Civil Rights Law: The Legacy of William Kunstler

Deemed simultaneously a “great American hero” and “the most hated lawyer in America,” William M. Kunstler did not pursue law planning to become an advocate for civil rights. Born in 1919 to a middle-class Jewish family in the Upper West Side of New York City, Kunstler attended Yale University (1941) before serving in the Army Signal Corps during WWII. For his military service, Kunstler rose to the rank of major and earned both a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Following his service and return to the U.S., Kunstler pursued a law degree at Columbia University. In time, Kunstler came to defend members of the Catonsville Nine, Black Panther Party, Weather Underground Organization, Attica Prison rioters, and American Indian Movement. 

After graduation from law school, Kunstler settled into life in the suburbs of New York City with his wife and two daughters and, in 1946, opened a law firm with his brother, called Kunstler & Kunstler. In this period, Kunstler also hosted a radio program – The Law on Trial – and taught courses as a professor at New York Law School.

While Kunstler identified as a member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), believing equal justice under the law a right for all, Kunstler & Kunstler did not work on civil right cases at its inception; rather, the firm was an ordinary civil practice until 1960. What changed?

In the 1960s, Kunstler was approached to represent Paul and Oriole Redd – two founders of a chapter for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) – in a housing discrimination lawsuit. This became Kunstler’s first civil rights case, and it led it more.

In 1961, the ACLU asked Kunstler to attend sit-ins with Freedom Riders in Mississippi. He followed as these reformers travelled through the South by bus challenging segregation. From this experience, Kunstler adamantly believed: “All the talking in the world meant nothing; it was the doing, the action, that had meaning.”

Kunstler proceeded to represent Fred Shuttlesworth in Birmingham, Alabama, bringing this case all the way to the Supreme Court (and winning Shuttlesworth’s release from jail); H. Rap Brown (Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin), the Black Power activist and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); the Chicago Eight (later, Seven) who protested the Vietnam War; among many others. Kunstler also allied with Martin Luther King, Jr. to participate in desegregation campaigns across the American South.

In 1966, Kunstler and three other radical lawyers founded the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) – the “leading gathering place for radical lawyers in the country.” Kunstler continued to represent political and cultural dissidents throughout the 1970s, including incarcerated individuals who rioted at the Attica Correctional Facility (1971) and Indigenous American protests in South Dakota (1973). In 1984, Kunstler defended the man who burned an American flag outside of the Republican National Convention.

In the 1980s and 1990s, however, Kunstler began working cases viewed as more problematic by his left-progressive following. Such cases included defending Yusef Salaam, accused in the Central Park Joggers case (1989) and El Sayyid Nosair, an Egyptian immigrant accused (and acquitted) of murdering Rabbi Meir Kahane – the militant and controversial founder of the Jewish Defense League (JDL). Nonetheless, Kunstler refused to defend right-wing individuals and maintained: “I only defend those whose goals I share. I’m not a lawyer for hire. I only defend those I love.”

Throughout his lifetime, Kunstler authored numerous books. These include: The Minister and the Choir Singer (1964, Edgar-award nominated), Deep in My Heart (1966), Trials and Tribulations (1985), My Life as a Radical Lawyer (1994), and Hints and Allegations (1994). The Emerging Police State: Resisting Illegitimate Authority, which details formerly unpublished speeches by William Kunstler, was published posthumously in 2004. Politics on Trial: Five Famous Trials of the 20th Century (2003) reached publication after Kunstler’s death, in 1995, as well. 

William Kunstler died on September 5, 1994 at 76 years of age.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email