A name on an agency building for a civil rights warrior

Former DOT Secretary William T. Coleman Jr. was a key player on landmark cases

NAACP attorneys, from left, William T. Coleman, Jr., Thurgood Marshall and Wiley A. Branton  pose outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in 1958. (William J. Smith/AP file photo)
NAACP attorneys, from left, William T. Coleman, Jr., Thurgood Marshall and Wiley A. Branton pose outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., in 1958. (William J. Smith/AP file photo)
Posted February 27, 2020 at 10:44am

William T. Coleman Jr. was the first-ever African American secretary of the Department of Transportation, and he will soon be honored by having the agency’s headquarters named for him. But it’s his work as a civil rights lawyer that may be his most prominent legacy.

Earlier this month, the Senate passed a bill to name the building on New Jersey Avenue SE in Washington for Coleman. It is waiting to be taken up by the House.

Coleman, who died in 2017 at age 96, was the first black clerk to a Supreme Court justice and was a key player in some of the country’s biggest civil rights court cases. He co-authored the legal brief for the NAACP in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, in which the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional. Ten years later, he argued a case before the Supreme Court in which the court struck down a Florida law disallowing an interracial couple from living together. He prevailed in another Supreme Court decision, in 1983, that prohibited segregated private schools from receiving federal tax exemptions. 

“To describe Bill Coleman simply as a lawyer and public servant would be highly misleading,” Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer said at Coleman’s funeral. “We know that he was a man of color who grew up in a time when that fact meant hardship, humiliation, prejudice.” He took note of an often-told story that Coleman’s Philadelphia high school swim team disbanded rather have him as a member. Coleman later graduated first in his class at Harvard Law School.

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In 1964, Coleman was tapped as assistant counsel on the Warren Commission investigating the death of President John F. Kennedy. During his work there he met Rep. Gerald R. Ford, a Michigan Republican and commission member. Just over a decade later, President Ford nominated Coleman, a lifelong Republican, as transportation secretary. Coleman served two years; he was the second-ever African American to serve in a Cabinet-level position.

Coleman managed a number of interstate highway issues as secretary. Around the D.C. region, he may be best known for approval of a section of Virginia’s I-66, a decision he called “a most difficult and troubling one.” The decision came after Coleman initially blocked construction amid complaints from local groups. Ultimately, he relented, allowing the creation of a four-lane highway connecting the Capital Beltway with the District, but with a ban on trucks, carpool restrictions and a Washington Metro line built in the median.

Coleman’s wife Lovida and two sons, William III and Hardin, wrote in a statement that they were “deeply grateful to Congress for this honor and recognition.” Coleman’s daughter, Lovida Jr., died in 2018.

They said that having the building named for him “represents what he always thought was best in America — as we fully realize the rights and potentials of our constitutional system, we will open up unlimited opportunities for all of our citizens.”

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