William T. Coleman, a civil rights pioneer in law and life, died on March 31 at the age of 96. In 1975 the AFRO wrote about Coleman’s attempts, as then U.S. Secretary of Transportation, to eliminate racial discrimination in his department.
July 5, 1975
WASHINGTON — William T. Coleman Jr., secretary of transportation, has ordered his agency heads to come up with acceptable plans to eliminate employment discrimination in his 153,000-employee department.
The plans, which he received the week of an NNPA interview, detail recommendations for gradually changing weak, equal opportunity policies which have resulted in the second worst minority employment record in the federal government.
Flipping through a report from his department heads, the brilliant Harvard Law School graduate indicated that he expected them to come up with “results” or be “replaced with somebody else.”
Secretary Coleman said that in a meeting four weeks ago he told his subordinates, “This is a problem I want changed. Tell me how you are going to do it.”
The former partner in a prestigious Philadelphia law firm, who has been head of the $13 billion agency since March 7, inherited a “hot potato” at transportation which not only has been criticized for its lack of black, decision-making personnel, but also its poor record in awarding less than two per cent in contracts to minority firms.
However, the agency does have Gen. B. O. Davis, Jr,. as an assistant secretary.
Black observers are hopeful that Coleman will not only improve on transportation’s current status of only seven per cent minority employees in GS-9 positions or above, but also appoint blacks to top positions in the seven large agencies that make up the Department of Transportation.
Currently vacant is a slot as the administrator of the Urban Mass Transportation Administration.
The highest-ranked black at EMTA is Ms. Sallyanne Payton the general counsel, who held the Number Two position under Frank Herringer, the former administrator.
Coleman, the second black cabinet head in American history, said it took him “about six weeks” to get on top of administrative matters at the second largest department in the federal government.
He’s a hard worker, putting in 12-hour days at the agency with speaking and other engagements afterwards.
“I usually get up at 6:30 a.m., swim in the pool until 10 of 7 and leave for the office at 7:15 when the driver picks me up,” said the secretary, who attends cabinet meetings about once every 10 days and meets with President Ford, “two or three times a week.”
He said that Ford conducts meetings in a “relaxed, gentle manner.”
“But take it from me,” Coleman said, “the President is also very firm, and not wishy-washy on issues.”
Coleman is involved in making major decisions on the amount of funding for Washington’s rapid metropolitan transit system, as well as construction approval for Interstate Route 66 inside the area’s beltway.
“The President has given me absolute authority to make a decision on I-66.” the cause of sometimes bitter controversy, said the secretary. “Metro was not under my jurisdiction, but the President asked me to step in and resolve the controversy.”
During the interview, Coleman confirmed that at present he has no black assistants or secretaries.
Outside observers are concerned about Coleman’s lack of immediate black observers who can guard him against an entrenched transportation bureaucracy which in the past has perpetuated a near lilly-white group of decision makers at top levels.
Coleman said that the transportation department under his administration would make an “extra effort to recruit minorities.
“In the general counsel’s office, I think it will be relatively easy to find black attorneys, for example,” he said.
He said also that it should not be difficult for UMTA to find additional blacks skilled in urban planning.
Transcribed by J.K. Schmid