Elbert Hatchett, attorney who won historic desegregation case, dies

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Elbert Hatchett attorney before the 50th Pontiac District Court in June 2006.

Elbert Hatchett, a prominent Pontiac attorney who won a historic desegregation case against the urban school system, died on Wednesday April 7, 20.

The cause of death was not made public by the family. He was 84 years old.

Hatchett was one of two young attorneys who filed a 1968 federal lawsuit against Pontiac Public Schools to end their segregation practices.

When US District Judge Damon Keith ruled in their favor and needed a bus to end segregation, it was the first such legal victory in a northern state.

Brown v Topeka’s Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision making state school segregation laws unconstitutional was made in 1954.

“He was a fighter for justice,” said Pontiac Mayor Deirdre Waterman of Hatchett. “He was a great man and a hero to the people of Pontiac.”

Waterman was a longtime friend of Hatchett’s, and her late husband, William, was the other attorney in the historic Pontiac lawsuit.

Hatchett, a past president of the NAACP Oakland County office, has been involved in many civil rights cases during his decades as a lawyer, Deirdre Waterman said.

His reputation grew beyond Michigan and he worked on cases in 20 other states, acquaintances said.

Hatchett’s legal clients included some of the most prominent people in southeast Michigan. He was represented as the ex-Detroit Lion star who knocked Billy Sims back in a contract battle, politician L. Brooks Patterson in a libel case, and another ex-Lion, Reggie Rogers, who was convicted of two young men in a drunk road accident to have killed Detroit News Archives.

He was a pioneer who was one of the earliest black attorneys in Oakland County and helped found one of the earliest black-owned law firms, legal watchers said.

“Michigan has lost an extraordinary legal sense and a civil rights icon,” said James White, director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

He said Hatchett was known for his public speaking and legal skills.

The lawyer realized early that the long battle against civil injustice would never be won if the nation allowed inequalities in educational opportunities to persist.

“He was way ahead of his time,” said White.

Hatchett’s death sparked a number of social media honors.

Former Pontiac MP Tim Greimel said Hatchett showed great courage as he struggled to desegregate the school system.

Hatchett and William Waterman, who received death threats, hired bodyguards after gunshots were fired through their law office window, according to press reports.

“He was a true advocate of racial equality and social justice,” said Greimel. “(He will) always be admired and respected by all of us at Pontiac.”

The family is planning a private funeral and public memorial so the community can pay their respects.