Lewis Myers Jr., Chicago lawyer hailed as a champion of civil rights, dead at 70

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Chicago civil rights attorney Lewis Myers Jr.

Chicago attorney Lewis Myers Jr., hailed as a champion of civil rights, has died after heart surgery.

“Lewis was the quintessential activist-attorney,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told the Chicago Sun-Times. “He worked with all segments of the civil rights and human rights community, even segments that didn’t get along with each other. He connected them because of his impeccable integrity, courage and legal expertise.”

“He was a pioneering figure and a champion of civil and human rights,” said U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Illinois. “He fought for equality and inspired a generation.”

Mr. Myers, 70, died Thursday in the emergency department at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, according to his wife Tina. He’d undergone what appeared to be successful aortic valve-replacement surgery and had been doing rehabilitation at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, but, “something happened,” his wife said.

Mr. Myers worked on landmark lawsuits to desegregate schools in Mississippi, and high-profile cases including the defense of two young boys accused of the murder of 11-year-old Ryan Harris and challenging the school expulsions of African-American youths in Decatur. He also represented the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, the Nation of Islam, the Black Panther Party and the National Conference of Black Lawyers.

When Michael Jackson was feuding with his record label, Mr. Lewis “was in some of the meetings with Sony to settle Michael’s grievance,” Sharpton said.

“He loved working for his people,” his wife said.

Attorney Lewis Myers Jr. (center) represented prominent clients including the Rev. Jesse Jackson (right) and Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan (left). | Facebook

Attorney Lewis Myers Jr. (center) represented prominent clients including the Rev. Jesse Jackson (right) and Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan (left). | Facebook

Services will be held in both Chicago and his hometown of Houston, she said.

“Lewis Myers was a true advocate for the people,” said Derrick Johnson, president and chief executive officer of the NAACP, citing his work as deputy director of that organization and with the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services. “He was truly a progressive voice in the legal and civil rights community.”

At 15, young Lewis served as president of an NAACP youth council in Houston. After attending Howard University, where he was student council president, he studied law at Rutgers University and the University of Mississippi. He later taught law at Chicago State University and Kennedy-King College and lectured at Chicago-Kent College of Law and DePaul University’s College of Law.

In 1996, he represented Noah Robinson, half-brother of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, in a federal drug and murder-conspiracy case. Robinson wound up being convicted.

A few years later, Mr. Myers helped Jackson challenge the Decatur School Board after six African-American students in that city were expelled for a fight at a football game. At the time, Mr. Myers said, “The disproportionate expulsion rate of African-American students from integrated public schools borders on a national scandal.”

He also represented an 8-year-old boy accused of killing Ryan Harris, whose battered body was found in 1998 behind an abandoned building in the 6500 block of South Parnell. The case drew widespread attention because the investigation of the death was botched. Criminal charges against that boy and another child, just 7 at the time, were thrown out. DNA evidence later linked an adult to the death, and he pleaded guilty.

In one of his first major cases, Mr. Myers worked in 1977 with famed defense lawyer William Kunstler on behalf of Assata Shakur, a godmother of Tupac Shakur. After being convicted of fatally shooting a state trooper in New Jersey, she fled to Cuba.

Mr. Myers also filed lawsuits to fight workplace discrimination. And his legal savvy was credited with helping to shut down a drug house in Austin.

He was a compelling courtroom orator. Sharpton said, “I used to tease him that, ‘When you get up in court, you’re a preacher.’ ”

Mr. Myers also is survived by his son Lewis Myers III, sister Florence Coleman and one grandchild. A memorial is planned at 2 p.m. June 9 at Christ Universal Temple, 11901 S. Ashland.

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