Civil rights legal legend George Barrett dies at 86

Update: Funeral services will be held this Saturday, Aug. 30, at 11 a.m. at Cathedral of the Incarnation, 2015 West End Ave.

Legendary civil rights attorney George Barrett died Tuesday night at the age of 86, leaving behind a life spent defending working people. 

Born in Nashville in 1927, Barrett graduated from Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, in 1952 and Vanderbilt University School of Law in 1957 following a stint at Oxford.

His first job was working for Cecil Branstetter, one of the architects of Metro Nashville. (The Tennessean)

Mr. Barrett cut a self-assured figure in Nashville's legal community for more than 50 years after graduating from Vanderbilt University Law School in 1957 and taking a job with Cecil Branstetter, who was becoming one of the South's leading labor lawyers. Routinely calling himself "The Citizen," Mr. Barrett took on authority figures with an attitude of righteous indignation whenever he thought they were abusing power.

"I don't know if another lawyer in Nashville ever practiced law at such a high level for so many decades and had such an impact," said David Garrison, a partner at Barrett Johnston Martin & Garrison who started working with Mr. Barrett about 10 years ago.

Barrett didn't have the easiest of childhoods, but it helped shape who he would become. (Associated Press)

Barrett's heritage growing up in a working-class, Irish-Catholic family drove his desire to work for the civil rights cause, Johnston said.

"As such, he was one of those who was always for the underdog, the working man," Johnston said.

Barrett's father died when he was just a young child and he grew up in Nashville under the care of a grandmother and a mother who worked two jobs, said partner David Garrison. He was greatly influenced by the labor movement, which provided jobs for his uncles on the railroads and helped send him to college, added Garrison, who said Barrett "really saw the civil rights movement as a continuation of the labor movement."

In the turbulent Sixties, Barrett rose to prominence in a number of civil rights actions, notably in higher education. (WPLN)

Possibly Barrett’s biggest case was a desegregation suit that lasted more than 30 years. In 1968 he filed suit on behalf of Tennessee State University instructor Rita Sanders Geier. A settlement was finally reached in 2001, aimed at eliminating the remnants of segregation in high education.

“His work on behalf of students and higher education ensured access and opportunity are available to every Tennessean,”  says John Morgan, Tennessee Board of Regents chancellor. “All of us who were honored to know him are better off for it.”

And even though he took up the cause of the demonstrator, he said, notably, that he wouldn't join them. (Vanderbilt Lawyer)

Barrett, however, jumped into the struggle at his doorstep: the civil rights movement, which by the late 1950s and early 1960s was making its impact felt at lunch counters and department stores in downtown Nashville. The young, white litigator became an unapologetic fighter for equal rights, a reputation he has maintained throughout a career that has so far spanned seven decades. "Either you can be a lawyer or a demonstrator, but you can't do both," Barrett said. "I was glad to manage protest routes and get Vietnam demonstrators out of jail, but I won't march with you. I think a lawyer has to decide."

Barrett, in his keynote address to Spring Hill College’s Class of 2013, talked about his personal motivation. (, video)

“The temptation to disregard your compass, to withdraw, to be passive, to be silent is, and always has been, strong,” Barrett said. “The easy road is the status quo. Every day and time gives rise to the idea that it seems wise not to act, not to speak out against unjust power.”

Tributes began pouring in Tuesday evening. 

From Mayor Karl Dean:

"George Barrett was larger-than-life and 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. He was rightfully and affectionately known as Citizen Barrett. He was beloved by many friends and respected by his adversaries. Anne and I extend our deepest condolences to his entire family. He will be deeply missed."

From former Vice President Al Gore:

"At first because he was a close friend to my parents, and later because he was a close friend to me, I had the privilege of knowing and learning from George for many years. Our state and our nation have lost a great lawyer and an even better man. He was a beacon of progressive politics for three generations of Tennesseans."

From Congressman Jim Cooper:

"Citizen Barrett was more than a legal giant in our community; he was a compassionate soul. George cared deeply for the poor and downtrodden, and championed their rights in court, in the media, and in his every conversation. He had the Irish zest for life, for the latest news, for persuasive argument, and for justice. No one can replace George Barrett in our community, but we should all try, because he made Nashville and Tennessee a better place to live."

From Attorney General Bob Cooper:

“George Barrett was a strong advocate for civil rights and the rule of law. He was a true champion in the courtroom and the community for those who had no voice. He challenged the state to live up to the ideals of the constitution and his tireless efforts led to a fairer, more open system of higher education in Tennessee. He was a loyal friend and an honorable opponent. Tennessee will sorely miss his voice.”