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Civil rights lawyer worked on suit to desegregate school system

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The Indianapolis lawyer who worked on several notable cases in Indianapolis history, including a lawsuit which led to the desegregation of Indianapolis Public Schools, died Dec. 26, 2010.

John Moss Jr., 74, was born in Alabama and grew up during a time in which he witnessed racism as well as several important civil rights cases. His son, John Moss III, said his father decided to become a lawyer at a young age after witnessing police beat a town drunk.
 

moss Moss Jr.

“Like a lot of African-Americans in his generation growing up in the South, he had lots of reasons to be motivated to pursue a career that was working for justice,” said his son Sean Moss. “He shared with my brothers and I the challenges he had growing up in the segregated South in Alabama.”

Sean said his father was told many times by people in authority in that environment that he would not amount to anything and that he should just be happy to work at some place like the post office.

After graduating from Dillard University in New Orleans, Moss moved to Indianapolis to attend law school at the encouragement of Dr. Joseph T. Taylor, a sociology professor and the first dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis. After graduating from Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis in 1961, he taught at what is now Florida State School of Law for a year before moving back to Indianapolis.

He practiced from 1962 until 2005, focusing on discrimination and civil rights law. He formed a collaboration with Mercer Mance and Charles Walton, Mance Moss & Walton, and also practiced as a solo. Two of his sons, John III and Marc Moss, practiced with their father at some point in their careers. John III practiced with him for six years.

John III said his father’s biggest impact was being an advocate for African-Americans, whether it was employment, school issues, or a criminal law case.

“His whole law practice was to help people,” John III said, noting it was never about the money for his father.

Moss filed the class-action lawsuit in 1968 against IPS on behalf of all African-American students to desegregate the schools, which led to the ordering of IPS students to be bused within the district, and eventually to Marion County township schools, to achieve racial balance.

Moss also worked on a class-action lawsuit against Colgate Palmolive Corp. on behalf of all female employees of the company, which led to permanently increasing the salaries of those women and changed how Colgate paid its female employees. Moss also filed a wrongful-death claim on behalf of Michael Taylor’s family in 1989. Two years earlier, Taylor, a teen in custody of the Indianapolis Police Department, was found dead in the back of a police car with a gunshot wound to his head and his hands handcuffed behind his head. IPD argued he shot himself. An all-white jury in Hancock County in 1996 awarded the Taylor family more than $3.5 million, which at the time was the largest judgment awarded against a municipality in Indiana history.

U.S. District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt recalled practicing with and learning from Moss in her first years as a lawyer. He was, she said, a mentor to many.

“I don’t know if Mr. Moss realized the impact that his wisdom, strength, and character had on me and many other lawyers in the Indianapolis legal community,” Judge Pratt said. “He was a champion of civil rights and often preached that in respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law; he truly believed that the humblest and powerless are the peers of the most powerful. He was never afraid to take on the giants on behalf of the little man or woman – that class of people who are often forgotten and those who were the victims of injustice. John Moss leaves behind a legacy that will not be forgotten.”

His son Marc, who worked with his father on some cases, described his father as a trailblazer who created opportunities for lawyers that he didn’t have. He said his father operated his practice with integrity and he became known as a guy who wasn’t going to back down or be intimidated.

Marc said at a young age it became clear to him that people knew who his dad was because of the manner in which he practiced law.

“It’s ironic that when you aren’t concerned about yourself, you’re exalted. People remember you,” he said. “It wasn’t because he made a lot of money or he worked at some big fancy firm. It was because he made a difference. People knew him as a fighter. That was the special thing about him.”

Outside of the law, Moss was active in his church and coached football for about 25 years at an Indianapolis football program, Tabernacle Recreation Program.

Survivors include his wife June; sons Sean, John III, and Marc; and five grandchildren. •

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  • Uncle John
    In as much as John Moss's Legacy in the Legal World speaks for itself, John Moss the brother, son, father, husband, friend etc.,most of all Uncle. My experence began in south central Los Angeles, where a 5 or 6 year old boy met an uncle he had never met in person, only by mail. You see it was my birthday and my first letter from the mail. Every year for the next 12 years in mid October that letter came, weather John was emershed in a major civil rights case, raising his own children or doing something that would have world wide implacations, the birthday card came. Might seem like a small thing, however, it was the small things not forgotten that made Uncle John a role Model for me! RIP Uncle John.

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  1. Frankly, it is tragic that you are even considering going to an expensive, unaccredited "law school." It is extremely difficult to get a job with a degree from a real school. If you are going to make the investment of time, money, and tears into law school, it should not be to a place that won't actually enable you to practice law when you graduate.

  2. As a lawyer who grew up in Fort Wayne (but went to a real law school), it is not that hard to find a mentor in the legal community without your school's assistance. One does not need to pay tens of thousands of dollars to go to an unaccredited legal diploma mill to get a mentor. Having a mentor means precisely nothing if you cannot get a job upon graduation, and considering that the legal job market is utterly terrible, these students from Indiana Tech are going to be adrift after graduation.

  3. 700,000 to 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana possession each year in the US. Do we need a new justice center if we decriminalize marijuana by having the City Council enact a $100 fine for marijuana possession and have the money go towards road repair?

  4. I am sorry to hear this.

  5. I tried a case in Judge Barker's court many years ago and I recall it vividly as a highlight of my career. I don't get in federal court very often but found myself back there again last Summer. We had both aged a bit but I must say she was just as I had remembered her. Authoritative, organized and yes, human ...with a good sense of humor. I also appreciated that even though we were dealing with difficult criminal cases, she treated my clients with dignity and understanding. My clients certainly respected her. Thanks for this nice article. Congratulations to Judge Barker for reaching another milestone in a remarkable career.

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