Elbert Hatchett, Pontiac attorney who won historic desegregation case, dies at 84

The Detroit News
View Comments

Elbert Hatchett, a prominent Pontiac attorney who won a historic desegregation case against the city school system, died Wednesday.

The cause of death wasn’t released by the family. He was 84.

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

Attorney Elbert Hatchett outside Pontiac's 50th District Court in June 2006.

When U.S. District Judge Damon Keith ruled in their favor, requiring busing to end the segregation, it marked the first such legal victory in a northern state.

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark Supreme Court decision that ruled state laws allowing school segregation were unconstitutional, was issued in 1954.

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

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

Hatchett, a former president of the Oakland County branch of the NAACP, was involved in many civil rights cases during his decades as an attorney, said Deirdre Waterman.

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

Hatchett's legal clients included some of southeast Michigan's most prominent people. He represented ex-Detroit Lion star running back Billy Sims in a contract dispute, politician L. Brooks Patterson in a slander case and another ex-Lion, Reggie Rogers, who was convicted of killing three teens in a drunken driving accident, according to Detroit News archives.

He was a trailblazer who was one of the first Black attorneys in Oakland County and helped form one of the earliest Black-owned law firms, said legal observers.

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

He said Hatchett was known for his oratory skills and legal prowess.

The attorney realized early on that the long fight against civil injustice would never be won if the nation allowed inequities to continue in educational opportunities.

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

Hatchett’s death spurred a series of tributes on social media.

Former state Rep. Tim Greimel of Pontiac said Hatchett showed great courage while fighting to desegregate the school system.

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

“He was a true champion of racial equality and social justice,” said Greimel. “(He’ll) always be admired and respected by all of us in Pontiac.”

The family is making plans for a private funeral and a public memorial to allow the community to pay its respects.

View Comments