with the law, but not for the reason one might think.
"I would go and watch the court rooms, and I’d come home and say: Do people really get paid for just talking to each other?" he said.
Throughout his life, segregation, racism and discrimination would throw hurdles in the way of Coleman’s rise to legal prowess, but they never kept him from achieving. Among his many firsts, Coleman was the first black in Philadelphia history to join a white law firm, Dilworth, Paxon, Kalish, Levy and Green, in 1952. Coleman later became a partner at the firm in 1966, and senior partner shortly thereafter.
Asked what type of mindset it takes to be a trailblazer, Coleman credited his parents, hard work and people who advocated on his behalf. “You also have to be fortunate enough as you go through life to bump into some people who care about you,” Coleman said. “I had people that just gave me the opportunity.”
He recalled how in 1946, just before graduating from Harvard Law School, one of his classmates helped him land a job. The classmate, Elliot Richardson, would later become a close lifelong friend and U.S. attorney general. At Harvard, Richardson called his uncle, a successful lawyer in Boston, who contacted the head of a big Boston law firm, who contacted the prominent New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, where Coleman became an associate in 1949.
Coleman also worked as law clerk for Judge Herbert F. Goodrich of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in 1947. The following year he became law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter. In so doing, he became the first black to serve in that capacity in the nation’s highest court. Frankfurter’s other law clerk was Elliot Richardson.
Being prepared with a good education to take advantage when opportunity knocks is important, Coleman said. He said Roosevelt Junior High School and Germantown High School prepared him with a good education during the Depression.
But he said today’s youth often are not receiving quality education in the nation’s elementary and high schools, and the nation is losing its prowess in the world as a result. “One of the big challenges in this country is to redo the way we educate people,” Coleman said.
However, Coleman is a firm believer in the value of the nation’s community colleges, and he often makes reference to ideas that Alan Greenspan espouses in his book, The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World (The Penguin Press, 2007).
In the book, Greenspan says that after years of being viewed as “the backwater of American education,” community colleges are now often in the vanguard of educating America’s workforce. Student enrollment, Greenspan says, in two-year collegesf rose from 2.1 million in 1969 to 6.5 million in 2004.
Greenspan praises community colleges for teaching practical skills that are immediately applicable in the workplace and for retraining workers who have lost their jobs. Coleman agrees.
"Community colleges are very important, and I think if the United States is going to continue its leadership position in industry and finance, it’s going to have to depend a lot upon people that go to community colleges, that get new learning and go off and do different things,” Coleman said.
William T. Coleman, Jr.
is a senior partner and the senior counselor in the Washington, D.C. office of O’Melveny & Myers. He joined the firm in 1977 after serving as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation in the Ford Administration. He has had a distinguished career in law, business and public service, including advisory and consultant positions to seven presidents. Coleman has held several national public service positions and was one of the authors of the legal brief that, in 1954, persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education to end segregation in public schools. President Clinton presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995. He also received the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in November 1997. Coleman graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania in 1941 and magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1946.