William T. Coleman, Jr.
National Visionary

Born July 7, 1920 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

First African American Secretary of Transportation, First African American Supreme Court Clerk, Coauthor of Brown v. Board of Education Brief

William T. Coleman, Jr. has played a leading role for nearly half a century in the effort to make real the principle of equality under law. As an ardent civil rights attorney, he was a main architect of the legal strategy leading to Brown v. Board of Education and the desegregation of schools and other public facilities throughout the United States. An adviser to six Presidents, Coleman also served as Secretary of Transportation during the Ford Administration.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
Born in Philadelphia in 1920, he received his undergraduate degree, summa cum laude, from the University of Pennsylvania. He attended the Harvard Business School before earning his law degree, magna cum laude, from Harvard University, where he was an Editor of the Law Review. After serving as a law clerk for Judge Herbert Goodrich of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, he became the first African American clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court, working for Justice Felix Frankfurter. Coleman went on to practice law in New York and Philadelphia until his Cabinet appointment in 1975.

Prior to serving as Secretary, Coleman distinguished himself as a gifted attorney and defender of civil rights. As a member of Thurgood Marshall’s legal team at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Coleman was instrumental in the effort to desegregate schools that culminated in the Brown decision in 1954. He subsequently represented the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the lengthy but successful effort to remove racial restrictions at Girard College in Philadelphia, eventually upheld by the Supreme Court of the United States.

A Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, he has argued numerous other cases before the Supreme Court involving banking, natural gas, nuclear energy, and other business and regulatory issues.

In 1971, Coleman became President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and later served as its Chair. In 1997, he received the Fund’s Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award. Coleman was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995 in recognition of his many years of public service.

Coleman and his wife Lovida have three children.



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