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.
“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. •