Remembering SHC alumnus George E. Barrett '52
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – George E. Barrett, civil rights attorney and 1952 Spring Hill College graduate, died Tuesday, Aug. 26 at age 86. He was a founding partner of Barrett Johnston, LLC, in Nashville, one of the first integrated law firms in the South.
As a student at Spring Hill College, Barrett served as president of the student body and was inducted into the Jesuit honor society, Alpha Sigma Nu. Barrett credited his Jesuit education at Spring Hill College with inspiring his “zeal for social justice.” In 1953, he earned a diploma in economics and politics from Oxford University in England. He went on to earn a Juris Doctor from Vanderbilt University in 1957.
In 2013 Barrett spoke at Spring Hill's commencement and received an honorary doctorate from the College. In his compelling speech, he urged the graduates to follow their moral compass: "My compass was pointing me to a mission of advocacy," he said. "I went to law school to become, in the words of Justice Brandeis, a social engineer. And as such my practice as a lawyer has been marked by advocating for the rights of the disadvantaged. Whether they be working people, or poor people, or non-white people, or just people without a voice, I have advocated for them against the powerful and the unjust. And I get up every morning in pursuit of my mission, still following the compass Spring Hill College helped me develop all those years ago. Over the years, that compass has kept me involved in a number of battles – all of them involving a fight against unjust powers."
In the 1960s, Barrett helped register African Americans to vote and served as president of a statewide human rights council that fought to end segregation. In 1968, Barrett filed a historic federal lawsuit against the state of Tennessee, protesting instances of segregation that still existed in the state’s public colleges and universities. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Barrett argued, the state had an obligation to provide equal access to education. A federal judge ordered the state to integrate the mostly white University of Tennessee-Nashville with the largely black Tennessee State University.
Despite a number of well-publicized forays into civil rights law, Barrett is most known for his work on behalf of labor. He represented the local United Rubber Workers union when it opened an office in Nashville nearly 40 years ago. In 1994, he sued the Pirelli Armstrong Tire Co., after the company announced plans to eliminate health benefits for its retired employees who belonged to the rubber workers union. As a result of Barrett’s tenacity, thousands of people continued to receive health benefits. Over the years, he has won a number of high-profile cases. One such case saved Gaile Owens from death row in 2011. Owens was imprisoned for 25 years for arranging the execution of her husband, after suffering years of his abuse.
Barrett served on the Spring Hill College National Alumni Association Board from 1989 to 1993. He received the 1995 Ignatian Award, presented to an alumnus who exemplifies the ideals set forth by St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. He has hosted numerous alumni events and receptions for prospective and accepted students from the Nashville area. In 2006 he established an endowed scholarship to benefit Nashville area students.