Michael Trister, a civil rights lawyer forced from a teaching post at the University of Mississippi in one of the last spasms of segregationist control at that Southern university in the 1960s, died Oct. 20 at his home in Washington. He was 77.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said his wife, Nancy Duff Campbell.
Mr. Trister made headlines in 1968 when state officials forced him from his Ole Miss law school position. He was one of a number of young law professors hired in that era in a foundation-financed effort to inject new blood into the law school.
Opposition to Mr. Trister’s legal work sparked a crisis that at one point threatened the law school’s accreditation. He worked with North Mississippi Rural Legal Services, a federally funded legal aid group that by 1968 became a target of Mississippi’s conservative establishment, even prompting threats to close the law school.
The last straw may have come when the group sued to desegregate two school districts. Under pressure from lawmakers and trustees, the university cut ties with the legal services program, then told Mr. Trister and two other professors that they could not teach and work with the program anymore.
Mr. Trister refused the restrictions and sued, and the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately ordered his reinstatement. The court found the university had let other law professors do outside work and said it could not forbid Mr. Trister and others to do so just because “they wished to continue to represent clients who tended to be unpopular.”
The university rehired Mr. Trister after he won the suit and after an accrediting body put sanctions on Ole Miss. During his brief return in 1970, he again found his way to the center of controversy, defending 93 black students who were arrested after protesting at an Up With People concert and who were taken to the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman. Despite calls for mass expulsions of protesters at Ole Miss and other universities, most Ole Miss students were allowed to resume their studies.
Lt. Gov. Charles Sullivan demanded that Mr. Trister be fired after the incident. Mr. Trister instead moved to Washington, where he worked as a lawyer for the Children’s Defense Fund and later entered private practice advising advocacy groups. He created guidelines about lobbying and election law and taught ways for groups to maximize advocacy, defending them against tax audits and lawsuits.
Among other clients were the AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and League of Conservation Voters.
Michael Bernard Trister was born in Montreal on July 4, 1941, and grew up mostly in Elizabeth, N.J. His father was a chemist, and his mother was a homemaker. He was a 1963 graduate of Princeton University and a 1966 graduate of Yale Law School.
In Washington, he was a founding partner in 1976 of Sobol and Trister and its successor firms, now named Trister, Ross, Schadler & Gold.
His first marriage, to Diane Betcher, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife of 41 years, of the District, survivors include a daughter from his first marriage, Karen Trister Grace of Bethesda, Md.; a son from his second marriage, Noah Trister of Ann Arbor, Mich.; a brother; and two grandchildren.
Mr. Trister never lost his ties to Mississippi. He worked pro bono for the Mississippi Center for Justice, a legal group opposed to racial and economic injustice.
“He educated lawyers on how they could be effective advocating within the bounds of the law,” said the center’s founder, Martha Bergmark.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this obituary erroneously reported that Mr. Trister had invited U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.) to speak at the University of Mississippi in March 1966. Mr. Trister did not start work at the university until the fall of 1966. The story has been revised.
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