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Born into a comfortable family in Germantown, Pennsylvania, William T. Coleman, Jr., graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania in 1941, and ranked first in his class when he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1946. He was the first African American to clerk for a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, serving under Felix Frankfurter from 1948 to 1949. Coleman worked in private practice in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, becoming the first African American to join an established white law firm in that city. Deeply committed to civil rights, Coleman coauthored the brief in the challenge to legalized school segregation in the landmark desegregation case before the Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education (1954).

Entering public life in 1965, Coleman was appointed by Pennsylvania governor William Scranton to participate in the ultimately successful attempt to desegregate ...