Saturday, April 1, 2017

John Malveaux: New York Times: William T. Coleman Jr., Who Broke Racial Barriers in Court and Cabinet, Dies at 96

William T. Coleman Jr., left, Thurgood Marshall and Wiley A. Branton, then lawyers for the N.A.A.C.P., in 1958 in Washington. Credit William J. Smith/Associated Press
William T. Coleman Jr., then the secretary of transportation, testified in 1976 before a Senate subcommittee. Credit Harvey Georges/Associated Press
John Malveaux of 

The New York Times
By Dennis Hevesi
March 31, 2017
William T. Coleman Jr., who championed the cause of civil rights in milestone cases before the Supreme Court and who rose above racial barriers himself as an influential lawyer and as a cabinet secretary, died Friday at his home in Alexandria, Va. He was 96.

His death was confirmed by a spokeswoman for the international law firm O’Melveny & Myers, where Mr. Coleman was a senior partner in its Washington office. He lived at a care facility with his wife of more than 70 years, Lovida Coleman.

A lifelong Republican, Mr. Coleman was as comfortable in the boardrooms of powerful corporations — PepsiCo, IBM, Chase Manhattan Bank — as he was in the halls of government. He was the second African-American to serve in a White House cabinet, heading the Department of Transportation.

Mr. Coleman found success on the heels of a brilliant academic career, but he did so in the face of bigotry — what he called “the more subtle brand of Yankee racism” — from which his middle-class upbringing in Philadelphia did not shield him. In one episode, his high school disbanded its all-white swimming team rather than let him join it.

Those experiences would inform his efforts in three major civil rights cases before the United States Supreme Court.

In one, Mr. Coleman, recruited by Thurgood Marshall, was an author of the legal briefs that successfully pressed the court to outlaw segregation in public schools in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Ten years later, he argued a case that led to a Supreme Court decision establishing the constitutionality of racially mixed sexual relations and cohabitation. And in 1982, he argued that segregated private schools should be barred from receiving federal tax exemptions. The court agreed.

Mr. Coleman was appointed transportation secretary by President Gerald R. Ford in March 1975, a little more than six months after Ford, who had been vice president, succeeded President Richard M. Nixon after Nixon’s resignation in the Watergate affair. Mr. Coleman, a corporate lawyer with expertise in transportation issues, was on the Pan Am board of directors at the time.

A portly man partial to impeccably tailored suits, he and Ford had become friends in 1964, when Mr. Coleman was an assistant counsel to the Warren Commission during its investigation of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Ford, then a Republican congressman from Michigan, was a commission member.

As the second African-American to hold a cabinet post, Mr. Coleman followed Robert C. Weaver, who was housing secretary in Lyndon B. Johnson’s administrat                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Mr. Coleman oversaw a Transportation Department confronting rapid advances in the aviation industry and increasing demands for public safety on the roads. In May 1976, he authorized a 16-month testing period allowing the Concorde, the needle-nose supersonic British- and French-made commercial jet, to land at Dulles International Airport near Washington and Kennedy International Airport in New York.


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