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Attorney Robert Howard, who sued city over Red Squad spying, dies at 70

Robert Howard   |  Phoby Charles W. Phillips V

Robert Howard | Photo by Charles W. Phillips V

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Updated: May 4, 2013 6:31AM

Attorney Robert Howard was called one of “the lawyers who reformed Chicago.”

Mr. Howard used the law to fight police spying, help desegregate schools, and empower African-American police officers. He also campaigned for the election of two African-American “firsts”: Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and President Barack Obama.

Political consultant Don Rose included Mr. Howard among the “The Lawyers Who Reformed Chicago” in a 2011 analysis he wrote for Mr. Howard and two other attorneys filed suit around 1974 to investigate illegal police spying in what became known as the “Red Squad” case.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, opposition to the Vietnam War — and the push for civil rights and other causes — created a cultural upheaval. Some Chicago Police officers infiltrated groups that were deemed subversive, but often were composed of social-justice activists or organizations unfriendly to Mayor Richard J. Daley. The police intelligence squad — known as the Red Squad — amassed thousands of files on people and associations. Sometimes, the squad used rumors to try to destabilize so-called anti-establishment groups. Surveillance targets included author Studs Terkel; Aldermen Leon Despres and Dick Simpson; Dr. Quentin Young, the head of medicine at Cook County Hospital; Chicago Defender Publisher John Sengstacke; Clergy and Laity Concerned; the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago; the Organization for a Better Austin, and Operation PUSH.

It took 11 years, said Rose, who was a party to the suit, but in 1985, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Getzendanner ordered the city to pay people and associations who said they were spied on.

“I think he was most proud of his work around really strengthening Democratic values, which is what that political spying was all about,” said his wife, Barbara Y. Phillips. “You cannot have a democracy when citizens were intimidated.”

Later in his career, Mr. Howard sued school districts in Rockford and Elgin to seek better education for Latino and African-American children, his wife said.

He died Friday at 70 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital from complications of Huntington’s disease.

“Bob was just one of the most important lawyers to operate in this town, as far as public service,” Rose said. “He just really devoted his professional life to important causes and helped change the city — everything from the desegregation issues, to the police spying, civil rights, civil liberties.”

Mr. Howard was born in Chicago. His activism may have been inspired by an aunt who was a labor organizer, his wife said. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Michigan State and a law degree from Harvard University.

“He cared deeply about issues and people without being self-righteous or heavy-handed,” said his former law partner, Bob Weissbourd. “He’s been an inspiration to a lot of people.”

Renault Robinson praised him as an early backer of Chicago’s Afro-American Patrolmen’s League. “Bob was just one of those individuals who was indispensable,” said Robinson, a co-founder of the group. “He was always available, in the middle of the night and any weekend.”

Mr. Howard worked for the Better Government Association; the Chicago Board of Education; the Chicago Housing Authority, and what would become the law firm of Futterman, Howard & Ashley.

In his private life, he was a daredevil, his wife said. He enjoyed off-road motorcycle riding; scuba-diving, trick water-skiing, and “doing backflips from the top of a pontoon boat” at a lake in Michigan that he loved.

He liked poker, Chicago Bulls games and travel to countries including Brazil, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, India, Italy, South Africa and Turkey.

After he became ill on March 3, “Someone was with him 24 hours a day. We took turns spending the night. Everyone took turns,” his wife said. “It was an amazing demonstration of family love.”

Other survivors include his daughter, Sarah Howard; his son, David Howard; his stepson, Charles W. Phillips V; his sister, Lauren Howard; his former wife, Martha Howard, and his grandchildren, Maxine Ivey, and Oliver and Quincy Howard.

An April 27 celebration of his life is being planned. A symposium in his honor — on incarceration and social justice — will be on Sept. 7 in Chicago. It will feature Angela Davis, an academic who was an iconic figure among 1960s radicals.

Mr. Howard and his wife used to socialize with Davis when they vacationed on Martha’s Vineyard. “We often did beach outings, kayaking and game night, playing Scrabble and bid whist,” his wife said. “We were taking a break from the revolution.”

Attorney Robert Howard in his favorite purple shirt at Barack Obama events.

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