William T. Coleman, Jr.—civil rights champion, lawyer, and former cabinet secretary—passed away March 31, 2017 at the age of 96.
Spencer Overton, the President of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, issued the following statement: “The Joint Center mourns the loss of William Coleman, Jr. He epitomized the height of African-American excellence. Throughout his distinguished career, he consistently lifted the African-American community and moved the country forward. While Mr. Coleman practiced law at the highest levels and made various social contributions, he also regularly availed himself as a mentor to generations of lawyers and activists. On a personal note, I will always cherish my interactions with him. The Joint Center extends our thoughts and prayers to Mr. Coleman’s family.”
Mr. Coleman was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, and received his law degree from Harvard Law School where he graduated first in his class and was one of the first African-American editors of the Harvard Law Review. He became the first African American to serve as a Supreme Court law clerk, working for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in 1948. As a practicing lawyer, Mr. Coleman played a major role in landmark civil rights cases like Brown v. Board of Education. He also served as the chairman of the board of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. In 1975, President Gerald Ford appointed Mr. Coleman to serve as Secretary of Transportation, making him only the second African American to hold a cabinet post.