George Barrett has never been known to mince words. "I didn't go to law school to be a corporate lawyer," he has told countless audiences at the lectures and panel discussions that have become part of his weekly routine. "I went to law school to represent working people." And for 55 years, Barrett has lived up to that credo, waging court battles on behalf of labor unions, teachers, convicts, voters, hospital patients, protestors and anyone else who could rightly be considered an underdog or second-class citizen—including, back in 1968, a law student and young TSU faculty member named Rita Geier.
A lifelong Nashvillian, Barrett attended Catholic high school and college before spending a year at Oxford University, England. When he returned to Tennessee, he became a member of Vanderbilt's legendary class of 1957, among whose graduates would include a federal judge, a Watergate prosecutor who would become a famed defense lawyer, a Nashville district attorney, a perennial Tennessee gubernatorial candidate, and a host of successful plaintiffs' and defense attorneys around the country. Barrett, however, jumped into the struggle at his doorstep: the civil rights movement, which by the late 1950s and early 1960s was making its impact felt at lunch counters and department stores in downtown Nashville. The young, white litigator became an unapologetic fighter for equal rights, a reputation he has maintained throughout a career that has so far spanned seven decades. "Either you can be a lawyer or a demonstrator, but you can't do both," Barrett said. "I was glad to manage protest routes and get Vietnam demonstrators out of jail, but I won't march with you. I think a lawyer has to decide."
Over the next 50 years, Barrett built a busy law practice representing unions in benefit and pension litigation, along with a steady stream of civil rights, discrimination and class-action plaintiffs, even the Ku Klux Klan (a First Amendment case). After fighting countless legal battles, the octogenarian attorney could be forgiven for slowing down, but Barrett continues to maintain a legendary 10-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week pace. And he continues to file lawsuits on behalf of people denied the right to vote, workers who face discrimination or unfair labor practices, and shareholders who have been defrauded by corporate management. In Nashville, he is known as "Citizen Barrett."
Perhaps the abiding sense of justice that characterizes Barrett's career springs from his faith—he still sits in the back pew of the local Catholic Cathedral every week—or maybe, raised in a staunchly pro-union household, he grew up with a chip on his shoulder. But, as a man who has sued and negotiated with governors and presidents, executives and attorneys general, he has given underdogs a seat and a voice at some very powerful tables. Along the way, he has earned his share of praise and scorn. "You either love him, or you detest him," said Carlos Gonzales '89, the Geier mediator, who professes tremendous admiration for Barrett. "But no one is ambivalent about him, and I think that's the best thing you can say about anyone."
Barrett, who has been called many things in his day, is flattered to be considered a distinguished alumnus—or a distinguished anything. "I've never really been part of the establishment," he said. "But if you live long enough, you become the respected eccentric."Top of page