In the late 1960s, Sowell, already a noted Detroit attorney, began turning the newly unveiled Legal Aid and Defender Association into an incubator for stellar legal careers and an epicenter of community activism.
He died just days before he was to be inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Bar Association, the nation’s leading organization of African-American lawyers, which is holding its annual convention in San Diego this week.
“Myzell was a beacon of light in the Detroit legal community from even before the day the Legal Aid and Defender office was established until the day he died,” Detroit defense attorney Steve Fishman said.
“I and a lot of other people owe him everything.”
Sowell’s legal and activist contributions spanned more than a half-century and included stepping into early 1960s civil rights offensives in Meridian, Mississippi,
and Selma, Alabama. He also left his distinctive mark on watershed Detroit-area demonstrations such as the 1963 Freedom March in Detroit and the 1970s-era Black Action Movement (BAM) student strikes at the University
Local leaders described Sowell as a kind of legal architect, building and guiding the fledgling Legal Aid and Defender Association, the institution formed after the 1967 Detroit riot to provide legal representation for indigent defendants, most of them Black.
As chief defender of the Defender Association, Sowell from 1969 to 1980 hired and trained young lawyers who later would become some of the region’s
most influential private practice attorneys, judges, and politicians.
For example, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin was Sowell’s chief deputy defender before becoming a member of what was then called the Detroit Common Council.
Early Defender staffers included a number of attorneys who are currently some of Detroit’s most acclaimed private-practice defense attorneys, including Fishman, Jeff Edison and Gerald Evelyn.
Sowell was a strong supporter of the National Conference of Black Law yers whose Detroit chapter is led by Edison.
More impressive to many observers is what they say is a staggering number of Defender lawyers who became judges.
“Sixteen of the attorneys hired by my father during the 12 years he led the Defender office became judges,” said Sowell’s son, Myzell Sowell Jr.
In the nearly 30 years since he left, the association has produced only two judges.
Judges who got their start and sometimes even planned their campaigns in Defender offices include Vera Massey Jones, Warfield Moore Jr., Michael
Sapala, Beverly Jasper, Susan Borman, Daphne Means Curtis, Ray Reynolds Graves, George Crockett III, James Roberts, David Kerwyn, Patricia Schneider, Chris E. Stith, Marcia Cooke, Jeanette O’Banner-Owens, among others.
Born in 1924 on Detroit’s North End, Sowell graduated from Northern High School, Wayne State University and, in 1952, the Detroit College of Law. In private practice for some 15 years before joining the Legal Aid and Defender Office, Sowell was president of the Wolverine Bar Association from 1963 to 1965.
He helped start the long-running Barristers’ Ball and in 1964 won a certificate of recognition from the National Lawyers Guild for courageous front-line legal contributions to the Mississippi Summer Freedom Project, the heated and sometimes deadly campaign for voting rights in that state.
Throughout his career, he received hundreds of awards, including the Damon J. Keith Humanitarian Award, the Wolverine Bar Association’s Trailblazer’s Award, the Man of the Year Award from the Detroit Urban Center, and the State Bar of Michigan Champion of Justice Award.
Still, friends say he didn’t relish awards neearly as much as he loved helping others become great professionals and agents for positive change in their community.
Retired Judge George Crockett III worked in the Defender Office from 1970 to 77.
“Myzell was an inspirational person. He was a preacher, wasn’t didactic. He was down to earth, full of common sense but also very learned. He taught people how to be decent with one another and how to communicate with people (defendants) who you haven’t seen before and who you may not see again,” Crockett said.
“He was easy to meet and comfortable to be with. He was a very warm, concerned, considerate human being. He had a knack for teaching by being an example and by indicating to you people he thought you should be paying attention to, and he explained why you should pay attention to those people and what you could learn from them.”
Judge Vera Massey Jones added, “There’s so much to say about Myzell. He had been a family friend. He showed a lot of confidence in me early on. There’s so much over so many years that he’s done for so many people, including lawyers, or especially lawyers. He gaves us a sense of really going all out for a defendant, of really doing the very best that you could for a defendant.”
Fishman said Myzell was his mentor.
“Myzell Sowell was like a good basketball coach who really knows how to evaluate talent. He had this uncanny ability to judge legal talent even when it may have looked raw. You can see some of the people he brought in, such as Jeff Edison, Chokwe Lumumba, Sam Churikian,” Fishman said.
“He gave me a chance when I don’t believe anyone else would have hired me. I wasn’t great with authority, my politics were to the left, and I was from the city, I was from Mumford, so I was one of the city guys. The Legal Aid and Defender Association grew out of the ashes of the riots.”
Sowell is survived by Robin, his wife of 58 years and his son Myzell Jr., a longtime Detroit
court clerk who rose to become Department Manager for Court Clerk Services from 2004 until June of 2009.
Funeral services are scheduled for Plymouth United Church of Christ, 600 E. Warren at St. Antoine, on Saturday, Aug. 8, at 11 a.m. Visitation is set for Swanson Funeral Home at 14751 W. McNichols, on Thursday, Aug. 6, from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., and Friday, Aug. 7, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
For more information, please call 962-3500.
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