Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), left, greets George Barrett of Nashville, a member of the Democratic Platform Committee, in 1992. (AP )

George Barrett, a Tennessee civil rights lawyer known for handling a case that ultimately desegregated the state’s public colleges and universities, died Aug. 26 at a hospital in Nashville. He was 86.

Partners of his Nashville-based law firm, Barrett Johnston Martin & Garrison, confirmed the death. His family told the Nashville Tennessean the cause was acute pancreatitis.

In a career that spanned more than 50 years, Mr. Barrett also represented corporate whistleblowers, fought for labor rights and tackled securities fraud, his partners said.

He is perhaps best known as the attorney who filed a lawsuit in 1968 for then-Tennessee State University instructor Rita Geier, who accused the state of operating a dual system of higher education for minorities.

Geier, then 23, filed the lawsuit over the University of Tennessee’s plans to develop a Nashville campus. She feared it would become a predominantly white school and that historically black Tennessee State would suffer.

Nashville lawyer George Barrett in 2012. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

The case dragged on for 38 years, and the state ultimately agreed to provide millions of dollars to diversify public colleges and universities.

Former vice president Al Gore, a former U.S. senator from Tennessee, called Mr. Barrett “a beacon of progressive politics for three generations of Tennesseans.”

George Edward Barrett was born on Oct. 19, 1927, in Nashville. He completed a degree in social sciences at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Ala., in 1952 and a diploma in economics and politics at the University of Oxford in Britain in 1953. He graduated with a law degree from Vanderbilt University in 1957.

“The temptation to disregard your compass, to withdraw, to be passive, to be silent is, and always has been, strong,” Mr. Barrett said in his keynote address to Spring Hill College’s Class of 2013. “The easy road is the status quo. Every day and time gives rise to the idea that it seems wise not to act, not to speak out against unjust power.”

His marriage to the former Eloise McBride ended in divorce. Survivors include three daughters, a sister and 11 grandchildren.

— From news services