On New Year’s Day, family, friends, civic leaders and grateful residents of the community gathered to celebrate the life of John O. Moss Jr., a prominent attorney credited by many as a “Legal Hero” for the oppressed.
Moss, 74, died at his home on the morning of Dec. 26. Following a service at Trinity Baptist Church, he was laid to rest at Crown Hill Cemetery.
“If he had a mission statement, I think it would be that he viewed himself as a person who was committed to the civil rights of everyone,” said Sean “Mike” Moss, a son of the late attorney. “He wanted to serve and help people, and he viewed the legal profession as a way to achieve that goal.”
Moss is best known for securing judgments in civil rights cases for individuals in the name of the NAACP. In 1968, he worked with the Greater Indianapolis Branch of the NAACP to file a class action lawsuit against the Indianapolis Public School system (IPS) for having de facto segregation in its district.
The suit was filed by the U.S. Justice Department, and the process of desegregating schools in Marion County began in 1973. Federal Judge S. Hugh Dillin ordered IPS to bus students within the district in a way that would end segregation and achieve more diversity in its schools.
Moss also represented the family of Michael Taylor, a 17-year-old who, in 1987, was found dead in the back seat of a police car with a gunshot wound to his head. The incident sparked mass protests, especially after officials claimed Taylor had shot himself, despite the fact that he was handcuffed with his hands behind his back.
Moss filed a wrongful death claim on behalf of Taylor’s family. In 1996, an all white jury in Hancock County awarded the Taylor family a $3.55 million judgment, the largest judgment awarded against a municipality in Indiana’s history.
Moss also won a multi-million-dollar judgment against Colgate Palmolive Corp. on behalf of female employees who had dealt with gender discrimination in their salaries.
“He represented the NAACP, and our community, very well,” said Dave Simms, a community activist and longtime member of the local NAACP branch. “When it came to critical cases, his expertise was extremely valuable.”
Moss, who was born in Alabama and moved to Indianapolis as a young man, chose a legal career early in life. As a child, he dedicated himself to justice after witnessing the brutal beating of a town drunk by police in his native Fairfield, Ala.
Joseph Taylor, an educator who later became the first dean of the school of liberal arts at IUPUI, recruited Moss to attend Dillard University, where he graduated cum laude, was captain of the football and debate teams, and served as student body president.
After his graduation from Dillard, Taylor encouraged Moss to enroll at Indiana University School of Law, where he obtained his law degree in 1961.
Instead of using his talents to pursue a lucrative career as a business attorney, Moss chose to establish a legal practice that dealt with difficult cases involving employment discrimination, police brutality, wrongful death and criminal law.
“John truly believed in justice, whether the case was civil rights, criminal or divorce,” said Patrick Chavis III, an attorney and friend of Moss “He was also a man of integrity, and worked very hard. It was not uncommon to find him at his law office on Sunday or Saturday working on a case.”
Moss seemed to naturally have the talent necessary to be an effective attorney, but he also studied under prominent African-American legal professionals in Indianapolis such as Patrick Chavis Jr., Judge Rufus C. Kuykendall and Henry J. Richardson.
Moss formed a legal collaboration with influential lawyers Mercer Mance and Charles Walton known as Mance, Moss and Walton, and in later years practiced with his son John III as Moss and Moss.
He is survived by his wife, June; three sons, Sean, John III and Marc; daughter Paula and five grandchildren.
Memorial contributions may be made to Tabernacle Recreation Center, where Moss served as a volunteer football coach, by calling (317) 926-9426.