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William T. Coleman, Jr., to Be Honored at Commencement

Civil rights activist and former cabinet member will receive Doctor of Laws

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With degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Law, William Coleman is “pleased to finally be able to get a degree as good as his wife’s,” SED alumna Lovida Coleman, says their son, SED Dean Hardin Coleman.

School segregation is outlawed, American motorists drive safer cars, and many workplaces are less dangerous, all partly because of the efforts of lawyer and civil rights activist William T. Coleman, Jr., who will receive an honorary Doctor of Laws at Boston University’s 137th Commencement, on Sunday, May 16.

Coleman was a key legal strategist for the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court case that declared racial separation in schools unconstitutional. He coauthored the antisegregation legal brief in that case. It was an apt challenge for the magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School and the high court’s first African-American law clerk. In 1982, he successfully argued before the Supreme Court in favor of upholding a ban on tax exemptions for private schools that refuse to admit black students. He has served in several leadership positions with the NAACP.

In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford named Coleman secretary of transportation. In two years on the job, Coleman oversaw the opening of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s car testing center in Ohio and the enactment of regulations covering the safety of pipelines and hazardous materials shipment.

“He’s very pleased to finally be able to get a degree as good as his wife’s,” cracks Hardin Coleman, the dean of the School of Education and the honorary degree recipient’s son. William Coleman is married to Lovida Coleman (SED’44).

William Coleman, who turns 90 in July, just retired from a six-year stint as a judge on the United States Court of Military Commission Review, charged with hearing appeals of Guantanamo military commissions’ decisions. He continues to advise corporate boards and the NAACP.

“From his perspective, it’s the combination of public and private involvement that’s so instructive,” Hardin Coleman says. “That combination is what made him, he feels, most useful.”

President Bill Clinton awarded Coleman the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996. The native Philadelphian received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1941 and his law degree five years later. He is a senior partner and the senior counselor at O’Melveny & Myers LLP, an international law firm.

The School of Education will hold a reception in William Coleman’s honor on Friday, May 14, at 4 p.m. in the SED lobby.

William Coleman is one of five honorary degree recipients at this year’s Commencement. Playwright Edward Albee will be awarded a Doctor of Letters. Osamu Shimomura, a Nobel Prize–winning chemist and a School of Medicine professor emeritus of physiology, will be awarded a Doctor of Science. Wafaa El-Sadr, a pioneering AIDS researcher, will be presented with a Doctor of Science. Commencement speaker Eric H. Holder, Jr., attorney general of the United States, will receive a Doctor of Laws.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

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