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Longtime Tennessee Civil Rights Lawyer Dies at 86

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — George Barrett, a longtime Tennessee civil rights lawyer known for handling a case that ultimately desegregated the state’s public colleges and universities, has died. He was 86.

Barrett died Tuesday at a hospital, several partners of his Nashville-based law firm told The Associated Press.

In a career that spanned more than 50 years, Barrett not only handled numerous civil rights cases, he also represented corporate whistleblowers, fought for labor rights and tackled securities fraud, his partners said.

He is perhaps best known as the attorney who filed a lawsuit in 1968 for then-Tennessee State University instructor Rita Geier, who accused the state of operating a dual system of higher education for minorities.

Geier, then 23, filed the lawsuit over the University of Tennessee’s plans to develop a Nashville campus. She feared UT-Nashville would become a predominantly White school and that historically Black Tennessee State would suffer. The case dragged on for 38 years, and the state ultimately agreed to provide millions of dollars to diversify public colleges and universities.

Douglas Johnston Jr., a founding partner alongside Barrett at the Nashville-based firm Barrett Johnston Martin & Garrison, said Barrett was a giant of the Civil Rights Movement “long before civil rights was something to be proud of,” in an era when civil rights workers often feared for their lives.

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.”

Barrett spent a year at Oxford University in England and was a member of Vanderbilt Law School’s class of 1957, which also included a Watergate prosecutor and a federal judge, according to the law school’s website.

Garrison said Barrett worked six days a week and was “a tireless advocate.”

“There were never any cases too mundane or too big that he wanted to be involved in, this year included,” Garrison said. “George was a lawyer who enjoyed taking on some of the most controversial and challenging cases. The more controversial it was, the more he looked forward to fighting the fight.”

Barrett also became involved in Democratic politics, working at one point for Democratic Tennessee Congressman Carey Estes Kefauver and Al Gore Sr., Garrison said. The latter teamed up with Barrett at one point to practice law, he said.

Partner Jerry Martin described Barrett as “a lawyer’s lawyer.”

“He taught me how lawyers could effectuate positive change,” Martin wrote in an email. “He was a civil rights hero, a legendary lawyer and a true friend. I will miss him terribly.”

Barrett is survived by a sister, three daughters, three sons-in-law and 11 grandchildren, Garrison said.

Associated Press writers Lisa J. Adams and Greg Schreier in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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