In the Tradition of Thurgood Marshall

Ryan Gardner exemplifies the new generation of civil rights lawyers

Published in 2011 Indiana Rising Stars magazine

By Nyssa Gesch on February 10, 2011


As a kid, Ryan Gardner learned a lot about civil rights. “When I was growing up in Gary, my mother always taught me things that she knew were not explained very well, if at all, in my school books,” he says. “She taught me about the great and brave things that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did with the marches and bus boycott. She’s taught me about segregation and the work that people like Thurgood Marshall, and countless others, did to integrate schools. She always taught me to show everyone love and respect, no matter what race or color.”

Gardner’s great-grandmother, born in 1909 in Shaw, Miss., added to those lessons. “She taught me and my cousins a lot about the Jim Crow South, the inequities in the application of laws to people of color, and even the danger associated with African-Americans ever attempting to educate themselves,” he says.

When Gardner began studying at Indiana University Bloomington, he became fascinated by the legal battles that complemented the movement’s marches and boycotts. “I learned about unsung heroes that the history books don’t always mention, like Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall and Jack Greenberg,” he says. “I read about how Thurgood Marshall traveled to court hearings with his portable typewriter, drafting brilliant briefs with the most meager of resources. Times were much harder, and even more dangerous, then. I always admired the stories that showed the dedication, bravery and brilliance of those men, women and children who stood together, some even paying the ultimate price, to make a brighter day for their children and generations to come.” And he knew that he would carry on the legal tradition.

Gardner graduated from Indiana University School of Law in 2004 and joined Lewis Wagner in Indianapolis, where he primarily handled insurance and asbestos litigation. The firm was supportive of his interests. “They always knew my passion was civil rights litigation. They allowed me to also have a passion for indigent defense,” says Gardner. Though the firm encouraged him to take cases he was interested in, there were inevitable roadblocks. “We had so many defense clients that it was always a conflict of interest when I had a case I wanted to take, so that’s basically what prompted me to go out on my own,” Gardner says.

So in 2008 Gardner started his own law firm. Now he’s able to take on the work that inspires him most, including many race discrimination and sexual harassment cases.

Gardner is currently representing a black woman who endured racial slurs and threats at work. She reported the incidents but no action was taken. Then the problems got worse: One of her co-workers hung a noose from the ceiling before putting it around his neck and then jerking it as though he were being lynched. “Some people fail to realize that the noose is not only a racially insensitive symbol, but through the years it has also been a death threat,” Gardner says.

Gardner doesn’t have much free time running his own practice, but the time he does have is spent with his wife and their 2-year-old son, Braxton. “Quite frankly, I work more now than I did at the firm, which is saying quite a bit, but it’s not so much like work when it’s your baby and when you’re passionate about it. I really have all the motivation in the world in my wife and my son to provide, and to get out and hustle and do what I have to do,” Gardner says. “It starts off as a grind, but, at the end of the day, things start getting a lot more smooth and you start paying yourself and you start seeing the fruits of your labor, and it really is a blessing.”

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