William T. Coleman Jr., who championed the cause of civil rights in milestone cases before the Supreme Court and who rose above racial barriers himself as an influential lawyer and as a cabinet secretary, died on Friday at his home in Alexandria, Va. He was 96.
His death was confirmed by a spokeswoman for the international law firm O’Melveny & Myers, where Mr. Coleman was a senior partner in its Washington office. He lived at a care facility with his wife of more than 70 years, Lovida Coleman.
A lifelong Republican, Mr. Coleman was as comfortable in the boardrooms of powerful corporations — PepsiCo, IBM, Chase Manhattan Bank — as he was in the halls of government. He was the second African-American to serve in a White House cabinet, heading the Department of Transportation.
Mr. Coleman found success on the heels of a brilliant academic career, but he did so in the face of bigotry — what he called “the more subtle brand of Yankee racism” — from which his middle-class upbringing in Philadelphia did not shield him. In one episode, his high school disbanded its all-white swimming team rather than let him join it.
Those experiences would inform his efforts in three major civil rights cases before the United States Supreme Court.
In one, Mr. Coleman, recruited by Thurgood Marshall, was an author of the legal briefs that successfully pressed the court to outlaw segregation in public schools in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
Ten years later, he argued a case that led to a Supreme Court decision establishing the constitutionality of racially mixed sexual relations and cohabitation. And in 1982, he argued that segregated private schools should be barred from receiving federal tax exemptions. The court agreed.
Mr. Coleman was appointed transportation secretary by President Gerald R. Ford in March 1975, a little more than six months after Ford, who had been vice president, succeeded President Richard M. Nixon after Nixon’s resignation in the Watergate affair. Mr. Coleman, a corporate lawyer with expertise in transportation issues, was on the Pan Am board of directors at the time.
A portly man partial to impeccably tailored suits, he and Ford had become friends in 1964, when Mr. Coleman was an assistant counsel to the Warren Commission during its investigation of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Ford, then a Republican congressman from Michigan, was a commission member.
As the second African-American to hold a cabinet post, Mr. Coleman followed Robert C. Weaver, who was housing secretary in Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration.
Mr. Coleman oversaw a Transportation Department confronting rapid advances in the aviation industry and increasing demands for public safety on the roads. In May 1976, he authorized a 16-month testing period allowing the Concorde, the needle-nose supersonic British- and French-made commercial jet, to land at Dulles International Airport near Washington and Kennedy International Airport in New York.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had barred Concorde jets from landing at Kennedy, in part because of concerns about sonic booms. But the Supreme Court overturned the ban in October 1977. The jets crisscrossed the Atlantic daily until 2003, when they were taken out of service largely because of a lack of customers willing to pay $12,000 or more for a round-trip ticket.
In December 1976, weeks before leaving office, Mr. Coleman announced that the auto industry would conduct a two-year demonstration of the practicality of installing airbags in automobiles. The limited testing was hailed by the industry, but it disappointed consumer groups and the insurance industry, which had urged Mr. Coleman to end seven years of government indecision and order the device on all autos. Airbags became standard equipment only in the early 1990s.
His deliberate approach was in part a consequence of the Watergate revelations about White House misdeeds, said Donald T. Bliss, who was acting general counsel to the Transportation Department under Mr. Coleman. His boss, he said in an interview, was concerned about transparency.
“In the post-Watergate time, he wanted to take into account the different interests, whether environmental, technological or economic, and to fully explain a decision to the public,” said Mr. Bliss, who is now president of the United Nations Association for the National Capital Area. “Sometimes the way to move forward is to have a demonstration.”
In an economy under stress, Mr. Coleman also had to deal with bankruptcies and consolidations in the railroad industry and with President Ford’s insistence that funds for federal highways be sharply reduced. “He really did agonize over all these decisions,” Mr. Bliss said.
Mr. Coleman served until the end of the Ford administration, in 1977, then re-entered the public arena in 1982 at the Supreme Court’s invitation.
At issue was an effort by the Reagan administration to revoke an Internal Revenue Service policy that barred racially discriminatory private schools from receiving federal tax benefits. The court named Mr. Coleman a “friend of the court” to argue against revocation.
The case, Bob Jones University v. United States, involved tax exemptions that had been granted to Bob Jones, a fundamentalist Protestant institution in Greenville, S.C., and to Goldsboro Christian Schools in Goldsboro, N.C. The plaintiffs argued that their segregation policies were based on biblical injunctions against the mixing of races.
Mr. Coleman would have none of it. “Their argument is that because their racism is religiously based, they have a right to tax benefits denied to all others who cannot defend their policies on religious grounds,” he told the court. “When fundamental public policy is violated, a defense of religious belief is not available.”
The court affirmed his position on May 25, 1983, with an 8-1 decision written by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. Justice William H. Rehnquist, later the chief justice, was the lone dissenter.
Almost 20 years earlier, Mr. Coleman was co-counsel in McLaughlin v. Florida, in which the Supreme Court overturned a Florida law that prohibited an interracial couple from living together under the state’s anti-miscegenation statutes. The couple had been convicted after choosing to live together despite the law.
In a unanimous decision on Dec. 7, 1964, Justice Potter Stewart wrote, “It is simply not possible for a state law to be valid under our Constitution which makes the criminality of an act depend upon the race of the actor.”
Three years later, in Loving v. Virginia, the court unanimously declared all race-based legal restrictions on marriage unconstitutional.
William Thaddeus Coleman Jr. was born on July 7, 1920, in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, the second of three children of William Sr., the director of a boys club for 40 years, and the former Laura Mason, who had taught German.
The family came from six generations of teachers and Episcopal ministers on his mother’s side (one of whom operated the Underground Railroad in St. Louis, helping slaves flee their masters) and many social workers on his father’s side. The civil rights pioneer W.E.B. DuBois and the poet Langston Hughes would go to dinner at the Coleman home.
Mr. Coleman attended a segregated elementary school and was one of just seven black students at Germantown High School, one of Philadelphia’s best. In a memoir, “Counsel for the Situation: Shaping the Law to Realize America’s Promise” (2010), Mr. Coleman recalled giving a well-received oral presentation in an English class as a 10th-grade honors student.
After Mr. Coleman concluded the presentation, his teacher, who was white, said, “Someday, William, you will make a wonderful chauffeur.”
The teacher, Mr. Coleman wrote, “had intended to compliment the poised oral presentation” he had made. “Yet somehow I didn’t take it that way,” he added. He cursed the teacher and was suspended.
He was suspended again when, by his account, he demanded to join the school’s all-white swim team. After the suspension was lifted, he said, the team disbanded rather than admit him. It regrouped after he graduated.
Mr. Coleman went on to the University of Pennsylvania (with a strong recommendation from the swim team coach, he said), and graduated summa cum laude with a double major, political science and economics, in 1941.
He was accepted into the Harvard School of Law but left in 1943 to enlist in the Army Air Forces, though not before asking himself, as he put it, “whether it made sense to fight for freedom and liberty in Europe and Asia when racial segregation was still so rampant in the United States.”
He trained in Mississippi with the black aviators who earned fame as the Tuskegee Airmen, though he failed to become a fighter pilot himself. He spent part of his service as a defense team member in court-martial proceedings, and in one case helped defend black airmen who had been arrested for challenging segregation at an officers’ club.
Mr. Coleman returned to the law school after military service ended in 1945, was accepted by The Harvard Law Review — he was one of its first black staff members — and graduated first in his class in 1946.
While on leave from the Army in 1945, he married Lovida Mae Hardin, a New Orleans native he had met when she was studying for a degree in education at Boston University.
Besides his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Lovida H. Coleman Jr., a prominent Washington lawyer; two sons, William III, a former general counsel to the Army, and Hardin, a former dean of the School of Education at Boston University; and four grandsons.
After law school, Mr. Coleman was law secretary to a federal appeals court judge in Philadelphia. He then broke new ground. As The New York Times reported in April 1948, “For the first time in the Supreme Court’s 158-year history, one of its justices will have a Negro law clerk.” The justice was Felix Frankfurter; the clerk was Mr. Coleman. (He quickly learned how difficult it was to find a restaurant in the capital that would allow him and his fellow clerks, all white — including Elliot Richardson, a future United States attorney general — to have lunch together.)
After the clerkship, Mr. Coleman, seeking to go into private practice, was repeatedly rejected by white-shoe firms in Philadelphia before he was finally accepted by one in New York — Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. He later returned to Philadelphia to be a partner at Dilworth, Paxson, Kalish & Levy, a major firm there and, at the time, an all-white one. From 1952 to 1963, he also served as Philadelphia’s special counsel on transportation issues.
By then he was deeply involved in civil rights issues. In 1951, Thurgood Marshall, who was then chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (he would become the first black justice on the Supreme Court in 1967), asked Mr. Coleman to join the legal team preparing the briefs in Brown v. Board of Education.
Those arguments contributed to the court’s unanimous declaration that state laws that established separate schools for black and white students were unconstitutional.
Mr. Coleman was named president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 1971 and was its chairman from 1977 to 1997. He argued 19 cases before the Supreme Court altogether.
Mr. Coleman twice turned down offers for federal judgeships, from Presidents Johnson and Nixon. He was co-chairman of the White House Conference on Civil Rights in 1966. In 1995, President Bill Clinton presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
His memoir, “Counsel for the Situation,” was written with Mr. Bliss and had a foreword by Justice Stephen Breyer. In it, Mr. Coleman reflected on his own life and on the American legal system, and paid tribute to the people who had influenced him — blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats.
“They shared the strong conviction,” he wrote, “that individual talent, brilliance and effort can and will change the course of history.”