Isaac K. Byrd, Jr. The people’s attorney

Attorney Byrd with Congressman Bennie Thompson at Tougaloo Commencement in 2002. President Bill Clinton was the speaker. Also in the photo are Byrd’s children, daughter Caron & Issac Byrd III.

By Christopher Young,

Contributing Writer,

Attorney Byrd at his law firm, Byrd & Associates in 1989

Sitting down for an interview with attorney Isaac Byrd, Jr. is a gift of the highest order. A cornucopia of knowledge and experience; undeniably –yet coupled with a warmth and patience not always shared by people having achieved such distinction in their lives and careers.

Attorney Byrd made it clear from the start that I was to call him by his first name, but home training will not allow that to happen. 

Born in Shaw, Mississippi on February 3, 1952, he indicates that his father and mother never finished high school and he grew up farming in the Delta – “farming is the essence of my life,” he reported. Generations in his family had owned their land, and shared their resources with fifty other small African-American farmers in the community who also owned their own land. “Farming and family were everything to me.”

At the recommendation of his mother’s nephew, he attended Tougaloo College and graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1973. While at Tougaloo he was selected for a fellowship at Brown University. His affinity for Tougaloo is difficult to encapsulate. He served on their Board of Directors for thirty-one years, only recently rotating off. He attended Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, graduating in 1976. 

In short order, he returned to Mississippi to bring change for its African-American citizens still feeling the sting of racial injustice. Prior to founding Byrd & Associates in 1978, he worked with Anderson, Banks, Nichols, & Leventhal – the first interracial law firm in Mississippi history – and certainly noted he considers Justice Fred L. Banks, Jr. to be one of the smartest lawyers in the country.

His interest in the practice areas of personal injury, medical malpractice, and mass torts, soon earned him a reputation in Mississippi and far beyond as “the people’s attorney.” 

Just two months ago, at Tougaloo to receive a Black in Law Trailblazers award on the hallowed ground of Woodworth Chapel, co-founder and director of the Reuben V. Anderson Institute for Social Justice and the Pre-Law program – attorney Julian D. Miller – praised attorney Byrd, saying, “He is probably the most diligent and prodigious and most decorated attorney in the country.” His presenter for the award, Pre-Law Scholar Carmen Washington, shared that she discovered that “he is most proud that he has never represented a corporation or government agency in any case against a human being seeking justice in a Mississippi court of law.” Let that sink in for a moment.

Over thirty-five years, countless victorious cases, and hundreds of millions of dollars awarded to his plaintiff’s, he is unchanged at his core – a Mississippi born and raised farmer seeking justice for the everyday Mississippian from the high and mighty. 

James Meredith and Attorney Byrd following a Kwanza
Celebration at Byrd’s home in 2007

Attorney Isaac Byrd’s name is synonymous with the settlement of the landmark Ayers v. Waller class action lawsuit filed in January 1975, while he was still in law school. “It was a battle between civil rights activist Jake Ayers Sr. and a group of African-American college students, which included Ayers’ son – and the state of Mississippi over equitable funding for historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Brown v. Board of Education had already done away with open segregation in higher education, but Ayers aimed to make it financially real,” per Karin Benne, writing for Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine on November 10, 2010.

Unsuccessful in negotiating with Mississippi’s higher education administrators after twelve years of effort, the plaintiffs changed venues and the suit moved from court to court. Our readers would not be shocked to learn that twenty-seven years from the initial filing, the state of Mississippi was still claiming that they did not discriminate.

Our congressman, Bennie Thompson, urged a settlement and asked attorney Byrd to take over the case in 2001. In 2002 a settlement agreement was reached that not only brought additional funding in multi-millions to Jackson State, Alcorn State and Mississippi Valley State Universities, but required expanded programs at all Mississippi HBCUs, and numerous other gains. This settlement was the first-ever nationwide which included public and private endowments.

Detailing, even summarizing the many other cases that bore the hand of attorney Byrd would require hundreds of articles. It can easily be said that victories and favorable settlements do not just fall off trees for regular citizens seeking justice. It takes a profoundly skilled litigator, and more. It takes the values and principles acquired on a farm in Shaw, Mississippi. 

“Through passion, commitment and sacrifice, we will continue to move this state and nation to respond to the human condition,” says Byrd.

In 1985, he received the NAACP’s Vernon Dahmer Award. In 1998, the NAACP presented Byrd with the prestigious Goodman-Chaney-Schwerner Award for promoting political empowerments for all citizens. He has served on the board of governors of the American Association for Justice (AJA), formerly known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.  He is a Presidential Club and M Club member of the AJA, and has served on numerous AJA committees.

In 2002, Byrd received the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice’s Trial Lawyer of the Year Award – currently known as American Association for Justice – the nation’s single most prestigious award for trial lawyers. In 2003, Black Enterprise Magazine recognized him as one of the top black lawyers in the country.

He has served on the Board of The Mississippi Trial Lawyers Association, currently the Mississippi Association for Justice, which gave him their highest honor – The Stanford Young Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. Byrd has served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The list of accolades is endless.

Attorney Byrd’s contributions to bringing about change go far beyond the courtroom. He is a sought-after lecturer across the country. His philanthropic donations to organizations whose work matches his passion has been legendary, but none greater than to his beloved alma mater, Tougaloo College. His support of the Arts and Humanities has also been inspiring. That list includes the Arts Alliance, Mississippi Opera, New Stage Theatre, Mississippi Ballet, sponsoring the annual MLK luncheon at the Margaret Walker-Alexander National Research Center, Mississippi Chapter of 100 Black Men, the Mississippi Coalition of 100 Black Women, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, to name a few.

In 2013, Byrd suffered a debilitating stroke. He makes clear that he has not retired, “just taking a rest as I recover.” He is aided by several personal assistants, including decades-long friend Tyrone Shepherd.

“I’m now about 95% back to where I was,” says Byrd. When asked if he plans to return to practicing law in the future, he indicated, “I really don’t know, but my law license is active.”

When asked about a capstone achievement in his life thus far, this force of nature in the legal profession simply stated, “volunteering in the community.”

What could you share with our readers that they should know about you? “I stood for something and have had integrity throughout my life. Mississippi is a frontier – I have applied my education and my experience to create more opportunity for my people.”

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