TERM AS TRUSTEE:
June 6, 1988 through June 2012
Appointed Honorary Trustee June 2012
William Thaddeus Coleman, Jr.’s career has had a significant and lasting effect on American society. As an ardent civil rights attorney, he has played a leading role for six decades in the effort to make real the principle of equality under law.
Born in Philadelphia, Secretary Coleman received his undergraduate degree, summa cum laude, from the University of Pennsylvania. He attended the Harvard Business School before earning his law degree, magna cum laude, from Harvard University, where he ranked first in his class and was the first person of color to serve on the board of editors of the Harvard Law Review. After serving as a law clerk at the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, he became the first African American to clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court, working for Justice Felix Frankfurter. Coleman continued to distinguish himself as a gifted attorney and defender of civil rights. As a member of Thurgood Marshall’s legal team at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Coleman was instrumental in the effort to desegregate schools that culminated in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.
In 1959, President Eisenhower convinced Coleman to work on the President’s commission on employment policy; Coleman continued to work in presidential commissions for Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, including the Warren commission’s investigation of the Kennedy assassination. In all, Coleman served as an adviser to eight Presidents. Coleman went on to practice law in New York and Philadelphia. At the urging of President Ford in 1975, Mr. Coleman accepted the position of Secretary of Transportation, becoming only the second black to hold a cabinet-level position. During his tenure, he created the first Statement of National Transportation Policy in U.S. history.
Among his numerous honors, Mr. Coleman became President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 1971 and later served as its Chair. In 1997, he received the Fund’s Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995 in recognition of his many years of public service and his contributions to the legal profession and to society. William Coleman received the Gerald R. Ford Award for Distinguished Public Service in May 2011. Mr. Coleman passed away on March 31, 2017 at the age of 96.
GERALD R. FORD ORAL HISTORY PROJECT:
Read Oral History Interview with Bill Coleman
William T. Coleman, Jr. “Counsel for the Situation”
(remarks begin at 07:10 of video)