Civil disobedience was a way of life. Freedom songs reverberated, setting the tone for sit-ins and protest marches.
“For a black child in Mississippi, the events of the 1960s seemed to be the dawning of a new day …”
Wil Colom wrote those words in 1983, for a submission published in the New York Times, titled “The trials of a Mississippi lawyer.”
Then, he was senior partner of the Columbus law firm Colom, Mitchell and Colom.
In the article, he told the story of Joe Hogan; in 1982, his case paved the way for men to obtain degrees from Mississippi University for Women. It also paved the way for women to be admitted into all-male schools.
It became a legal precedent in high-profile cases against both The Citadel and Virginia Military Institute, the country”s only state-funded, all-male military colleges, during the 1990s.
He also told of Philip Parks, a 13-year-old white boy struggling to be educated in an otherwise black school district, and of Theresa De La Oliva, “a poor immigrant from Spain with a heavy accent,” who, after more than six years, regained custody of her son and daughter; her husband turned the children over to the welfare department while De La Oliva was hospitalized.
Colom, 59, founding senior partner of The Colom Law Firm, now has even more stories to tell — of overcoming injustices, fighting for the underdog and working to help children stay on the right side of the law.
For his efforts, the Mississippi Center for Justice Friday honored Colom at the 2009 Champions of Justice dinner, at the downtown Jackson Marriott hotel. (Also honored as a Champion of Justice was John Maxey of Jackson.)
“It”s really given for the things that he”s worked on all of his life, to help Mississippians,” said Sharon Garrison, communications director for the Mississippi Center for Justice, also touting Colom”s dedication to “breaking down barriers.”
The Innocence Project, which was initiated by Colom and John Grisham, works to reform the criminal justice system and exonerate the wrongly convicted.
“There were two innocent parties just sitting in jail in Noxubee County. The Innocence Project played a major role in getting those men free,” said Colom. “And that”s just down the road from us.”
Kennedy Brewer spent about 12 years behind bars for the 1992 murder and rape of 3-year-old Christine Jackson. Lavon Brooks spent 18 years in prison for the 1990 murder and rape of 3-year-old Courtney Smith.
With the help of The Innocence Project, both men were exonerated. Justin Albert Johnson, then 51, of Brooksville confessed to both crimes in 2008.
“There”s probably nothing worse than an innocent person sitting in jail,” said Colom, many of whose cases are pro bono.
“I don”t do cases for money anymore,” Colom said. “I do them because they interest me. They fulfill a need I have.”
Colom took Noxubee County Democratic Chairman Ike Brown”s case, pro bono.
“I don”t know if I”m proud of that case or not,” Colom said, but “One of the things lawyers have to do is be willing to take the cases other people shy away from because it”s the just thing to do.”
It was the first federal case in the country of blacks accused of violating whites” voting rights. Judges agreed Brown led efforts in Noxubee County as head of the Democratic Party since 2000, to keep whites out of county government through election fraud and discrimination.
Colom argued that the federal takeover of Noxubee County Democratic primaries impedes blacks” rights to be politically active. In the end, Brown and the Noxubee County Democratic Executive Committee were banned from running party elections through 2011.
A wrongly imprisoned man
Currently, Colom is working on the case of an East African man who was imprisoned in Afghanistan for six years. He was turned over to the U.S. for a $50,000 bounty, as a foreign fighter. In reality, said Colom, he was just a fisherman.
“I went to meet him in Tanzania. He was tortured, never told what he did,” said Colom, who heard about the case through a colleague in Tanzania. “One day they shipped him home — on a commercial airline; he had never done anything wrong, (was) never charged with anything. … I”m sure no one (else) cares anything about him, but I do.”
Speaking up for the voiceless
Injustice often is done in the name of the law because “the victims are usually so weak or unimportant or don”t have a voice or aren”t articulate, don”t have anyone to speak up for them,” said Colom, who has been practicing law for 33 years.
“Throughout his law career, he”s helped people who may not have otherwise had a voice,” Garrison said.
No case too small
“I took a case for a man in justice court who was pulled over for a DUI; he was coming from chemotherapy,” Colom recalled.
The man, who “doesn”t have any family, was driving slow, kind of unsteady,” said Colom.
When he told the officer he was driving himself from chemotherapy, he was questioned harshly, asked why someone else wasn”t driving him if he was getting treatment and given a ticket. Colom appeared in court to defend the man, and the charges were dropped.
“No case is too small,” said Colom, who wishes he could do more. “I wish I could do something where I stayed every day over at the courthouse; I”m just one little bitty person.”
Not all of Colom”s efforts deal with injustice.
“In Wil”s case, he”s been very involved in a program that helps better the lives of children, through community projects,” Garrison said, citing Colom”s work with the Washington D.C.-based First Book program, which has distributed hundreds of thousands of books to disadvantaged children.
Colom also helped to secure funds for the $1.2 million Boys and Girls Club facility on 14th Avenue North in Columbus and partners with 100 Black Men of Columbus and Lowndes County and United Christian Baptist Church”s child development center, to help local 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds prepare for their school years.
Working with Hologic, a leading developer and manufacturer of medical products for women”s health care, in summer of 2008, Colom helped to bring mammography to Tanzania.
“They had never had mammogrammy in Tanzania,” said Colom, noting Intermountain Health Care, of Utah, provided training on the 13 mammogram machines.
“It”s very rewarding,” Colom said of his work. “I travel all over the world — rich places, poor places.
“You are not judged by how well the richest of you are doing but by how well the least of people are treated.”