St. John Barrett: The civil rights legend born and raised in Santa Rosa

St. John Barrett, known as Slim, argued some of the most important equality cases of the 1950s and 1960s.|

In 1962, segregationist groups in the American South came up with a plan to embarrass and undermine the Freedom Riders, the civil rights activists who had taken to the public transportation system to protest segregated bus terminals.

The idea, which would be echoed 60 years later by governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, was to offer bus tickets — accompanied by false promises of what awaited upon arrival — to African Americans willing to relocate to the North.

As a Black family of 10 boarded a bus in Shreveport in early 1963, headed for Trenton, New Jersey, the White Citizens’ Council of Louisiana announced three other Northern cities it planned to target. One of them was Santa Rosa, then a city of about 50,000.

It was not a random selection. The white supremacists had identified Santa Rosa because it was the hometown of St. John Barrett, second assistant attorney general in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

It was a modest job title, and Barrett is no household name in this newer era of civil rights clashes. But the Sonoma County native was a crucial figure in many of the landmark legal cases that helped African Americans gain access to public spaces, schools and ballots.

Barrett tried the first case the feds brought under the 1957 Civil Rights Act — a voting rights suit in Terrell County, Georgia. He successfully represented the government in its support of the “Little Rock Nine” in Arkansas in 1958 (arguing alongside the lawyer Thurgood Marshall, later a U.S. Supreme Court Justice), and brought charges against Lester Maddox, a Georgia restaurant owner who refused to serve Black customers, in 1964. Maddox would go on to become governor.

When James Meredith attempted to shatter an entrenched color barrier by enrolling at the University of Mississippi in 1962, St. John Barrett was at his side.

In his memoir, Barrett wrote, “I felt I was surfboarding the edge of a new wave of history.”

Those familiar with his work would agree. Barrett received a Civil Rights Division Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.

“He was very well respected,” said Brian Landsberg, a professor emeritus at the University of Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law who worked with Barrett at the Civil Rights Division from 1964-67. “He was considered an expert on civil rights cases. He tried some of the major cases that the Ku Klux Klan and that sort were involved in.”

Landsberg is the author of a recently published book, Revolution by Law, on the historical significance of the Lee v. Macon County Board of Education decision, a school desegregation case in Alabama. Barrett argued that case for the Department of Justice.

Barrett wasn’t the first lawyer in his family, and he wouldn’t be the last. His father, Roe Barrett, was a Santa Rosa city attorney.

“One story, as told by our dad to us about his dad, was that he represented a client opposite Jack London in a case. I think it was a real estate case,” said James Barrett, one of St. John’s five children. “He prevailed. And Jack London was nonplussed and not too happy — and not thrilled with the Barrett family.”

James added, “I’ve been to Jack London’s place nearby. And he did fine.”

James Barrett and his fraternal twin brother, David, are partners in the Washington, D.C., office of Latham & Watkins, a global law firm.

St. John Barrett — his first name was the maiden name of his mother, Anna — grew up in the Junior College neighborhood and graduated from Santa Rosa High School. He studied math and government at Pomona College, got his law degree at UC Berkeley and was working as an assistant district attorney in Oakland when a former college friend recruited him to the Justice Department in 1955.

Two years later, the Department of Justice opened its Civil Rights Division to enforce the freedoms minority groups had begun to carve out. Barrett was one of the division’s original 15 lawyers. By the time he left a decade a later, there would be more than 100.

Barrett, who stood 6-foot-4, was known by all as Slim. He had a mild, businesslike persona that masked his reputation as an able trial lawyer.

Landsberg recalled the first case he worked on with Barrett, U.S. v. Jefferson County (Alabama) Board of Education. The Justice Department had moved to secure a preliminary injunction against a large school system in Birmingham that was attempting to keep campuses white.

“We had a very antagonistic federal judge,” Landsberg said. “I just admired the way Slim was able to present the case. The judge basically tried to shut down the hearing. Slim made it very clear we hadn’t finished presenting the case yet. The judge ruled against us, but we were successful on appeal.”

Years later, James Barrett was a student at Georgetown Law School. One class was studying a particular civil rights case, and James went home to ask his father about it. Wait here a minute, St. John said. He went into a closet, fished out a box of files and leafed through until he found an original carbon copy of a brief that was submitted to a higher court.

“He goes, ‘Yeah, here’s a brief I wrote on that,’” James Barrett remembered. “I was like, holy moly. This is a case we’re reading in class. Umm, ‘Dad, I have a few questions to ask you.’ It was my best next day in class.”

St. John Barrett worked long hours and was on the road a lot. But he wasn’t consumed by his legal work.

His children recalled an avid trout fisherman and chess player, a gregarious man with a keen sense of humor. St. John and Elisabeth Barrett often hosted dinner parties at their home in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

“He loved to laugh. He was very funny. And he was brilliant with words,” David Barrett said. “I mean, growing up, we’d randomly open up a dictionary, throw a finger down and give him a word. I can’t remember him ever not knowing the definition. Sometimes he would add something about the etymology.”

David described his dad as “a 6-4 point guard, verbally.” He had plenty to offer, but preferred to involve everyone in a conversation.

“Any place he had to stand up and give a toast, you couldn’t touch him,” David said. “He was amazing in public speaking.”

St. John left the Justice Department in 1967 to become deputy general counsel at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, now known as Health and Human Services. He was a lifelong Republican who maintained federal appointments under five administrations, red and blue.

Barrett went into private practice in 1978. Much of his work was pro bono, for clients who couldn’t afford legal counsel. He retired in 2002. St. John and Anna remained in Maryland, but he never lost his ties to the North Bay.

His mother, Anna St. John Barrett, had purchased a number of properties in Sonoma County. One of them, at the coast near Wrights Beach, became a hub for family gatherings.

When Anna passed away, St. John and his sister, Nancy, shared ownership of “the cabin,” as the family called it. In the 1990s, she sold her 50% share to John Doar — St. John’s former superior as first assistant attorney general at the Civil Rights Division, and an eventual recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The Doar family still owns half of the cabin. David and James split the other half. They have cousins in Sebastopol and are regular visitors.

“Dad loved his ties to Sonoma County and had lifetime friends there,” James Barrett said. “He could not have been happier than when he was there.”

The twins have memories, too. James carries one of them in the form of a scar on his forehead. When he was 9, he and his siblings were perched at the edge of a cliff near Goat Rock when the ground crumbled. James plunged more than 100 feet. He broke his thumb and was knocked unconscious, but ice plants saved him from death.

“I guess I was a little too enthusiastic about my due diligence in investigating the edge of the cliff,” the lawyer said.

St. John Barrett died in 2012 at age 89. A month and a half later, his wife received a note of condolence.

“As a true pioneer in the early days of the Department’s Civil Rights Division, there is no doubt that Mr. Barrett’s work helped end segregation, which will live on in the legacy of the Department as well as in the Civil Rights Movement,” the letter read. “His heroic efforts continue to inspire many who carry on the critical work of protecting the rights of our citizens.”

It was from Eric Holder, the U.S. Attorney General under President Barack Obama.

“He was very humble,” David Barrett said of his father. “He would tell you that to him, it was a job. His job was to enforce the law. But we know he felt strongly about the mission.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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