His Roots Run Deep
Isaac K. Byrd Jr. is a force for racial equality and freedom of expression in his home state of Mississippi
Published in 2010 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine
By Karin Benne on November 5, 2010
When the landmark Ayers v. Waller class action suit was first filed in a Mississippi court in January of 1975, recent college graduate and Mississippi native Isaac K. Byrd Jr. was 700 miles away, pursuing his law degree at Northwestern University. From his first day of study in Chicago, he’d always planned to return to his home state to bring change for its African-American citizens still feeling the sting of racial injustice. He just didn’t know that the change had already started.
The Ayers case, as it’s commonly known in Mississippi, was a landmark battle between its plaintiffs—originally, civil rights activist Jake Ayers Sr. and a group of African-American college students, which included Ayers’ son—and the state of Mississippi over equitable funding for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Brown v. Board of Education had already done away with open segregation in higher education, but Ayers aimed to make it financially real.
Fast forward to 2001—although there was nothing particularly fast about the journey for the Ayers plaintiffs, as the case was still churning through the Mississippi court system after more than a quarter-century. Byrd, by then a highly successful personal injury lawyer practicing in Jackson, was tapped by U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson to take over the case. Thompson, who was actually one of the original plaintiffs, was working to assemble a new group of attorneys and arrange a settlement rather than let an arduous appeals process shrink a potential windfall for the state’s HBCUs. The lead attorney on the case from the beginning, legendary civil rights attorney Alvin O. Chambliss Jr. was facing a family health crisis and also declined to take part in a settlement, feeling that despite its size, it was still insufficient to address the effects of years of underfunding. (Chambliss later appealed the settlement and lost.)
Byrd took the reins and saw the case through to settlement, which amounted to more than $500 million for three of the state’s HBCUs: Jackson State University, Alcorn State University and Mississippi Valley State University. The award would fund critical academic programs and construction projects over the next 17 years.
The moment represented a career come full circle for Byrd, a champion of education for African-American students, an advocate for HBCUs and a proud graduate of Mississippi’s historically black Tougaloo College. In 2001, he pledged $1 million to his alma mater, where he now chairs the Board of Trustee’s Institutional Advancement Committee. For this gift, he was honored as a noted African-American philanthropist by the Kresge Foundation, the Southern Education Foundation and Coca-Cola Co., all of which jointly supported efforts at that time to strengthen fundraising for HBCUs.
Current Tougaloo College president and alumna Beverly W. Hogan was a classmate of Byrd’s. “Isaac was a very engaged and serious student who had a real social conscience,” she remembers. “He always had an interest in politics and the law. But something you should know about Isaac is that he has been a generous supporter of Tougaloo College for a long, long time. Even before he became an accomplished and successful attorney with a greater capacity to give, he was always willing to share whatever resources he had to help others.”
Tougaloo might be his first and greatest love, but Byrd has a tender heart for the mission of all HCBUs. “Isaac Byrd is a great man and a big supporter of Jackson State,” says Robby Luckett, director of JSU’s Margaret Walker Alexander National Research Center, an archive and museum of black history. For the last 15 years, Luckett explains, Byrd has supported the Alexander Center’s “For My People” Awards, given annually to a group of individuals who have distinguished themselves in the preservation of African-American culture. “We love our partnership with him and he’s a good friend to us,” Luckett says.
Perhaps Byrd’s legal track record speaks most eloquently for the merits of an HBCU education. His Jackson firm, Byrd & Associates, has earned a number of multimillion-dollar settlements under his leadership over the past 20 years. In 2001, for example, he landed, as co-counsel, a $150 million settlement for six Mississippi laborers exposed to asbestos over years of working in shipyards and school buildings—one of the largest compensatory damage awards for asbestos in U.S. history. It was also one of the first judgments to grant such a sizeable settlement for workers who had not yet developed asbestos-related illness, but whose exposure made it likely in the future. Jackson newspaper The Clarion-Ledger reported that Byrd said he took the case on contingency and spent $200,000 of his own money to bring it to trial.
That generosity is what Byrd is known for. “Isaac works to improve the human condition in whatever way he can,” Hogan says. Byrd was a founding member of and serves as the treasurer for the Mississippi Center for Justice, a consortium of attorneys and other advocates for social change that champions affordable education, health care and housing for Mississippi’s poorest citizens. He has won a number of accolades from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, including the Goodman-Chaney-Schwerner Award, which honors the person or organization that has contributed the most to political empowerment for all citizens.
Byrd is also a devoted supporter of the arts community—which he considers not just a pleasant way to pass the time, but a cornerstone of racial and economic equality. He told the Jackson Free Press in 2006, “In Mississippi, we [blacks] got killed for being creative and thinking about growth, and I think we forget sometimes that 40 years ago we couldn’t think about growth and creativity. One of the greatest crimes of racism was that, for years, blacks had to get growth and creativity out of our systems just to survive. We’re still recovering. … I want to make sure that the state is welcome to new ideas and does not just see itself as being remnants of the Mississippi where people are told what to do and when to do it.”
Byrd’s dedication to free expression includes fine art, classical music and the theater—he is a board member of the Mississippi Museum of Art, and sponsored African-American pianist Jade Simmons in 2010 as an Artist in Residence for the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra—but his heart likely rests with the soul music of his home state. He is the owner of the 930 Blues Café, located in a restored 1903 Victorian two-story on Jackson’s historic Congress Street. Besides the live blues music that fills its rooms every weekend, the house tells the story of Byrd’s Mississippi Delta farming childhood through his collected memorabilia: washboards, pots used at hog-killing time, and his family’s old water pump.
The deep connection that Byrd feels to his home state—its people, its land, its past and its future—is clear. The man who once declared Mississippi “his mission” has made a life of enriching it.
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