William Thaddeus Coleman, Jr. was born in 1920 into a Pennsylvania family that encouraged education, hard work, and social activism. He excelled in school, but always had to combat prejudice. He recalled (Annette John-Hall, “William T. Coleman, Jr.—Lawyer, Social Activist,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 16, 2004):
I finished tops in my class at Roosevelt [Junior High School]. I made what I thought was a good speech and my teacher said, “You’ll make somebody a good chauffeur.” I won’t tell you what I told her, but I was suspended for saying it. My mother and father had to tell her, “You don’t talk to a Coleman kid that way.”
In high school, he wanted to join the all-white swim team of his Pennsylvania high school, which disbanded rather than allow a black person on the team. The day he graduated, they posted a notice that they were starting up the team again.
Coleman didn’t get discouraged. He enrolled at U. of Pennsylvania, majoring in political science and economics, graduating summa cum laude in 1941. He then went to Harvard Law School, one of only four minority students in his class, and made the Harvard Law Review.
He interrupted his studies to enlist in the army in 1942, encountering the fierce racism of the South during basic training.
He returned to Harvard and graduated magna cum laude in 1946. He won a clerkship to the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals in 1947, and in December of that same year, a former Harvard Law School professor wrote a letter to Felix Frankfurter recommending Coleman as a Supreme Court Law Clerk. Frankfurter accepted the recommendation without even requiring an interview.
Frankfurter received letters from a number of people a number of people praising the appointment and its breaking of the racial barrier. He responded:
Mr. William T. Coleman was named as one of my law clerks for next year precisely for the same reason that others have been named in the past, namely high professional competence and character. You are kind to write me, but I do not think a man deserves any praise for doing what is right and abstaining from the wrong.”
During the October 1948 Supreme Court term, Coleman shared clerking duties with fellow Harvard graduate Elliot Richardson. Together they began spending one hour a day reading Shakespeare or poetry during their lunch breaks.
A Frankfurter clerkship meant becoming a lifetime member of the Frankfurter family. Coleman later recalled that “from the day we came to the day he died, Felix Frankfurter was the nearest thing to a father or a brother that I had outside of my own family.”
In a post-clerkship letter recommending Coleman, Frankfurter drew upon the words of his own hero to further praise his former clerk: “What I can say of you with great confidence is what was Justice Holmes’ ultimate praise of a man: ‘I bet on him.’ I bet on you, whatever choice you may make, and whatever the Fates may have in store for you.’”
Nevertheless, as Todd Peppers reported in “William Thaddeus Coleman, Jr.: Breaking the Color Barrier at the U.S. Supreme Court,” J. of Supreme Court History 10/2008, 33(3): 353-370, 364:
Armed with letters of recommendation from Justice Frankfurter, Coleman returned to his hometown of Philadelphia and quickly discovered that prospective employers were not color-blind. ‘I tried like hell to get a job in Philadelphia and no local law firm would hire me.’ Most of Philadelphia’s law firms refused to give Coleman an interview.”
Coleman finally found a job in New York City, commuting each day to and from Philadelphia. After three years, the Philadelphia firm of Dilworth Paxson accepted him at the insistence of wealthy client Walter Annenberg. Coleman remained with the firm until his 1975 appointment as Secretary of Transportation in the cabinet of President Gerald Ford. Coleman was sworn in by his long-time friend and now Associate Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. After President Ford’s defeat in the 1980 presidential election, Coleman joined the Washington office of the law firm O’Melveny & Myers.
During his career, Coleman argued nineteen cases before the Supreme Court, only occasionally taking on civil rights work. But some of that work was as a consultant to Thurgood Marshall in preparing the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education.
Coleman has received a large list of awards from a wide range of organizations including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded to him by President Clinton in 1995, who recalled of Coleman:
For four decades in the courtroom, the boardroom, the halls of power, Bill Coleman has put his brilliant legal intellect in service to our country. He was the first African-American accepted on the Harvard Law Review, the first to serve as a clerk on the United States Supreme Court, the first to serve in the President’s Cabinet—the second to serve in the President’s Cabinet, and the first to reach the pinnacle of the corporate bar. As Secretary of Transportation to President Ford, he helped to open the doors of opportunity to thousands of black entrepreneurs. As a corporate director, he broke the color barrier in the Nation’s executive suites. Today, as chairman of the board of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, he continues the fight.
I have known Bill Coleman for a long time. I had the honor and pleasure of being his son’s roommate for a year in law school. I think it is fair to say that the first time we saw each other, he never dreamed that I would be here and he would be there. [Laughter] But I can honestly say, if you are looking for an example of constancy, consistency, disciplined devotion to the things that make this country a great place, you have no further to look than William Coleman, Jr.”