William Kunstler, 1919-1995

— Michael Steven Smith

A MONTH BEFORE he died, Bill Kunstler did a stand up routine at Caroline's Comedy Club in Manhattan.

I wasn't surprised to see the ad for his appearance in the New York Times. He was entertaining and extremely funny. He had recently cracked up a bunch of us outside my office door with a terrific Groucho Marx imitation. His high spirits and irreverence, even about himself, rubbed off on people, making them feel good about themselves. Even though he was 76, he said he would never retire but instead envisioned himself checking out while delivering a summation to a jury, sinking to the courtroom floor, clutching his notes. The tag line to that was that then Ron Kuby (his partner) would grab the notes from his hands and rise to finish the summation.

One of Bill's favorite stories came out of the Chicago Seven Trial. Someone had mailed him a vegetable substance and he immediately called its receipt to the attention of Judge Julius Hoffman. “What are you telling me for?” remarked the obtuse judge (who the defendants referred to as Mr. MaGoo). “Do something with it yourself.” “I assure you, your honor, that I will personally burn it tonight.”

I met him for the first time in 1966 when I was a law student at the University of Wisconsin. Although he was a generation older, we were radicalized at the same time and truly hundreds of lawyers like myself, products of the '60s, many in the National Lawyers' Guild, strongly identified with, and were constantly inspired by, Bill. Bill spoke at the law school about government repression. He used the metaphor of “silken threads” descending and strangling. The honorarium was $1,000, which I was happy to help get for him and which went through his hands into the movement, as usual.

Bill first got involved in the movement representing freedom fighters from the north who helped desegregate interstate travel. He stayed committed to the Black struggle until the end of his life. He represented Martin Luther King as his personal attorney for six years and this year successfully represented Malcolm X's daughter, Qubilah. He had left a successful Westchester practice with his late brother, Michael, and eventually set up an office in the basement of his house on Gay Street in Greenwich Village, a house, he told me, that had been a stop on the underground railroad.

Bill Kunstler's legal accomplishments in the defense of African Americans and democratic rights were of historical significance. Bill took cases, he would say, to make a point and educate people. Fees were not important to him. Lots of times he did not charge any fee at all and when he did he never kept very good track of it. On wealth he said, “Just get enough to live on. Animals that overeat die.” On his career of litigating he said in a 1993 interview that “Overall, I never counted, but my lifetime batting average is probably better than Willie Mays.” His victories included:

* Trial Counsel, Adam Clayton Powell v. McCormack (1966 reinstatement to Congress case)

* Trial Counsel, Hobson v. Hansen (1966 Washington, D.C. school desegregation case)

* Trial Counsel, Stokley Carmichael v. Allen (1967 invalidation of Georgia Insurrection Statute)

* Trial Counsel, McSurley v. Ratliff (1968 invalidation of Kentucky Sedition Statute)

* Trial Counsel, U.S. v. Berrigan (1968 defense of Catholic anti-war activists accused of destroying draft records at Catonsville, Md.)

* Trial Counsel, U.S. v. Dellinger (1969-70 Chicago 8 Conspiracy Case)

* Trial Counsel, U.S. v. Dennis Banks and Russell Means, (defense of American Indian Movement leaders accused of a number of crimes in the takeover of Wounded Knee, SD in 1973)

* Trial Counsel, U.S. v. Sinclair (1971 invalidation of government's claim of unrestricted wiretapping powers)

* Trial Counsel, U.S. v. Butler and Robideau and Appellate Counsel, U.S. v. Leonard Peltier (defense of American Indian Movement members on charges stemming from 1975 shoot-out on Pine Ridge Reservation)

* Appellate Counsel, Texas v. Johnson and Eichmann et al. (1989 and 1990 Supreme Court arguments in flag-burning cases)

With the modern media being what it is, and Bill's expert use of it, he probably had more of an impact on more people in his time than Clarence Darrow had in his. Bill was featured on Face the Nation, the “Today Show,” “Good Morning America,” “20/20,” “60 Minutes,” “Prime Time Live” and the “Donahue Show,” to name a few. He was a guest on countless radio programs throughout the country. He was even a member of the Screen Actors Guild playing the role of Jim Morrison's attorney in Oliver Stones' “The Doors” and the role of the judge in Spike Lee's “Malcolm X.”

Bill wrote articles for dozens of law reviews and magazines. He also wrote thirteen books and has another one in the pipeline (The Simpson Sonnets). His first book of poems came out in 1941 (Our Pleasant Vices) and he published two others (Trials and Tribulations, (1985) and Hints and Allegations, (1994)). He wrote two books on the technical aspects of legal practice and he even wrote a best seller (The Minister and the Choir Singer, (1964)). Bill's book on the civil rights struggle of the '60s, Deep in My Heart, is dedicated to several hundred fellow attorneys who went South for the struggle.

Bill had no funeral. Religion to him was superstitious. Being part of a sect was too narrow and confining. The Jewish heretic who transcends Jewry belongs to a tradition that the historian Isaac Deutscher labeled “the non-Jewish Jew.”

Bill was in line with the great heretics, rebels and revolutionaries of modern thought, Spinoza, Heine, Marx, Luxemburg, Trotsky and Freud, all Jews who went beyond religious boundaries they found too narrow, archaic, constricting.

Bill was not so much a radical thinker as a man of action. But his intellectual understanding--and he was extremely well educated--powered his activity. He had in common with these great thinkers the idea that knowledge to be real must be acted upon.

Bill saw the great movement and contradictoriness of society. He shared with the great Jewish revolutionaries an optimistic belief in humanity and a belief in the solidarity of humankind.

Bill's dear friend, Michael Ratner, the former Director of Litigation at the Center for Constitutional Rights is organizing the William Moses Kunstler Foundation for Racial Justice under the aegis of the Center to carry on Bill's work.

Bill leaves behind his wife, Margie, herself a constitutional litigator, and four daughters: a doctor, a lawyer, a student at Yale, and a student at the United Nations International School.

November/December 1995

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <b> </b> <br> <br /> <a> </a> <em> </em> <strong> </strong> <cite> </cite> <code> </code> <ul> </ul> <ol> </ol> <li> </li> <dl> </dl> <dt> </dt> <dd> </dd> <div> </div> <img> <style> <font> </font> <blockquote> </blockquote> <hr>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.