Go to Today's Top News
Go to National Section
Go to Home Page
Brennan: An 'American Hero'
Post Staff Writer
July 29, 1997; Page A06
The procession that filed around the flag-draped coffin of retired Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan had, by afternoon, included friends and relatives, union guys, troops of Boy Scouts, tourists in T-shirts, men and women in suits and a lot of devoted and anonymous disciples.
In the court’s Great Hall, where Brennan’s coffin was on display yesterday, this cross-section of Americans silently paid tribute to a man known to many as a champion of individual rights. The reasons for their attendance varied from the eminently practical—it was very hot and humid and the court is an air-conditioned tourist attraction—to the profoundly moving.
"I am a woman. I am black. What more can I say?" said Tiffany Graham, 23, a paralegal at the Justice Department who will enter law school at the University of Virginia in the fall. Graham said Brennan’s forceful opinions on the rights of minorities, including women, had a direct and lasting influence on her life. "I wouldn’t have the advantages I have now," she said. "He was truly an American hero, and I came here to pay my respects, to say thank you."
Such high praise was common outside the Marble Palace—"his permanent memorial," as the Rev. Milton Jordan called the building during a brief private ceremony before Brennan’s family and friends.
People who did not know Brennan but knew his work cited specific cases that expanded civil liberties and freedom of the press, or they mentioned his adamant opposition to capital punishment.
Some, such as Jim Lyle, volunteered their own political party affiliation and philosophical bent, making it clear they saw Brennan as an unfailing liberal ally and one, perhaps, impossible to replace.
Lyle, a law student from Columbus, Ohio, said most people probably did not recognize the scope and reach of Brennan’s work. "These things affect you throughout your life, even though you don’t realize it," Lyle said of the justice’s opinions, particularly those that enhanced civil liberties. "The decisions that he made, the stances he took, the influences he had on the court, his ability to sway, to use arguments on other justices—all this I think was unique to the man."
There was Laura Millman, a special master with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, who said Brennan "stood for positions that would make this country great." And there was Rebecca Dickinson, a lawyer with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who called Brennan a hero. "He was one of the greatest minds in the last 100 years," Dickinson said. "I don’t think people realize how much they owe to him."
No one ventured to say what Brennan would have said about the adulation. Born to Irish immigrants who settled in Newark—his father worked as a coal heaver in a brewery before finding success in America—William Joseph Brennan Jr. had the kind of upbringing that lots of people can identify with. He was one of eight children and, as a boy, earned pocket money by delivering milk, pumping gas and making change for passengers awaiting trolleys.
People like Joe Sweeny, a history teacher and union activist from Upstate New York, can relate to that. Standing on the court steps with his 8-year-old son, Robert, Sweeny called the immigrants’ son a "champion of individual rights, an impossible man to replace."
Among them were Harry Lemmon, a justice on the Louisiana Supreme Court, and his wife, Mary Ann Lemmon, a federal judge in Louisiana. They met Brennan in France in 1988 and became friends. Yesterday, the Lemmons remembered a man who would literally reach out, gently grabbing you by the arm to make a point. "He was the kind of person that everyone felt was a close friend," Harry Lemmon said.
And then there was the assessment of Rachel Simon, 7, who did not know anything about Brennan until her parents, Ken and Sabrina Simon, took her and her two siblings to the viewing. Inside, Sabrina Simon—a lawyer, like her husband—knelt to whisper in her daughter’s ear. She told her "a great person had died and people were showing their respect."
The Simons, who are black, moved from the District to Birmingham. Ken Simon, a former White House fellow, said Birmingham and the South are different now from the way they were in the 1960s—for the better. The implication was that Brennan helped make that possible.
On the steps of the Supreme Court, defined once by Oliver Wendell Holmes as having "the quiet of a storm center," Rachel Simon said, "I think it was pretty bad for somebody who was really great to die."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company