Medal of Freedom Winner William T. Coleman to Deliver Annual Law and History Lecture

Lexington, VA Thursday, April 02, 2009


William Thaddeus Coleman, Jr.

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William Thaddeus Coleman, Jr: Breaking the Color Barrier at the U.S. Supreme Court
article by Prof. Todd Peppers
Distinguished attorney and public servant William Thaddeus Coleman, Jr. will be this year's speaker for the annual Hendricks Lecture in Law and History. Coleman, who was one of the lead strategists and coauthor of the legal brief in Brown v. Board of Education, will explore the impact of the NAACP on the civil rights movement.

The lecture is scheduled for Thursday, April 16 at 12:00 p.m. in the Julian Robertson Classroom (A), Sydney Lewis Hall on the campus of Washington and Lee University. The event is free and open to the public.

Coleman has described his civil rights work as comprising only a small part of his professional career, but he is undeniably a pioneer in this area. Born in Philadelphia in 1920, Coleman attended the University of Pennsylvania and then Harvard Law School, where he became the first African-American to serve on the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review.  Following law school, Coleman clerked for Judge Herbert F. Goodrich of U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, and then in 1948 he became clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter. Again, Coleman was the first African-American to serve the nation's highest court in this capacity.

Entering law practice with a New York firm following his clerkship, Coleman was approached by Thurgood Marshall, founder and head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and later U.S. Supreme Court Justice, to aid the civil rights organization with several cases aimed at ending racial discrimination. In addition to his work on Brown, which ended school segregation, Coleman served as co-counsel on the landmark interracial marriage case McLaughlin v. Florida.

During his service with the NAACP, which included a twenty-year stint as president of the Legal Defense Fund, Coleman continued in the private sector with several law firms and was engaged in litigation matters in the corporate, antitrust, natural gas, hedge fund, and constitutional law fields. In 1980, he joined the Washington, D.C. law firm O'Melveny & Myers, where he still practices law.

Throughout his career, Coleman has remained committed to public service. He has served as an advisor to seven American presidents. Among his numerous appointments, Coleman served as counsel to the Warren Commission's investigation into the assassination of John F. Kennedy and as Secretary of Transportation under Gerald Ford. In 1995, Coleman received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor given to civilians by the U.S. government.

The Law and History lecture series was endowed by alumnus Pete Hendricks ('66A, '69L), who has a private practice in Atlanta involving land use zoning and government permitting. A history major himself, Hendricks also endowed the Ollie Crenshaw Prize in History at the College several years ago in honor of his favorite professor.

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