A True Advocate and Civil Rights Champion: Prominent Civil Rights Attorney and Houston Native Lewis Myers Jr. Dies at 70

ABOVE: Lewis Myers

Houston has lost one of its native sons, as services were recently held in Chicago for prominent civil rights attorney and Houston native Lewis “Lew” Myers, Jr., who made his earthly transition in a Chicago rehab facility on May 24th, after complications from surgery.

Myers, who was widely known in civil rights circles as a triumphant advocate for the oppressed and disadvantaged, was 70.

Myers was considered a national credit to the legacy of the historic civil and human rights movement in this country and his work also had an international impact.

Myers was most notably recognized because of his work on a key lawsuit against racial discrimination in Mississippi’s higher education system, Ayers vs. Mississippi that was filed in the 1970s. The case eventually reached the US Supreme Court and subsequently led to the state of Mississippi operating its higher-education system under court-ordered desegregation in 1995. In 2005, the state of Mississippi began making payments on a $503 million settlement to three historically Black colleges as a result – Jackson State, Alcorn State, and Mississippi Valley State.

Myers began his career in the late 1960s as a student activist.

Born into a family of educators and community leaders on August 16, 1947 it was preordained that Myers would be a bold force of advocacy for the fight for equality of his people. The triumphant path of this legal scholar, social engineer, practitioner, and teacher began in the historic Lyons Avenue of Fifth Ward, Houston, Texas. Lewis was born in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and was the second child blessed to the union of Lewis Myers, Sr. and Mabel Madkins Myers of the prominent Myers Family. He and his sister, Florence, grew up in the family’s Benson Street home in the vibrant segregated neighborhood. He attended the historic Fifth Ward schools, such as Bruce Elementary, E.O. Smith Junior High and Phillis Wheatley Senior High schools and graduated with honors in the Class of 1965.

As an active participant in Wheatley’s character-shaping organizations, by the early age of 15, he had begun his lifelong journey as a community activist having been elected NAACP Youth Council President for the A. A. Lucas Branch of the local NAACP. This natural leader planned student demonstrations to encourage implementation of equal programs and facilities as part of the deliberately delayed desegregation of the Houston Independent School District. He was one of several youth leaders to initiate a successful student boycott of the H.I.S.D. to force it to comply with federal decisions requiring integration and equal and quality education.

After graduation, Lewis attended Tennessee State University and joined the area Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) chapter, thus beginning his launch into civil rights organizing efforts. As Chair of the Students Rights Organization Chapter at Tennessee State, he protested the banning of SNCC by the university because of its advocacy of student rights and the emerging “Black Power” ideology. After two years, Lewis transferred to Howard University, joined Ujamaa, the student organization advocating school relevance as a Black University, and was elected President of the Liberal Arts Student Council. He was on the student government leadership team that organized campus demonstrations and the 1968 takeover of the school Administration Building. The team negotiated the “13 Demands” that included the addition of relevant courses in African American studies and removal of the university president. Prior to graduating, Lewis pledged on the “MLK 19” pledgee line of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., Beta Chapter, and was also elected to Who’s Who Among Students in American Colleges and Universities.

Lew’s Howard activism brought him into contact with noted Black power warriors, such as Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown and acclaimed civil rights legal minds, such as Rutgers Law School professor Arthur Cannoy and former Howard Law School Dean Herbert O. Reid, who also earlier taught at Rutgers. Inspired by both of them, he entered Rutgers University Law School in Newark, New Jersey, as a participant in its newly formed Minority Student Program. Later, program participants initiated the Southern Mobilization Committee, allowing them to travel to the Deep South and work with neighborhoods and civil rights firms during summer breaks. The Southern Mobilization Project was launched in the contentious summers of 1970 and 1971 when Lewis and other students from Rutgers worked in Mississippi and Georgia. They worked with both the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee and the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services. After graduation from Ole Miss and being licensed in the state, he accepted a Reginald Heber Smith Fellowship. As a staff attorney with North Mississippi Rural Legal Services in Oxford, he handled school desegregation cases. However, within a year of graduation, Lewis filed a lawsuit against his alma mater, Robinson vs. University of Mississippi, breaking the University’s historic policies of racial discrimination and exclusion of African Americans. As a result of this historic lawsuit, the admissions process at Ole Miss was opened to allow many African American students to continue their education. After several years with North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, Lewis was elevated to the position of Director of Litigation in charge of more than 45 lawyers and 40 paralegals managing, seven legal service offices throughout cities in northern Mississippi and the Mississippi Delta. He traveled around Mississippi in strained environments, filing lawsuits against county jails in Mississippi for inhumane conditions and treatment of inmates. Several of these lawsuits became landmark precedents in the area of jail reform.

The direction of Lewis advocacy path evolved in the mid-1970s when his journey began to lead him to work on the historic Ayers vs. Mississippi case and several other landmark cases including: (a) the case of a young African American woman named Joanne Chesimard aka Assata Shakur; the mother of Tupac Shakur and leader of the Black Liberation Army who had been arrested by the New Jersey State Police and accused of killing a New Jersey State Trooper; (b) United States vs. Rene Leon which involved a group of Haitian nationals who had been charged with planning the invasion of Haiti; (c) the Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt case, involving the long-time member of the Black Panther Party who had been falsely convicted of murder in Santa Monica, CA. Pratt was later vindicated and awarded over $4 million for his illegal incarceration; (d) a personal injury case involving “Mass Tort” litigation, including Rezulin and other deadly drugs. Lewis’ law firm settled a major Rezulin case involving hundreds of clients in Mississippi and Illinois, to name a few. His advocacy commitment also included his work as General Counsel to several notable African American leaders and icons such as the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Myers also served as legal counsel to many other notable groups and organizations such as the Wilmington 10, Rainbow PUSH Coalition, National Action Network, NAACP, SNCC, SCLC, and many others.

Myers was recognized as one of the most outstanding civil and human rights lawyers in the country and one of the top litigators in the nation. He was also committed to educating young people and served as a college professor and Director of Criminal Justice at several colleges including: DePaul University School of Law, several City Colleges of Chicago, Roosevelt University and Chicago State University.

Myers was preceded in death by his parents, Lewis & Mabel Myers, and his nephew, Herbert G. Coleman. He leaves to celebrate his glorious life and his cherished memories his devoted high school sweetheart and wife, Celestine Narcisse-Myers; his adored son, Lewis Myers, III (Sharrelle) his sister, Florence Myers Coleman; his niece, Stacey Coleman; great nephews Chadwick Godine, Chandler Godine & Caleb Coleman; great niece, Makayla Coleman; several God daughters, numerous cousins, devoted friends, respected colleagues and beloved students. His remarkable legacy will live on the hearts of many.