Attorney Known For Desegregation Of Tennessee Universities Dies

George Barrett stands with Rita Sanders Geier at a Vanderbilt University event. Credit: Vanderbilt University School of Law.

George Barrett stands with Rita Sanders Geier at a Vanderbilt University event. Credit: Vanderbilt University School of Law.

Nashville civil rights attorney George Barrett has died. He was affectionately known as “Citizen Barrett” as he would take up civil justice causes. In recent years, he unsuccessfully challenged Tennessee’s law requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls.

“It’s denying people the most basic right of a citizen in a democratic society – his voice or her voice in government, the right to vote and have your vote counted,” Barrett told WPLN in 2012.

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.”

In a statement, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean calls Barrett “larger than life and always willing to take up an unpopular cause if he felt it was the right thing to do.”

Barrett worked until the end. He was 86 years old. A family spokesperson tells The Tennessean he was hospitalized for acute pancreatitis two weeks ago.

Barrett law and education background

  • 1953 – Graduated from Oxford University, England with an economics and politics degree
  • 1957 – Graduated from Vanderbilt University, admitted into the Tennessee Bar
  • 1964 – Deputy Public Defender

Emily West contributed to this story.

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