April 1, 2017


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.

Coleman is well-played by Jeffrey Wright in the under-appreciated docudrama on Brown, Separate But Equal. I show that in class sometimes, despite the time it consumes, because it’s that rarity, a legal movie that accurately describes the law, and legal strategizing. The casting of Sidney Poitier as Thurgood Marshall is its biggest departure from reality: When it came out, I talked to my old lawprof Charlie Black on the phone, who complained “They got Sidney Poitier to play Thurgood, and then they found some SOB that looks just like me!”

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