William T. Coleman Jr., former chairman of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s board of directors, was awarded the 2013 Harvard Medal from the Harvard Alumni Association for his extraordinary service to the University. The Harvard Medal marks yet another achievement in Bill Coleman’s remarkable career, which has been defined, in part, by groundbreaking accomplishments in the struggle for civil rights and his long-time, unyielding commitment to LDF and its mission.
Coleman received his L.L.B. degree magna cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1946, after becoming the first African American man to serve on the board of editors of the Harvard Law Review. After graduating first in his class at Harvard, Coleman served as a law clerk to Judge Herbert F. Goodrich of the Third Circuit’s U.S. Court of Appeals. The following year, he served as a law clerk U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter’s, becoming the first American of color to clerk for the U.S. Supreme Court.
Following his clerkship, and shortly after entering private practice, Coleman was enlisted by Thurgood Marshall in 1949 as one of the cadre of volunteer and cooperating lawyers to work with LDF on the five cases that culminated in Brown v. Board of Education. Coleman was a co-author and architect of the brief presented to the Supreme Court in Brown, a case that has been called “the most important American governmental act of any kind since the Emancipation Proclamation.”
After Brown, Coleman continued his work in private practice and served LDF throughout his career in a range of leadership roles, including president, chairman, and co-chair of the board of directors. As chairman of LDF, he argued three cases before the United States Supreme Court, including McLaughlin v. Florida, a landmark case in which the Court declared unconstitutional a Florida law that prohibited interracial cohabitation between people of the opposite sex.
In addition to litigating on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement, Coleman distinguished himself in public service, holding advisory or consultant positions to several U.S. presidents. He served as senior counsel to the Warren Commission, investigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and in 1975 President Gerald Ford named him U.S. Secretary of Transportation. The appointment made him the second African American to serve as a cabinet official.
Coleman returned to private practice in 1977, when he joined the law firm of O’Melveny & Meyers, where he is a senior partner and the senior counselor. In 1995, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Read more about Coleman’s receipt of the Harvard Medal here.