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Civil rights attorney won historic cases

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Chicago attorney Irving M. King was involved in some of the court cases of the 1960s and 1970s that turned the world inside out.

He worked with legendary civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer to challenge questionable polling practices in Mississippi, and he helped win a pioneering case against a major airline when it fired a flight attendant for getting married.

When air travel was young, “stewardesses” were supposed to be female, supple and single. So when Mary Burke Sprogis got married in 1966, United Airlines sent her packing.

Mr. King and his firm challenged her dismissal, saying it violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The landmark case was written up in the book Femininity in Flight: a History of Flight Attendants. Sprogis won and was awarded reinstatement and back pay.

Mr. King died of lung cancer Feb. 6 at Advocate Christ Hospital and Medical Center. He was 79.

His ethnic and cultural history tells a lot about America. He was born in Ashland, Va., to Native American parents from the Pamunkey Nation, thought to be the tribe of Pocahontas. But in those days in Virginia, “you were either white or black,” said Lillian, his wife of 60 years.

Some people in his extended family “passed” as white. Mr. King’s birth certificate listed him as “colored.” He attended African-American schools; married an African-American woman, and considered himself black. “He went as Afro-American his whole life,” said his wife.

The couple met at Virginia’s Hampton University, a historically black college. He was inspired to go to law school by his admiration for the NAACP’s chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall, who would later become the first African-American on the U.S. Supreme Court. “He was just a brilliant young man,” Lillian King said of her husband.

He was accepted at Yale University. Mr. King was among three or so African-Americans listed in Yale Law’s graduating class of 1958, she said.

When recruiters from law firms came to Yale, they liked Mr. King — but they wouldn’t hire him. “They said, ‘You’re a good person but our firm is not ready for a black,’ ” his wife recalled.

One of his Yale professors saw the barriers Mr. King was facing and put in a call to the Chicago law firm of Eugene Cotton. Back then Chicago was known as a meat-packing metropolis and a strong labor town, and Cotton represented aviation workers, machinists, printers and meat-packers. Cotton offered him a job. Eventually, his name was added to the shingle of Cotton, Watt, Jones & King.

Mr. King’s work on an Iowa packinghouse case contributed to a National Labor Relations Board requirement that unionized firms must bargain with workers first if a company is considering a move, according to Mr. King’s son, Alan, a Kenwood attorney and sometime basketball partner of President Obama.

“His whole life,” Lillian King said, “was spent working for workers.”

Mr. King and “Chicago Seven” attorney William M. Kuntsler were among the lawyers representing Fannie Lou Hamer when she challenged a historic 1967 election in Sunflower, Miss. She alleged voting-rights violations ranging from blacks being kept out of the polling place to insufficient voting assistance for some illiterate African-Americans.

Mr. King liked fishing in Wisconsin, and on land that still belongs to his relatives in Virginia. He loved music, especially Beethoven and Mahler.

Mr. King is also survived by his daughter Karen; his son Michael; his sisters Alma Winston and Verna Gray, three granddaughters and one great-granddaughter.

A memorial service is planned for 1 p.m. Feb. 27 at South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Dr.

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