George "Citizen" Barrett, a diehard Nashville liberal whose legal struggles on behalf of the poor, the outcast and countless other disenfranchised constituencies stretched on with indefatigable and determined passion for more than half a century, died Tuesday. He was 86.
Upon learning of his death, many were astonished. You kind of thought George Barrett would live forever.
Wedded to traditional liberal Democratic orthodoxy in many ways, but possessed of an independent streak over at his law firm from which he could launch whatever moral jeremiad he deemed important and necessary, Barrett always had a full plate, to the very last. Over the years, his was a life filled with efforts to protect voting rights, labor, death row inmates wrongfully accused, and just about any civil liberty imaginable. The ACLU and the Democratic Party were two of his prized beneficiaries. In recent years, he was involved in class-action lawsuits aimed at protecting worker pension funds.
His energy amazed just about everyone. Not six months ago, I asked him how he kept his wits about him while growing old. "You just gotta keep working," he said. "You gotta keep working the mind."
Barrett was not a commandingly good-looking guy, or the type to sway a jury with a booming voice and overwhelming gravitas. But to see him in a courtroom dressed in his double-breasted suits and polished loafers, as he tossed out sharply phrased epithets and razor-sharp objections to judge and jury, was to fully appreciate his power, determination and commitment to the underserved. He was lightning-quick, not to mention audacious, arrogant and abrasive. His voice could pierce. His mind could melt metal.
At the beginning of his career, Barrett committed himself to the issue of civil rights, which gave him an honored place in the Democratic pantheon. Over the years, he found himself at the core of local Democratic power here, joining five or six other Nashville liberals who, at their zenith, exercised considerable local, state and even national power. The group included Tennessean publisher John Seigenthaler with whom Barrett had grown up, fellow attorneys John Jay Hooker, Bill Willis and Jim Neal, Sheriff Fate Thomas and federal Judge Gil Merritt. On a day-to-day basis, through most of the '70s and '80s, Barrett wielded enormous influence in both the Metro Courthouse and Metro Council, greater than that of many of these other Democrats, which flowed from his intimate ties to Richard Fulton, the city's congressman and then three-term mayor.
Back in those days, as a young reporter, I quickly figured out how much power Barrett held in Metro government when I learned that you could call the Metro switchboard, ask for Barrett, and they would connect you to a Metro phone number that rang in his private law office. At some point, I remember thinking, you get your own phone.
"Citizen," as his friends called him because of his presumed support for the common man, will go to his grave known for having enjoyed a good scrap. But those who knew him well also knew another side of the guy. To encounter Barrett, no matter the chaos or clamor encircling him, also meant hearing the loud laugh and seeing the big smile. No man brought more positive energy to the game. Opponents might have borne witness to his sneer, but we others knew him for his outrageous mirth, his infectious cackle. When, at the end of the day, glasses were filled and neckties loosened, Barrett was the guy you enjoyed sidling up to and hearing whatever gossip he wanted to pass along.
Barrett fought the fight, it is true. But along the way, he also kept it fun.