Black History Month: Celebrating Former Transportation Secretary William Coleman

February 23, 2018

February is Black History Month and a chance to reflect not only on the contributions that people of African descent have made to this country, but the barriers they had to overcome to do so. One such pioneer in transportation is civil rights leader and former Secretary of Transportation William T. Coleman, who served as the first African American Secretary of Transportation and was the second African American Cabinet Member in American history.

When President Ford first offered Coleman the cabinet position of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, he turned it down fearing it would be labeled a “designated black” seat, after the first black cabinet member had just served at that post. He then turned down the offer for Ambassador for the United Nations, with little interest in serving public office.

President Ford reminded Coleman that with his experiences as a transit lawyer and former pilot, he would do well as the Secretary of Transportation – which ultimately led him to accept the job. He became the fourth Secretary of Transportation after Ford appointed him on March 7, 1965.

President Gerald Ford appointed Coleman to serve as the fourth Secretary of Transportation on March 7, 1975. Coleman served in a time of tremendous change and technological advances in aviation and road safety, but one of his most significant contributions to the transportation sector was championing the implementation of airbags in cars. Just before he finished his term, he announced a two-year demonstration of the needs for installing airbags in automobiles, resulting in significant advances in automotive safety

Coleman led many other notable transportation policy initiatives during his tenure as Secretary, including the transition of the federal highway program into the new Congressional budget process and the decision of the final route of Interstate 66. He also oversaw fundamental changes in U.S. railroad policy via the “4R” Act of 1976.

Beyond the world of transportation, Coleman’s passion for civil right’s activism led him to a distinguished legal career. A talented lawyer, he was often asked to contribute to high-priority cases, many of which were for the Supreme Court. Prior to serving as Secretary of Transportation, Coleman wrote legal briefs that successfully influenced the Supreme Court to outlaw segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. After serving as Secretary, the Supreme Court named Coleman a “friend of the court”, and he assisted in many more civil rights cases, including multiple cases advocating for the rights of interracial couples in the United States.

Coleman came from a family of successful Episcopal Ministers and teachers in Philadelphia; civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Dubois frequented the family home. Even growing up around activists and success, Coleman faced adversity and negativity throughout his childhood. In his memoir, Coleman recalls that after a successful high school presentation a teacher commented to him, “Someday, William, you will make a wonderful chauffeur.” He cursed the teacher for her backhanded compliment and was thus suspended.

Coleman used events like this to fuel his goals in civil rights and advocacy throughout his career. After a lengthy education that culminated in graduating first in his class at Harvard Law, and then a military career serving as a Tuskegee Airman, he began his legal career back in Philadelphia. In 1951, Thurgood Marshall of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who would go on to become the first African American Supreme Court Justice, asked Coleman to assist in the preparation for Brown v. Board of Education. After his positive impact on the case, Coleman would be named president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund as well as its chairman.

Coleman was offered federal judgeships twice, by Presidents Johnson and Nixon, and turned them down. Had President Ford been re-elected in 1976, Coleman said he had been promised the job of U.S. Attorney General. He served as co-chairman of the White House Conference on Civil Rights in 1966; and in 1995, President Clinton presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Secretary Coleman passed away almost a year ago, but his legacy will continue to provide inspiration on the importance of perseverance for young leaders in transportation.

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