'When We Fight, We Win'
Lawyer and activist Rod Chapel has lived his father’s lesson
Published in 2020 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers magazine on November 16, 2020
Rod Chapel learned the power of the courts when he was just seven years old.
His father was working as a subcontractor, building houses in the town of Guthrie, Oklahoma. When payment came due, the contractor stiffed him. Maybe they felt they could get away with it; maybe it was because Nimrod Chapel Sr. was Black in the majority-white town. Either way, his father was going to court to get that money back.
Chapel remembers sitting in the family yard that day, his dad explaining how the courts could provide justice for working people even when the rest of the world did not. “I decided to be a lawyer at that time,” he says. “I believe that people have to be taken care of in a way that honors their dignity.”
Now a solo practitioner in Jefferson City focusing on labor and consumer issues, Chapel’s career has been dedicated to protecting workers’ rights and fighting racial injustices. He previously led Missouri’s Administrative Hearing Commission, as well as the state’s Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.
In one memorable case, Chapel represented members of Medicaid 23, a group of pastors charged with trespassing after they refused to leave the state’s Senate gallery, where they were singing and demonstrating in support of Medicaid expansion. Prosecutors pushed to send them to jail, but Chapel’s legal team helped get probation or pardons instead of fines or incarceration.
Alongside his legal career, Chapel has long been dedicated to the Missouri NAACP, where he now serves as president—though his roots run even deeper: In the early 1950s, his father and grandparents picked cotton in Oklahoma to raise money for the Legal Defense Fund’s litigation in Brown v. Board of Education. They had to go to the next town over to send the money; being spotted at the local post office could have flagged the suspicions of the Ku Klux Klan.
“Now, in modern day, we’re fighting on two fronts: We’ve got a pandemic that is killing people by the thousands, surging through our communities,” says Chapel, whose role as labor lawyer and anti-racism activist has never been clearer. “But we’re also dealing with Jim Crow resurfacing again in the state of Missouri.”
Chapel notes that, in 2020, Missouri Republicans proposed new redistricting rules that would significantly benefit older, more rural areas of the state—and would diminish the voting power of more than a quarter of the state’s Black population. In 2017, the state also passed a law that made it harder to sue for racial discrimination, causing the NAACP to issue its first-ever travel advisory, which remains in effect.
“Missouri is the battleground for the civil rights movement,” he says. “It’s a very interesting and challenging time.”
As Chapel’s fight in the halls of power continues, he watches the fight happening in the streets with hope. It’s been six years since protests in Ferguson helped make Black Lives Matter a household name. This time, he says, white people are stepping up to support their Black neighbors in demanding an end to inequitable policing.
“I think this is a watershed moment,” he says, adding that this generation can leave the country “a better place with better policies and laws that reflect the moral values of our communities. We’ve got a very good opportunity to bring that fruit to bear.”
Now 50, Chapel is looking at the movement ahead with optimism, and at his parents’ and grandparents’ work with gratitude: They laid the foundation for the activism of his generation; while his father didn’t get everything he deserved after suing that contractor in Guthrie, he got close.
“I learned that time that it’s important to fight. You can’t just let people mistreat you or others, and not do or say anything,” he says. “That dampens something in a person’s spirit, to feel helpless and without power to make changes that are right and just. So we have to fight. And when we fight, we win.”