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The Advocate

August 28, 2001

Mary Ann Travis
mtravis@tulane.edu
Michael DeMocker

The thumping, swinging dirge of a New Orleans jazz funeral, mid-weekday morning on St. Bernard Avenue, is a siren call to civil rights attorney Mary Howell (L 73). Milton Batiste Jr., a 66-year-old jazz musician, educator and member of a New Orleans musical family that has produced several prodigious talents, has died. The music draws Howell to the streets to await the procession. She must pay her respects.

A few blocks from Corpus Christi Church, Howell joins the solemn parade behind the 50 or more black-clad musicians slowly and respectfully playing "Down by the Riverside" and "Just A Closer Walk with Thee." She positions herself in the lineup behind a young African-American man dressed in a red T-shirt with a message on it--"No hatred against me shall ever prosper"--and in front of the mule-drawn wagon carrying the casket.

The New Orleans songs that beckon Howell are in no way false or delusional. They are reality-based in a culture and among people who have witnessed their full share of sorrow and then passed down these grieving rituals to new generations. On the sidewalk in front of the church, Howell greets Morris Reed.

Howell knew Reed in the early 1980s when, as an assistant United States attorney, he presented the case to a grand jury that indicted white police officers in the infamous and racially charged Algiers incident.

The federal district court dismissed the indictments, saying that Reed, a black man, had made an improper and too-impassioned plea to indict the officers charged with violating the civil rights of black suspects and informants in the death of a white policeman. Later, this decision was reversed, and the case proceeded with Howell as attorney for the plaintiffs in the Algiers civil lawsuit.

The music is authentic, and so is Howell's passion for the city of New Orleans. "I love being here," she says. "I love the culture and the people. The musicians are amazing to me. Were very lucky to live in a place where these things exist. These are treasures."

While not "from here" (Howell is a Missouri native), she is no bystander or onlooker to the grit that is as much a part of New Orleans as its melodious tunes. Howell is in the fray. Throughout her professional life, she has passionately and persistently fought for civil rights, most valiantly for the rights of African Americans brutalized or killed by police. "I never liked bullies," she says. "I would always take up for the underdog."

UNFAIR AND UNJUST

Circa 1962, when she read Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin at age 13, Howell was appalled at reading about the experience of being a black person in the segregated South. "It was so unfair and so unjust," she says. In her small southeastern Missouri hometown, her sixth-grade class had been integrated, but she can recall the segregated movie theater of her childhood. "I think what happened to me is that I really believed all the things they taught me when I was growing up about how Jesus loves all the children in the world."

She also believed school lessons about democracy and equality but saw the contradiction between theory and reality. Howell went to Louisiana State University as a history major and became involved in women's rights issues and the anti-Vietnam War movement.
 
At an antiwar rally, a speaker, Ben Smith (L 51), "clicked" with Howell. Here was a white man who had aligned himself with the civil rights movement and, in 1963, had been arrested and charged with sedition for advocating integration in Louisiana. He had devoted his career to using the law as an agent for social change.

"It seemed to me he was someone who had been able to integrate what his beliefs were with what his occupation and his work were. I thought then--and I think now--that it is so very rare. But you can do it." Charismatic, courageous and powerful in his convictions, Smith influenced Howell to transfer to Tulane Law School and move to New Orleans in 1971. "I was very fortunate to intersect with him," says Howell.

And, fittingly, this year the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union awarded Howell its highest honor, the Benjamin E. Smith Civil Liberties Award, named for her early mentor.

"The most important thing Ben ever taught me was that if you want to do this kind of law, you have to be better than anybody else in the courtroom," Howell says. "Not that you're smarter. Not that you're more brilliant. You just have to work harder, be better prepared, know the case better, because when you go in there, everything is against you. You are challenging the way things are. You are challenging the status quo. People are comfortable with the way things are. There's a certain inertia that's built into all of this. The law is a very conservative instrument, and to change attitudes can be a painful and difficult process."

While Smith offered Howell practical experience (she was a student clerk in his law firm), Tulane law professor Robert Force provided her with grounding in civil rights law.

"Force asked the kind of questions that I was asking," says Howell. "He challenged the students. That was a time when you could actually have meaningful discussions about the expansion of civil rights. It was a time of creative experimentation and ideas. Bob Force was an important part of that. "We don't have those discussions anymore. It's all trench warfare at this point."

In the trenches, Howell has seen many casualties, including Smith's death in 1976 at age 49. Many civil rights lawyers in the 1960s and 70s paid a terrible price in terms of their personal lives, health and happiness, Howell says. "There were real problems with alcoholism and depression. I wanted to find out if there was a way to do this work and to survive it."

Howell left New Orleans after graduating from law school and went to Seattle, where she began her work as an advocate for families of the victims of police overzealousness.

Then, in 1977, she returned to New Orleans to open a private law firm. When she came back, Howell began her association with French Quarter street musicians, acting as a go-between among the musicians on Jackson Square, French Quarter residents and city politicians.

It's a role she continues today, helping to work out compromises and get city ordinances passed that allow the musicians to play, the neighbors to have some peace and quiet, and worshippers at St. Louis Cathedral to attend mass undistracted by too-loud music.

"The street musician cases have been dear to my heart," says Howell. "I tell this to law students all the time: Whatever it is in your life that keeps you centered, keeps you sane, that reminds you of why you are on this earth, don't give that up."

Besides speaking up for the rights of musicians, Howell became a performer herself as a bassist in the Evening Star String Band, an old-time country and bluegrass group. Howell also co-founded and was chief organizer of the Piney Woods Opry, a traditional country and folk show at which she performed many Saturday nights during the 1990s.

The Opry, located in Abita Springs on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, flourished in a venue just about as far removed from urban-violence issues as one can get in Louisiana. "I would tell people for years that doing this stuff is non-alcoholic and cheaper than therapy," Howell says. "It's this whole other world I could go to."

THE BOILING POINT

It was in November 1980 that Mary Howell had her baptism by fire. Racial tension had been building within the New Orleans police department and between the police and the community. Howell had already represented the first officer in the departments history who reported his partner for beating a civilian. Randolph Thomas, a black officer, had been fired after complaining about his black partners actions.

Under a decision in the federal Fifth Circuit Court, Thomas job was reinstated and he got a punitive judgment award against the police chief for not protecting the officer when he came forward with the charges. When a white police officer, Gregory Neupert, was found dead from a gunshot near the Fischer housing project in Algiers on the Westbank of New Orleans, conflict in the community was at the boiling point. And boil it did.

"Within days people were calling in about people being harassed by the police, people being thrown up against the wall, young men being marched through the project with their hands up like prisoners of war in massive roundups," Howell says.

The Algiers incident culminated a week after Neuperts death. Police had tortured two young black men, Johnny Brownlee and Robert Davis, at a swamp in a mock execution to force them to sign affidavits accusing two other black men, James Billy and Reginald Miles, of killing Neupert. On the basis of these affidavits, police stormed the homes of Billy and Miles, killing both men and Sherry Singleton, Miles' girlfriend. Singleton, who apparently tried to hide at the time of the raids, was found nude in a bathtub.

"We got the call [from Singletons family] around noon that their sister had been killed," Howell recalls. "We were there by 3 o'clock that afternoon. We walked in. There had been no effort to secure the crime scene. The place was wide open. We were digging bullets out of the walls. There was bloody clothing all over the place. There was a whole series of things that we were totally unprepared for how to handle."

Howell served as attorney for Brownlee and Davis and for Herbert Singleton, Sherry's brother, who also had been beaten by police in an effort to get information. She also represented the interests of Cornell, Sherry Singleton's 4-year-old son, who witnessed the killings. In all, there were 16 plaintiffs in the Algiers case. "Those people were traumatized for life," says Howell.

After six years of legal work, a significant settlement from the City of New Orleans was awarded in these cases, and three officers went to prison for abusing Algiers residents during their probe. But no officers were indicted in the deaths of Billy, Miles and Singleton. The money from the settlement, however, allowed Howell to keep going, to survive.

And she hasn't given up. "I always have hope," says Howell. "I believe in redemption." Even as she recounts the Adolph Archie case--one of New Orleans "worst atrocities," Howell says, where Archie, accused of killing a white police officer, was beaten to death by police within hours of his 1990 arrest--she remains optimistic.
 
While she's certain that "bad people do bad things," Howell has come to understand that "good people do bad things, too." And she believes in accountability. Howell continues to take on cases of whistleblowers who come forward to expose wrongdoing. She's taken several cases to stop hogtying, a police practice in which suspects hands and feet are bound together in back. Hogtying can cause positional asphyxiation, resulting in death.

Howell has worked with police to figure out a simple alternative to hogtying that involves hobbling suspects hands and feet in front rather than in back. She's representing the family of Kim Groves, a black woman who was murdered by a hit man at the behest of black policeman Len Davis within hours of Groves filing a brutality complaint against Davis in 1994. She has brought suit against the Orleans Parish sheriffs office to stop strip-searches for minor offenses. She has a case against the police for arresting a young African-American male because they said he was trespassing when she says all he was doing was visiting his grandmother in a housing project.

Howell is adamant in her defense: "You have a right to be on a public street. You can't trespass on a public street." A concern that Howell has now is finding other people who'll come up behind her--other, younger lawyers who'll pick up the fight. "I want fresh blood," she says. "I want their energy, ideas and commitment. I want people who want to make a difference. After 25 or 30 years of doing this, you would hope it would be better, but it's still not good."

PAIN AND SORROW

"Free Gary Tyler" bumper stickers used to be seen everywhere in New Orleans. You don't see them so much any more, but Gary Tyler still isn't free. He is doing time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, serving a life sentence without parole for the shooting death of Timothy Weber in a 1974 incident when Tyler was 16 and Weber, 13.

When the incident occurred, Tyler was on a bus filled with black students in front of a St. Charles Parish, La., school in a racially polarized community in turmoil over school desegregation. A crowd of white students and adults surrounded the bus. Weber and his mother were nearby. A shot was fired, and Weber was killed. Tyler was accused of the crime and later convicted.

Falsely accused and unjustly convicted, says Howell, who has been on the case since the early 1980s. "It's a situation that cries out for a remedy," says Howell. "The final ruling of the courts was that Gary's trial was fundamentally unfair. He was denied the presumption of innocence." The gun allegedly used in the shooting has disappeared. Witnesses, saying police threatened them, have recanted their early testimony naming Tyler as the killer.

Still, no Louisiana governor has pardoned Tyler, who once was the youngest person in the United States on death row. But Howell continues to visit Tyler in Angola, and he calls her once a week to "cheer" her up. He has overcome bitterness, Howell says, because he didn't want to lose his soul.

"I've spent a lot of time in places where there's a lot of sorrow--at funerals, in prisons," Howell says. And she finds herself thinking often about Mrs. Weber. "The pain of that family is enormous. The loss of a child is horrible. It's a terrible thing. You never recover from it."

In the past few years, Howell has come to know the sorrow of loss firsthand. She is not only an advocate for young African Americans in the courtroom; she has brought kids to stay in her home. Howell and her longtime companion, Ron Ridenhour, the Vietnam veteran and journalist who in 1969 first disclosed the My Lai massacre of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. Army troops, befriended Dominic Johnson, one "remarkable" young man with artistic and culinary talent.

Johnson's father had been murdered, his mother was unable to care for him, and hed been in foster care much of his life. Howell met Johnson when he was 9. "We spent a lot of time with him. He went on vacations with us. He became an integral part of our family," she says.

But Johnson was shot and killed on Father's Day 2000 after leaving a party in an upscale New Orleans East neighborhood. He was 18 years old. At the time, Howell was still coping with the loss of Ridenhour, who had died at 52 of a heart attack on Mother's Day 1998, after playing handball.

"I try to figure out what I can learn from all this," says Howell. "These experiences have given me deeper insight into human suffering in a personal way. "I've had a privileged life. I've had a fortunate life, certainly compared to my clients, certainly compared to what I see in peoples lives who are just struggling to survive in the most basic way."

She says she's experienced suffering vicariously through her clients. "But now it's an out-of-body experience to be sitting in the courtroom, not as a lawyer but in the victims row with other family members and listening to this stuff in a whole new way." Sorrow, somehow, has to make you a stronger, better person, Howell says.

THE MUSIC LIVES ON

As the pallbearers at the Batiste funeral solemnly carry the coffin into the church, the musicians keep up their poignant accompaniment. Back in the crowd, Howell spies a boy about 3 years old, carrying a trombone. She hugs him and parts the crowd to let him make his way to the front row so he can join the older musicians. He blows a few sweet notes. Reverently, Howell says, "That's the future." The city and its music go on.

Mary Ann Travis is managing editor of Tulanian and a senior editor in the Tulane publications office. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2001 issue of Tulanian.

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