by Hedy Weinberg
“The Citizen is on the line,” an American Civil Liberties Union staffer would frequently announce, sticking her head into my office. “The Citizen” was George Barrett, and the nickname was more than a moniker to him — it was a life’s work.
George’s calls could come early or late in the day, but whatever I was doing, I would stop my work and take the call because their thrust was always the same: There was an injustice that needed to be righted. Feisty and straightforward, he would share issues that needed to be pursued, cases that needed to be filed, coalitions that needed to be built and courage that needed to be shown.
Long before ACLU-TN had an attorney on staff, George was filing cases with the ACLU, translating the promises of the Bill of Rights — from equality to free speech to voting rights and more — into a living reality for everyday Tennesseans.
A civil rights champion who desegregated lunch counters and Tennessee State University, George also embraced the First Amendment and did not believe government should restrict speech and assembly for anyone. When he represented the Ku Klux Klan’s right to rally in Pulaski, Tenn., he said, “I don’t believe what the Klan stands for, but that doesn’t give the city of Pulaski the right to restrict their right to peacefully demonstrate.” George knew that for any one person to truly be free, all people must be free — and that to attain this ideal required constant vigilance.
A devout Catholic who regularly attended Mass, George understood the importance of religious freedom and opposed government sponsorship of religion.
Most recently, the Citizen sought to ensure access to the ballot box by challenging Tennessee’s then-new photo ID law. George argued this law was a partisan voter suppression tool, and that these types of laws disenfranchised thousands of eligible voters, including minorities, students and seniors. Although he lost this case, he remained undaunted in his pursuit of the franchise for all.
I could always count on George to both challenge me and give me that extra dose of courage sometimes needed. He was tenacious and he was fearless and he was an inspiration to all of us who believe in equality and justice for all.
The way George lived and worked and pursued his passion is best described by the late journalist Molly Ivins when she wrote, “… So keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t forget to have fun doin’ it … rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin’ ass and celebratin’ the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.”
George didn’t have to tell us how much fun it was for him. We could see it.
Hedy Weinberg is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union-Tennessee.