George Barrett in 1996. / The Tennessean
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Celebrating the life of a man who worked well into his 80s to give voice to the voiceless, civil rights attorney George Barrett's family, friends and admirers filled Cathedral of the Incarnation on Saturday for a tearful but often joyful funeral.
Barrett, who died Tuesday of acute pancreatitis at the age of 86, sued every Tennessee governor at least once after he started practicing law in 1957, he noted in a 2013 commencement speech that son-in-law Mark Brewer read to the congregation. But former Gov. Phil Bredesen was among the hundreds sitting in the pews, as were many other prominent Nashville residents.
Many of them had gathered in the same church just 47 days earlier for the funeral of Tennessean Chairman Emeritus John Seigenthaler, Barrett's high school classmate, lifelong friend and fellow champion of progressive causes. Their deaths have led some people to lament the end of an era in Nashville.
But those who are still living have to continue the work that kept Barrett going to the office six days a week until he fell ill three weeks ago, law partner Jerry Martin said.
"George Barrett would want us to press on, to look for a wrong and make it right, to look at someone's plight with sympathy and lend a hand, to stand up to someone in court when no else will," said Martin, a former U.S. Attorney appointed by President Barack Obama. "We will miss him terribly, but we'll keep the faith and carry on to honor his legacy."
Martin said Barrett, who grew up in an Irish-Catholic family that depended on his uncles' union wages during the Great Depression, believed everyone is responsible for everyone else, and not everyone can simply improve his or her financial footing through hard work. He felt empathy for everyone he met.
"George's character was to be interested in everyone," agreed Peter Ward, an Irishman who performed a spot-on imitation of Barrett's Southern accent while recounting the attorney's annual trips to Ireland.
Barrett often called himself "The Citizen" or "Citizen Barrett," and it wasn't an affectation, said the Rev. Gregory Lucey, president of Spring Hill College, Barrett's alma mater in Mobile, Ala.
Being a concerned, active citizen "meant everything," Lucey said. Also guiding Barrett was his internal "compass," a belief in his charge as a person and a lawyer.
"He said, 'I get up every morning knowing that I have a very specific mission to be an advocate for the poor and the voiceless,' " Lucey said.
Barrett was also a family man and a veteran of the Coast Guard, which gave him military honors with a brief ceremony near the end of the service. His 11 grandchildren brought the bread and wine to the altar before Communion, and his twin 11-year-old granddaughters, Emily and Ashley Cain, read the petitions.
Those prayers captured Barrett's core values:
"For all the lives that were enriched by Grandpa George's social justice mission, his advocacy and his love for the underdog, let us pray to the Lord," the girls read. "For all those who have benefited from his passion for the law and his desire to make his city, state and country a better, more equal place for all, let us pray to the Lord."
But the talk of hard lives and tough legal battles also gave way to many moments of laughter. Martin said Barrett talked of his "proletariat disdain for golf," and Darren Robbins, another attorney, said Barrett admonished him never to go to Williamson County.
"In Williamson County, there's more Republicans than people," Barrett would say. "You stay away from there."
Near the end of the service, which friends said Barrett had been planning in some detail for years, the congregation sang a civil rights anthem that young black Nashville college students, represented by a slightly older white lawyer more than a half-century ago, frequently sang to sustain their courage: "We Shall Overcome."
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