Former SecDOT William Coleman Dies at 96

April 5, 2017

William T. Coleman, Jr., who served as the fourth U.S. Secretary of Transportation from 1975-1977, died on March 31 at his home in Virginia, at age 96. He was the oldest living former Cabinet member (coincidentally, the most senior living former Cabinet member is also a former SecDOT, Alan Boyd).

Coleman lived a life of firsts. A native of Philadelphia, Coleman graduated first in his class from Harvard Law School in 1946 (where he was a member of the Harvard Law Review), and then served as the first African-American clerk for a U.S. Supreme Court justice (for Felix Frankfurter).

He took time out from law school to joint the Army Air Forces in WWII, training as a Tuskegee Airman (but he was kept on the ground as a statistician). He did, however, serve as informal legal counsel to a large group of black officers who chose to get court-martialed for forcibly integrating an officer’s club, digging up an obscure WWI regulation that actually prohibited segregating the clubs. (Ironically, when Coleman got to DOT, the Assistant Secretary of Transportation for Environment, Safety and Consumer Affairs was the commanding officer of the WWII Tuskegee Airmen, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.)

After finishing his clerkships, Coleman could have pursued a secure career focusing on minority interests in the public and private sector, but said he did not want to limit himself. (He even refused to join the black-only National Bar Association, instead becoming one of the first black members of the American Bar Association.) He then became the first person of color hired as an associate at a major New York City law firm, specializing in corporate law.

However, he did work extensively in his spare time with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where he assisted Thurgood Marshall with school desegregation cases throughout the 1950s (he sat next to Marshall as co-counsel during the Supreme Court oral arguments in Brown v. Board of Education). He also moved back to Philadelphia and became partner in a law firm there, becoming outside counsel for the local transit agency (SEPTA). (It was somehow easy to get city contracts when the mayor of Philadelphia was the name partner in your law firm.)

(Coleman’s private career took a brief detour as a senior assistant counsel to the Warren Commission in 1964, where his duties included tracking down Lee Harvey Oswald’s various foreign travels and determining whether or not President Kennedy’s assassination was the result of an international conspiracy.)

Over the years, Coleman turned down a variety of appointed positions (a federal judgeship on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia under President Kennedy, a federal Third Circuit appellate judgeship under President Johnson, State Department Legal Counsel under President Nixon). Then, a few months after Nixon’s resignation, President Ford called.

Coleman knew Gerald Ford well from their service on the Warren Commission, where Ford was a member. And Coleman was a Republican – the “T” in William T. Coleman stood for Thaddeus, as he and his father were named for Thaddeus Stevens. (Coleman’s maternal grandfather held a Republican patronage appointment in the Post Office from President Taft.) And Coleman Sr. was a local political ally of Sen. Hugh Scott (R-PA), Senate Minority Leader and Republican National Committee chairman.

Coleman turned down Ford’s offer to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (LBJ had appointed the first-ever African-American Cabinet member to HUD, and Coleman did not want to see it become the “designated black” Cabinet seat – plus, Coleman thought FDR’s public housing projects a major policy mistake). He also turned down Ford’s offer to be ambassador to the United Nations. But then Ford reminded Coleman that as a former pilot, a member of the Pan Am board of directors, and a transit lawyer, he might like to be Secretary of Transportation, and Coleman took the job. (Coleman later speculated that had he taken the HUD job, Carla Hills would have been given the Transportation post, as she wound up with the HUD job instead.)

His two-year tenure as SecDOT had several notable accomplishments:

  • Producing the landmark study National Transportation – Trends and Choices (To the Year 2000), the first such comprehensive national transportation policy study by USDOT, which Secretary Anthony Foxx cited as the inspiration for his recent Beyond Traffic: 2045
  • Laying the policy groundwork for the sweeping deregulation of transportation that would be enacted largely under the Carter Administration. Coleman did negotiate the Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act of 1976, the first of the major 1970s deregulatory laws and the act that created Conrail and turned over the Northeast Corridor to Amtrak, with Congress (see documents here).
  • Shepherding the federal highway program through the implementation of the Congressional Budget Act, during which Coleman negotiated the first obligation limitation on the program with Congress.
  • Requiring a rigorous cost-benefit analysis of the question of requiring mandatory air bags in new automobiles (see documents here).
  • Allowing the Concorde supersonic aircraft landing rights at U.S. airports even though the U.S. did not yet (and still does not) have its own SST.
  • Allowing Airport and Airway Trust Fund receipts to be used to pay for air traffic control system maintenance costs (see documents here).
  • Naming the most academically overqualified General Counsel in USDOT history, John Hart Ely. (Both men had served on the staff of the Warren Commission, and the two had similar experiences, a decade apart – just as Coleman had helped Thurgood Marshall write the Supreme Court brief in Brown v. Board of Education, Ely helped Abe Fortas write the brief in Gideon v. Wainwright.)
  • Allowing the District of Columbia and Maryland to fund the Metro system by converting Interstate highway funding for unwanted routes to transit (see documents here).
  • Deciding the final route of Interstate 66 inside the Beltway (see documents here).
  • Funding construction of the new heavy rail systems in Atlanta and Baltimore and of the tunnel connecting the two regional commuter rail systems in Philadelphia. (Coleman also tried to give Detroit $600 million to build a mass transit system, having known Mayor Coleman Young in WWII, but the money he gave to the Motor City sat around, unused, while local politicians bickered until President Reagan eventually took the money back.)

Had Ford been re-elected in 1976, he had promised to name Coleman as Attorney General, but instead, Coleman left federal service in January 1977 and went back to private law practice, where he continued a wide degree of corporate representation, in and out of transportation. He also continued his work on school desegregation, acting as court-appointed amicus in the Bob Jones University case in 1982, winning the case and removing the tax-exempt status of private universities that discriminated based on race.

He also appeared before the Supreme Court in 1984 on behalf of the American Public Transit Association, arguing that local mass transit agencies served a governmental function akin to police and fire services and thus (per existing precedent) were exempt from the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. Coleman won the argument but lost the case (Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority), 5 to 4, after the Supreme Court dramatically reversed an earlier case – post-Garcia, police and fire services, as well as mass transit, have been subject to the FLSA.

In later life, he continued to serve on advisory commissions, including the “Gore Commission” on aviation safety in 1996 and the Court of Military Commission Review to hear appeals from Guantanamo Bay detainees in 2006.

For more information on Secretary Coleman, read his engaging 2010 autobiography, Counsel for the Situation (co-written with his former DOT Acting General Counsel Don Bliss), which reveals that, among countless other things, Coleman also:

  • Helped John Dos Passos negotiate the movie deal for his USA Trilogy (the movie was never made).
  • Represented Frank Sinatra in his attempt to get an Atlantic City casino license.
  • Co-founded the Trilateral Commission with David Rockefeller in 1973, earning a perpetual place on the lists kept by conspiracy theorists. (With the passing of Robert S. McNamara in 2009 and Rockefeller and Coleman last month, Henry Kissinger is the only remaining lifetime trustee of the Commission.)
  • Sweet-talked Leonid Brezhnev into renewing PepsiCo’s exclusive USSR soda license in 1980 by quoting Pushkin to him.

Coleman’s survivors include his wife of 72 years, Lovida Hardin Coleman, three children and four grandchildren.

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