NASHVILLE Tenn. (Reuters) - George Barrett, a lawyer who waged a nearly four-decade battle for desegregation of Tennessee’s colleges and universities and represented student civil rights activists, has died at 86, a law firm partner said on Wednesday.
Barrett, who died on Tuesday night from acute pancreatitis, came to be called “Citizen Barrett” for his advocacy.
“People search for a mission or a purpose and George found that in the practice of law,” said Jerry Martin, a partner in Barrett’s firm and a former U.S. attorney. “It’s hard to imagine him not coming in anymore.”
In 1968, Barrett sued on behalf of instructor Rita Sanders Geier, who argued that a planned University of Tennessee expansion in Nashville would hurt desegregation efforts at her school, Tennessee State University, and other state colleges and universities.
The court did not stop the expansion but ordered Tennessee to develop a plan to end its higher education system that provided one avenue for black students and another for whites, the Tennessee Board of Regents said in a history of the case.
In 2006 the federal court declared Tennessee no longer had a dual system for higher education and dismissed the case.
“He challenged the state to live up to the ideals of the constitution and his tireless effort led to a fairer, more open system of higher education in Tennessee,” state Attorney General Bob Cooper said on Wednesday.
Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, a former county public defender, said Barrett was always willing to take up an unpopular cause if he felt it was the right thing to do.
“He was a social justice champion and was certainly on the right side of history as an attorney advocate during the civil rights movement,” Dean said.
Martin said Barrett, a 1957 graduate of Vanderbilt University Law School, had been scheduled to be in court on Wednesday representing shareholders in a class-action lawsuit challenging the terms of a corporate merger.
“He loved to mix it up and I‘m glad he was able to give everyone hell until the very end,” Martin said.
Reporting by Tim Ghianni; Editing by David Bailey and Bill Trott