George E. Barrett, a tenacious Nashville lawyer who represented unions, consumers, a strip club and the Democratic Party but was best known for his victorious 38-year campaign to desegregate Tennessee universities, died on Tuesday in Nashville. He was 86.
His family said the cause was acute pancreatitis.
Mr. Barrett, who came from a working-class Roman Catholic background, liked to say he would sue anyone but the pope. But his predilection was to represent people and causes in which he believed, and in 1960 he defended students arrested for trying to eat at segregated lunch counters.
He did not join the protest, however, or others that came along later.
“Either you can be a lawyer or a demonstrator, but you can’t do both,” he told a Vanderbilt Law School alumni publication in 2012. “I was glad to manage protest routes and get Vietnam demonstrators out of jail, but I won’t march with you. I think a lawyer has to decide.”
The Tennessee desegregation case arose 14 years after the United States Supreme Court declared segregated public schools unconstitutional. The case, along with others on the state level, broadened desegregation to include higher education.
The case began in 1968 when a young black instructor at Tennessee State University, a historically black institution in Nashville, sued to stop the construction of a building for the Nashville branch of the predominantly white University of Tennessee. Mr. Barrett represented her.
The professor, Rita Sanders (now Rita Sanders Geier), was concerned that the state, which oversaw both universities, would perpetuate a publicly financed higher education system that segregated black and white students, with Tennessee State remaining predominantly black.
The lawsuit slogged on in the federal court system until Tennessee State and the Nashville branch of the University of Tennessee, under court order, merged in 1979, retaining the name Tennessee State.
But the issue was revived in the early 1980s when other Tennessee State faculty members and students sued, saying that rather than becoming more integrated after the merger, Tennessee State was becoming all black while other state colleges remained mostly white.
That led to a tentative settlement in 1984, calling for Tennessee State to ensure that whites make up 50 percent of both its enrollment and its faculty. But the Reagan administration’s Justice Department objected, calling the arrangement a quota system, which it opposed.
Meanwhile, students at Tennessee State expressed concern that their historically black institution would lose its special place as a seedbed of black leadership.
After more twists and turns, another settlement was reached in 2001, calling for the state to spend more than $75 million on desegregation.
“We have eliminated race as a factor in higher education in Tennessee,” Mr. Barrett said at the time. The settlement was deemed a success in 2006, and the lawsuit was finally dismissed.
He went on to represent Democratic officials when they accused Republicans of trying to intimidate black voters in the 2002 general election by challenging their identifications and signatures. Since Senator Barry Goldwater’s losing presidential campaign in 1964, Mr. Barrett said, Republicans had behaved like “gumshoes wearing trench coats and carrying cameras in all the black neighborhoods.”
He and Republican lawyers later settled on a list of guidelines for party poll watchers, distinguishing between legal and illegal activities.
“I went to law school to become, in the words of Justice Brandeis, a social engineer,” Mr. Barrett said, referring to the Supreme Court justice in a 2013 commencement speech at his alma mater, Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala. “And as such, my practice as a lawyer has been marked by advocating for the rights of the disadvantaged. Whether they be working people, or poor people, or nonwhite people, or just people without a voice, I have advocated for them against the powerful and the unjust.”
In a statement after Mr. Barrett’s death, former Vice President Al Gore, who represented Tennessee in the United States Senate for eight years, called him “a beacon of progressive politics for three generations of Tennesseans.”
George Edward Barrett was born in Nashville on Oct. 19, 1927, and attended Catholic schools. After graduating from Spring Hill College, a Jesuit school, he did graduate work at the University of Oxford in England. He graduated from Vanderbilt Law School in 1957.
In 1967, he formed what The New York Times called the first integrated law firm in the central South.
That year, he represented the National Farmers Organization, whose members were dumping milk their cows had produced to protest low prices. Mr. Barrett persuaded milk processors to accept a new price-setting formula, putting milk back on the market.
In 1968, he represented the Highlander Educational and Research Center in New Market, Tenn., which taught labor and community organizing and promoted folk culture, when it sued the Tennessee Legislature to halt its investigation of the center for possible links to communism.
After hearing Mr. Barrett’s argument, a federal judge ruled that although the Legislature had the authority to investigate, its resolution to open the investigation was “void on its face for vagueness and over-breadth.”
In 2003, Mr. Barrett won a $64 million settlement in an antitrust suit against Microsoft that accused the company of intentionally designing its software so that it would not work with other companies’ products.
He once represented the Ku Klux Klan in a First Amendment case, and in 2006 defended Brass Stables, a strip club, when new city regulations required patrons to keep three feet between themselves and the dancers.
In 2010, Mr. Barrett persuaded Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee tocommute the death sentence of a woman who had spent 25 years on death row for hiring a man to kill her abusive husband.
Mr. Barrett’s marriage to the former Eloise McBride ended in divorce. He is survived by his daughters, Ann Louise Barrett Thomason, Mary Eloise Barrett Brewer and Kathryn Conroy Barrett Cain; his sister, Mary George Barrett, a Dominican nun; and 11 grandchildren.
“I’ve never really been part of the establishment,” Mr. Barrett told the Vanderbilt publication. “But if you live long enough, you become the respected eccentric.”