11 Sep 2014

Profiles in Justice: A distinguished lawyer and friend

Nashville lawyer George Barratt, who died recently, was a civil rights veteran, friend of Dr Martin Luthur King and a distinguished lawyer. Reuben Guttman remembers the man known locally as 'the Citizen.'

Back in the fall of 2010, Congressman John Lewis gave the keynote address at Emory Law School’s National Civil Rights Access to Justice Forum co-sponsored by the American Constitution Society. Lewis had been a leader in the Civil Rights Movement resulting in passage of sweeping civil rights legislation in the 1960s. He was a close colleague and advisor to Dr Martin Luther King, traversed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the historic march from Selma to Birmingham, stood by Dr. King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and endured his share of jail time and beatings.  By 2010, Lewis had risen from the ranks of the civil rights movement and through local Atlanta politics to become a leader in the United States Congress. He was and remains a national treasure. But more than anything else – at least for the audience at Emory Law School – Lewis understood from personal experience the important role of lawyers in challenging accepted norms that violate fundamental rights.  

Agitate for what is fair and just    

As Lewis scanned the audience in Emory’s Tull Auditorium, his eyes focused on a bald-headed gentleman seated a few rows from the front.  When he  talked about the role of lawyers to 'agitate for what is fair and just,' to 'find a way to get involved,' to 'get into trouble but good trouble,' the Congressman paused to recognise the bald-headed gentleman, a distinguished lawyer who epitomised all that Lewis was talking about on that November morning.  

Nashville lawyer George Barrett died last week. He was 86 and had maintained an active law practice up until a brief illness two weeks ago.  Barrett, like Lewis, was a part of history; a veteran of the civil rights movement and a national treasure. Yet he and Lewis could not have had different trajectories.  Lewis grew up in Troy, Alabama and practiced delivering his message by “preaching” to the chickens in his parents’ chicken coop.  As he grew up, he learned to navigate – and later challenge – a deeply segregated South dotted with signs that read “blacks only” or “whites only.”  His colour limited his ability to attend schools or ride public transportation.

Barrett, on the other hand, attended Catholic high school and college and spent a year at Oxford University before returning to Nashville, Tennessee to attend Vanderbilt Law School, where he graduated in 1957 as part of a class that included graduates who would go on to be judges, prosecutors, and prominent counsel.  For Barrett the opportunities were undoubtedly limitless and, of course, he was not constrained by the color of his skin.  

Yet, rather than represent well-heeled corporations, George Barrett immersed himself in a practice 'agitating for what is fair and just.'  In the heart of the Mid-South – Nashville, Tennessee – he represented Vietnam War and civil rights protestors, he took on discrimination cases, and he represented labour organisers.  He even challenged the employment practices at his beloved alma mater, Vanderbilt.  He did everything that would make him a pariah on his home turf.  Yet, when he passed away, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean said that '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 and advocate during the civil rights movement.'  

Advocate for change

Perhaps the elegance of George Barrett was his ability to advocate for change while maintaining the deepest respect from those who enforced the status quo.  He once told the Vanderbilt Alumni Magazine 'either you can be a lawyer or a demonstrator, but you can’t do both. 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.'

He was known around Nashville circles as 'the Citizen' and he once said that 'if you live long enough, you become the respected eccentric.'  The truth is that he was anything but eccentric – a title that could easily attach to someone who stirs the pot and questions the status quo.  As an advocate for agitators, he had mainstream regard. He built a Nashville law firm, Barrett, Johnston, Martin & Garrison, LLC and was proud beyond belief when one of his younger partners, Stanford Law graduate Jerry Martin, was appointed by the President of the United States to become the United States Attorney for  Nashville.  He recruited Vanderbilt Law graduate, David Garrison – who had worked for Al Gore during his tenure as Vice President – to join the firm and beamed with joy as Garrison immersed himself in Tennessee politics and the representation of workers, whistleblowers, and labuor unions. 

He smoked big cigars which friends tolerated because the charm of being in the presence of George Barrett far outweighed the waft of tobacco smoke. To get to his office meant climbing a staircase and passing an autographed picture of John Kennedy which the President had presented to George. He held court in a meticulously neat office, the office of a lawyer’s lawyer, and talked politics, civil rights, and worker rights. He represented and had the respect of large labour unions, but at the same time he was not so beholden to them that he could not honestly speak his mind and be critical.  With a passion for advocating for working people, Barrett routinely opined that no labor union should have a headquarters in Washington.  

George Barrett undoubtedly had stories to tell but he was perhaps more intent on listening carefully and chiming in with pointed words of wisdom.  On case strategy, when ideas surfaced that would derail the mission of the litigation, George would say 'don’t be stirring up the frogs to feed the snakes.' 

George Barrett will be missed; he was, as Congressman Lewis said, 'a distinguished lawyer' and a friend. 

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