Lawyer in civil rights struggle, Michael Trister, dies at 77
JACKSON, Miss. — A civil rights lawyer forced from a teaching post at the University of Mississippi in one of the last spasms of segregationist control at that Southern university in the 1960s has died.
Michael Trister died Oct. 20 in Washington after battling pancreatic cancer, said his wife, Nancy Duff Campbell. He was 77.
“He always said his years in Mississippi were very formative,” Campbell told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday.
Trister made headlines in 1968 when state officials forced him from his Ole Miss law school position.
He was one of a number of young law professors hired in that era in a foundation-financed effort to inject new blood into the law school. But it didn’t take long for Trister to rankle segregationists, particularly when he invited U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy to speak at Ole Miss in 1966. That was four years after Kennedy helped push through enrollment of the first African-American student at Ole Miss — James Meredith — in the face of rioters opposed to racial integration.
But it was opposition to Trister’s legal work that sparked a crisis that at one point threatened the law school’s accreditation. He worked with the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, a federally funded legal aid group that by 1968 became a target of Mississippi’s conservative establishment, even prompting threats to close the law school. The last straw may have come when the group sued to desegregate two school districts. Under pressure from lawmakers and trustees, the university cut ties with the legal services program, then told Trister and two other professors that they couldn’t teach and work with the program anymore.
Trister refused the restrictions and sued, with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately ordering his reinstatement. The court found the university had let other law professors do outside work and said it couldn’t forbid Trister and others just because “they wished to continue to represent clients who tended to be unpopular.”
The university rehired Trister after he won the suit and after an accrediting body sanctioned Ole Miss. During his brief return in 1970, he again found his way to the center of controversy, defending 93 black students who were arrested after protesting at an Up With People concert and who were taken to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Despite calls for mass expulsions of protesters at Ole Miss and other universities, most Ole Miss students were allowed to resume their studies.
Trister then moved to Washington, where he worked as a lawyer for the Children’s Defense Fund and later entered private practice advising advocacy groups. He created guidelines about lobbying and election law and taught ways for groups to maximize advocacy, defending them against tax audits and lawsuits.
Among other clients were the AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and League of Conservation Voters.
Trister never lost his ties to Mississippi. He worked for free in offering legal services to the Mississippi Center for Justice, a legal group opposed to racial and economic injustice.
“He educated lawyers on how they could be effective advocating within the bounds of the law,” said the center’s founder, Martha Bergmark.