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Whether it was being forced to sit in the back of movie theaters with other black patrons or being denied the chance to serve as a Navy pilot, William H. Brown III learned early and often in life what the so-called “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson really meant to blacks in America. But it wasn’t until he became a lawyer that he could really do something to initiate societal change. In recognition of those efforts, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law last week honored Brown, 74, with the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award for his four decades of work. This award, given only periodically, “recognizes individuals whose contributions to civil rights demonstrate the legal community’s highest standards in securing equal justice under law.” Brown’s resume includes 30 years at Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, a four-year stint as chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, almost 20 years on the board of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, serving as chairman of the Philadelphia special investigation commission that examined the 1985 MOVE tragedy and more than 30 years of intense involvement with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. Growing up in West Philadelphia, Brown said he experienced subtle forms of discrimination such as the aforementioned separate seating in movie theaters. After graduating from Central High School in 1946, Brown applied to participate in a Navy program in which he would serve four years as a pilot in exchange for free tuition to college, something he needed because his parents were busy trying to provide the essentials to all of their seven children. To gain admittance, the program required applicants to pass a series of tests. Brown said he passed all of them with flying colors until he took the final one, a psychological examination. Navy officials informed him that he failed that portion, though Brown doubts that was the truth. “I was devastated because I passed all of the academic tests leading up to it,” Brown said. “I can’t believe that I failed the psychological test. What it came down to is that the Navy didn’t have any black pilots and they weren’t going to make me the first.” So Brown then enlisted in the U.S. Army, only to experience much of the same form of discrimination. He scored high on tests that determined the aptitude of military personnel to perform certain tasks. But Army personnel told him that he could only apply for one of three jobs: cook, typist or auto mechanic. He took the mechanic position and was stationed in Guam until completing his service in the end of 1948, the same year President Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the military. “The military was not a pleasant experience for me,” Brown said. “I had tremendous problems with race. But because of the G.I. Bill, my college tuition [at Temple University] was paid for. And with seven kids, my parents wouldn’t have been able to afford that and they thought it was extremely important that their children receive an education.” After graduating from Temple in 1952, Brown went on to the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where he was one of only two black students in his class. He paid for his legal education by working each weekday from 4 p.m. to midnight at the U.S. Post Office, a schedule that left little time for studying. While he was an admittedly average student, he watched as the world began to change around him. In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education opinion ordered the desegregation of America’s schools. Unfortunately, Philadelphia’s major law firms didn’t follow the lead of that landmark case and Brown took a position as an associate at the all-black law firm Norris Schmidt Green Harris & Higginbotham. Though a product of segregation, the firm produced more than a dozen judges and governmental officials. Among Brown’s mentors were J. Austin Norris, who was known for his influence in politics, and A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., who went on to become one of the most prominent and visible black judges on the federal bench. Higginbotham and Brown formed the firm’s civil trial team, representing mostly black clients in a variety of matters. In 1968, Brown was recruited by Philadelphia District Attorney Arlen Specter to serve as a deputy district attorney in charge of the fraud unit. Among his colleagues were Richard Sprague, Edward G. Rendell and current District Attorney Lynne Abraham. Only a year into that job, President Lyndon B. Johnson submitted Brown’s name to serve as a commissioner on the EEOC. But after the election of Richard M. Nixon, Brown’s name was withdrawn and resubmitted. After being approved by the U.S. Senate in 1969, Brown was appointed by Nixon as the commission’s chairman and moved to Washington, D.C. At the completion of his tenure, Brown returned to Philadelphia in 1974 with almost 20 years’ experience and a distinguished resume, and hopes of landing a position at one of the city’s large law firms. The response was mixed as some firms only made offers of serving as an associate. But Schnader Harrison was one of the few that actually was willing to make him a partner and Brown had long respected the firm’s commitment to civil rights. After all it was firm patriarch – and future chairman – Bernard Segal who in 1961 had drafted a published statement, signed by 46 attorneys, encouraging public officials to rely on the “rule of law” in addressing civil rights issues – an action that caused Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to invite Segal and other distinguished lawyers from around the country to meet with President John F. Kennedy at the White House. The meeting led to the formation of the Lawyers’ Committee, with Segal appointed in 1963 by President Kennedy as its first co-chairman. The committee’s members immediately joined the front lines of the civil rights movement, offering pro bono legal services of the private bar in addressing racial discrimination in the segregated South and elsewhere. The organization has continued working in the defense of issues arising regarding voting, employment, housing and community development, environmental health and education. Segal was the first recipient of the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award and Brown became its 10th at a reception in New York last Monday. Brown’s career as an employment litigator at Schnader Harrison is best known for his longstanding representation of United Parcel Services. He served as the first black member of UPS’ board of directors and is now an honorary member of the company’s corporate legal department. But his colleagues at Schnader Harrison said equally impressive was his dedication to pro bono work and civil rights matters. Brown has been on the Lawyers’ Committee board since 1974 and served as co-chairman from 1991 to 1993. It was during that time that the organization selected him to testify before the U.S. Senate in favor of the 1991 Civil Rights Act and against the appointment of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. “I think what makes him such a compelling advocate in situations like that and in the courtroom is that he is a very kind, decent man but there is a level of steel to him as well,” said Schnader Harrison managing partner Diana Donaldson, one of six lawyers at the firm who attended along with UPS general counsel Allen Hill. “I’m sure he’s been molded by his life experiences and he’s definitely a fighter for what he thinks is a just cause. But he does it in a calm, soft spoken way.” Former Schnader Harrison colleague Jerome Shestack, now a partner at Wolf Block, worked with the Lawyers’ Committee during its early years and has been one of the nation’s foremost advocates of legal pro bono work for more than 50 years. He said he couldn’t think of a better person to receive the award than Brown. “Bill is a man with a deep dedication to defending civil liberties,” Shestack said. “And he’s done so with his superb intellect and a trial manner that’s persuasive and effective. He’s been a leader in the cause of equality and has inspired so many others to battle discrimination.” As a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, Brown joins the distinguished company of Segal, former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and former counsel to the president Lloyd Cutler. But the humble Brown, who became senior counsel at Schnader Harrison three years ago and now only comes into the office a few times a week, is a man of few words when discussing himself. “I’m certainly proud of my accomplishments but I’ve had the good fortune to have been raised by two hard-working, loving parents and to work with some excellent lawyers over the years,” Brown said. “But this is certainly a tremendous honor to be a member of this group.”

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