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William Moses Kunstler

William Moses Kunstler rose to prominence during the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT in the 1960s. He represented Freedom Riders, MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., and the CHICAGO EIGHT. Politics and the law are inseparable in his philosophy. He was the author of twelve books, a sometime Hollywood actor, and a cofounder of the CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS (CCR) in Tennessee.

William M. Kunstler.

Even as a child, Kunstler liked trouble. He was born July 7, 1919, in New York City, the eldest of three children of Frances Mandelbaum and Monroe B. Kunstler, a physician. Ignoring schoolwork to run with a street gang called the Red Devils, he worried his conservative Jewish family. He read voraciously on his own, and by high school became a straight A student. At Yale, he majored in French and wrote his senior thesis on the satirist Molière. Then he joined the Army and served in WORLD WAR II as a cryptographer, taking part in General Douglas MacArthur's invasion of the Philippines, earning the Iron Cross, and rising to the rank of major. Afterward, he entered Columbia Law School, mainly to compete with his younger brother, Michael Kunstler.

Kunstler and his brother opened a law practice in 1949. The mundane work bored Kunstler, who wanted more challenge than handling ANNULMENTS and divorces. He kept busy writing a book on corporate tax law, contributing to the New York Times Book Review, teaching at New York Law School, and hosting radio shows whose eclectic guest lists covered personalities ranging from ELEANOR ROOSEVELT to MALCOLM X.

In the mid-1950s, Kunstler successfully represented a local leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who had been denied housing because he was black. In 1956 a black journalist had his passport confiscated for violating a national ban on travel to China; he was later arrested on return from Cuba for entering the United States without a passport—in violation of an old federal statute. Kunstler persuaded an appellate court to find the statute unconstitutional. The case had been referred to him by the AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION (ACLU), and a bigger assignment would soon be on the way. Meanwhile, he wrote Beyond a Reasonable Doubt? (1961) about the 1960 conviction and execution of CARYL CHESSMAN, a case that had provoked international outrage.


In 1961 the ACLU sent Kunstler to Jackson, Mississippi, where CIVIL RIGHTS workers were being abused by southern police officers and the courts. Known as the Freedom Riders, these

young white and black people tried to force INTEGRATION by riding interstate buses, flouting SEGREGATION laws. Beatings awaited them, followed by arrests and quick convictions for disturbing the peace. Kunstler found only hostility in courtrooms throughout the state. He lost case after case. He asked Mississippi governor Ross Barnett for help, but Barnett only lectured him on the need for segregation. Then Kunstler and a fellow attorney, William Higgs, devised an ingenious strategy: discovering an 1866 law designed to protect ex-slaves, they used it to have the cases of civil rights workers removed from state courts and heard by federal judges. The law also mandated that federal courts grant the defendants bail, something Mississippi refused to do.

The civil rights movement lived, prospered, and changed Kunstler's life. He helped found the Center for Constitutional Rights in Nashville, and with its resources, he was so ubiquitous in representing the new leadership that his motto became Have Brief, Will Travel. He defended STOKELY CARMICHAEL, president of the STUDENT NON-VIOLENT COORDINATING COMMITTEE, against SEDITION charges. He represented leaders of the Black Panthers. But it was his involvement with another prominent black radical, Hubert Geroid Brown—better known as H. Rap Brown—that led him to a new crossroads. Brown's heated speeches around the country struck fear into Congress, which passed in 1968 the so-called Rap Brown statute (18 U.S.C.A. § 2101). The law made it illegal to cross state lines with the intention of inciting a riot. Kunstler saw it as an attempt to crush free speech.

The Rap Brown law created Kunstler's breakthrough case, making him a hero to young people and a virtual outlaw to the legal establishment. In this case, he defended the Chicago Eight, a group of antiwar leaders charged with conspiracy after the Chicago police cracked down on protesters outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Among the Eight were Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Students for a Democratic Society leader Tom Hayden, and BLACK PANTHER PARTY cofounder Bobbie Seale. The trial drew national attention, divided public opinion, and often thrilled with its circus atmosphere. Kunstler argued ferociously in court with Judge Julius J. Hoffman, especially after the judge ordered Seale to be gagged and bound to a chair.

After the jury's near-total acquittal of the defendants, Judge Hoffman slapped each defendant with a contempt-of-court sentence. He reserved the most serious punishment for Kunstler, giving the attorney four years and thirteen days in prison for twenty-four counts of CONTEMPT. However, this sentence and the sentences of the defendants were all overturned by an appellate court. Kunstler also managed to escape the wrath of the New York bar association, which ultimately dropped its bid to discipline him.

The era of protest that helped create Kunstler's politics came to a close in the early 1970s, but not without a last great upheaval. In 1972 and 1973, leaders of the AMERICAN INDIAN MOVEMENT (AIM) occupied the historic town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in protest of the U.S. government's long practice of ignoring treaties and its hostility toward Native Americans. Kunstler was at the barricades during the seventy-one-day siege, and later he was in court to defend AIM leader Russell Means. He also represented Native American activist Leonard Peltier through fifteen years of litigation.

In the 1980s and 1990s, he represented reputed Mafia bosses, an accused murderer of police officers, one of the so-called Central Park rapists, a youth shot by vigilante Bernhard Goetz, a convicted Atlanta child murderer, and more. He became involved in the cases of defendants accused of plotting to blow up the World Trade Center in New York, as well as the case of COLIN FERGUSON, a Jamaican immigrant accused of killing six white commuters and wounding nineteen on the Long Island Railroad in 1993. Kunstler's proposed "black rage" defense of Ferguson—in short, that racism could drive a person to murder—provoked a fierce backlash from many critics, including Kunstler's frequent nemesis the attorney ALAN M. DERSHOWITZ.

At the age of seventy-six, Kunstler still reportedly worked fourteen-hour days in his home. Assisted by his partner, attorney Ron Kuby, he took most of his cases for free. He also did a bit of acting, appearing as a fire-breathing judge in director Spike Lee's 1992 film Malcolm X. In 1994 he published his twelfth book, My Life as a Radical Lawyer, in which he held to his belief that a revolution is still inevitable.

Kunstler died on September 4, 1995, at the age of seventy-six, of heart failure. Ron Kuby, his longtime law partner, vowed to continue doing free legal work in their firm, Kunstler & Kuby, and he established The William Moses Kunstler Fund for Radical Justice as a memorial.


Kunstler, William. 1994. My Life as a Radical Lawyer. Birch Lane Press.

——. 1962. The Case for Courage. New York: Morrow. Langum, David J. 1999. William M. Kunstler: The Most Hated Lawyer in America. New York: New York Univ. Press.

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