It’s a quiet Sunday morning in the nearly deserted Greenwich Village town house of attorney William Kunstler. In the stillness, the answering machine clicks on and there’s a quiet woman’s voice speaking, calmly, patiently outlining for the absent attorney her hopes for his future.
“I hope your children die. I want to see you die. I want to see your family die. But most of all I want to see your children die and I want you to see it. You’re an evil, evil man to do what you’ve done.”
What Kunstler has done is win a jury verdict the morning papers are calling “stunning,” “shocking,” an “impossible victory.” Just twelve hours ago a Manhattan jury pronounced Kunstler’s client El Sayyid Nosair, the accused assassin of Rabbi Meir Kahane, “Not guilty” on murder charges, provoking a shouting, screaming near riot in the courtroom by outraged Kahane supporters. And this deadly-quiet call this morning.
Kunstler was only one of a team of three attorneys who produced the astonishing “impossible victory” in the Nosair trial. But Kunstler was the only Jew, and from the beginning his gung-ho defense of an accused rabbi-killer has brought him bitter vituperation from Kahane supporters who have called him a “traitor to his religion.” It started with shouts and insults during the pre-trial hearings, escalated to angry jostling in the courthouse elevator and death threats over the phone. Then the living-room windows of Kunstler’s town house were shattered by paint bullets. And at a defense-team press conference an altercation with Kahane supporters turned ugly and dangerous when some of them rushed toward Kunstler. His bodyguard drew a 9-mm. semi-automatic weapon and looked ready to sweep the room with gunfire.
But all that was before last night’s verdict. There’s something new about this morning’s phone message. Something different in this eerily calm litany of death wishes for Kunstler and his family: a pure, distilled hatred that is chilling, cobra-like, truly frightening.
Of course, Kunstler’s no stranger to the varieties of hatred, hot and cold. He conjures with them almost like a snake-handling preacher whipping a rattler around so fast it can’t strike him.
Consider his remarks last year when he announced he was taking on the defense of Kevin McKiever, the homeless black crack smoker charged with the brutal knifing murder of a pretty, upwardly mobile young white woman on a tony block off Manhattan’s Central Park West. Kunstler had been asked by a special state judicial panel to represent McKiever. Kunstler told the press that he’d been urged by friends and family, even his wife, Margaret Ratner (a politically committed attorney herself), to turn down the assignment because it was too ugly, too inflamed—didn’t he have enough hate on his plate already?
That, Kunstler proclaimed, was exactly why he was doing it. His client, Kunstler said—practically boasted—was ”the most hated man in New York.” And it’s precisely such objects of public fury who need a lawyer willing to shield them from the passion and prejudice unleashed against them.
If Kunstler’s client is the most hated man in New York, he’s been assigned the perfect advocate: thirty years of explosive theatrics in the courtroom, strident sound bites on the courthouse steps, offensive defense of Public Enemies, and an instinct for publicity like a heatseeking missile have made Bill Kunstler—however beloved by the many he’s fought for—easily the most hated lawyer in America.
I’d followed Kunstler’s trials over the years, once covered him when he was put on trial himself—for the multiple contempt-of-court citations handed down against him in the bitter Chicago Seven conspiracy trial, which first brought him to national attention in 1969. I remembered when Kunstler was known more as a press-conference lawyer than a courtroom genius, when his confrontational “political trial” strategy was a bit of a joke among some movement types. “Kunstler,” they’d say, “is the only lawyer who can get you the death penalty for a traffic ticket.” (Still, he’d make you famous before you fried.)
But over the past decade, I’d been impressed by the way he’d begun to win one surprising against-the-odds, impossible victory after another in highly publicized cases he militantly politicized, often using—as he did in the Nosair case—wildly conjectural conspiracy theories backed by dubious—or no— evidence. In the Nosair case, for instance, Kunstler proclaimed in his opening argument that the defense would prove that a conspiracy of Jews—factional enemies within the Jewish Defense League—murdered Kahane. The judge refused to allow the scant evidence Kunstler had to back this up into the case, calling the theory “pure speculation.” But the jury acquitted anyway.
Had Kunstler developed into a brilliant trial attorney or had the Zeitgeist of an increasingly skeptical, conspiracy-obsessed age (see JFK) made his conspiracy-theory defenses seem more plausible to juries?
And what about all that hatred? It seemed to me that there has to be something more than ideology that makes him so blithely impervious to it, something deeply personal that feeds on the loathing he loves to stir up.
How do they loathe him? Let us count the (latest) ways: Just last month, in the frenzied aftermath of the City College of New York (C.C.N.Y.) “human stampede” tragedy, Kunstler appeared at a contentious press conference defending his client Heavy D., and Puff Daddy, the promoters who were targets of massive media outrage—and blamed the police and “racism” for the whole debacle. Which led New York Post columnist Mike McAlary to this disgusted response: “It is [the] unspeakable lawyer William Kunstler who, with nine black lives lost, would have us believe his client is some kind of civil-rights hero.”
Whomp! went the white officer’s boot into Kunstler’s rib. This is for Larry Davis.
Flag-loving patriots all over America revile Kunstler’s name for his stunning 1989 Supreme Court victory on behalf of a flag-burning member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, the case in which Kunstler convinced the High Court that burning the Stars and Stripes was “free speech” protected by the First Amendment.
Prison officials everywhere are still bitter about his role in the bloody Attica prison uprising twenty years ago. And on the eve of the big John Gotti trial, Kunstler gave federal Mob busters fits by charging into the case, arguing the Don’s appeal of the ruling that ejected his lawyer of choice, Bruce Cutler.
Lawmen all over New York already hate him for his smear-the-police defense of cop-shooter outlaw Larry Davis. And sometimes it’s not just abstract hostility. Consider the uniformed court officers who expressed their feelings about Kunstler by brutally beating and kicking him in a courtroom melee that broke out in the midst of a hearing in which he was representing Tawana Brawley adviser C. Vernon Mason. “I got a broken rib and all the cartilage in my knee had to be removed, big operation,” Kunstler told me. As one of the white officers was delivering a vicious kick in the ribs, Kunstler says, “he told me, ‘This is for Larry Davis.’ ”
Larry Davis. He’s the source of much of the contemporary Kunstler hatred. The 1988 Davis cases are what brought Kunstler back into the front ranks of controversial, headline-provoking (some would say headline-grabbing) lawyers. After a relative lull in the career of the man who was for a long time the paradigmatic Sixties-icon radical lawyer, who made his reputation and made history defending Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Black Panthers, the Chicago Seven, Attica prisoners, American Indian Movement leaders—who played the quintessential radical lawyer in Oliver Stone’s The Doors—the Larry Davis trials brought Kunstler back into the limelight, reminded a lot of people why they hated him in the first place.
Davis, a confessed hard-drug dealer, was the object of a marathon manhunt that captivated the tabloids for weeks in the mid-Eighties. Wanted for the execution-murder of four rival dealers, Davis was cornered in a Bronx apartment by a huge police SWAT team but managed to blast his way out, shooting up six cops in the process.
By the time he was finally captured he’d become a kind of folk hero among some sectors of the black community and the number-one target of the criminal-justice system in New York City. But Kunstler put on a brilliant offensive defense. On the basis of some slender, problematic bits of evidence and ferocious cross-examination of the cop witnesses, he got Davis acquittals on the murder and cop-shooting charges by arguing that Davis was actually a victim of the cops he shot: that he’d been trying to blow the whistle on a ring of corrupt, drug-dealing cops who had been using him and conspired to assassinate him when he tried to go straight. Shooting cops was a legitimate act of self-defense against this assassination plot, Kunstler insisted.
And then, having gotten juries to buy this story, to top it off, to rub salt in the wounds, surely to buff up his prized status as Most Hated, he made the incendiary statement (to The Village Voice) that “any black guy that shoots six cops and puts the fear of God in police officers, I think is great.”
Whomp! went the white officer’s boot into Kunstler’s rib. This is for Larry Davis.
And yet for Kunstler even this stomping story has a happy ending.
After the beating, Kunstler told me, he was arrested, dragged off to a cell. “They put me in a tank with all of last night’s people they had poured in. Bunch of blacks and Hispanics, many of them on drugs. And I think they did that in order to get me beaten up. So I walk in and there’s stony silence. Here I am, this elderly honkie, you know, and every seat’s taken. Some guy says, ‘No seat for you, Pops.’ And so finally I said, ‘Well, I’m Larry Davis’s lawyer.’ And the moment I said that, it was magic. Sheer magic. And one kid says, ‘Leroy, get up and give the counselor a seat.’ ”
Give the counselor a seat. For Bill Kunstler no tribute from the highest reaches of the criminal-justice system could match the thrill, the magic of this show of respect from a black denizen of its lower depths. Suffering the hatred of whites earns him the redemptive love of blacks. For a moment he was Larry Davis.
Al Sharpton speaking, the Famous Reverend Al, talking about his buddy Bill Kunstler as the two of them get ready to blast the Powers That Be at a police-brutality press conference. In contrast to the nattily duded-up Rev with his carefully crisped curls, Kunstler looks like he slept in his suit, his nimbus of graying locks like they’ve never seen a comb.
They’re an odd couple, but they go way back, and it’s hard to think of a pair that presses more of America’s hot buttons on race than these two. There’s Sharpton, media manipulator, ubiquitous agitator and irritant, who pops up at every flash point from Bensonhurst to Crown Heights. And there’s Kunstler, who’s become a key Sharpton ally (and personal attorney at times), and who boasts of occupying a unique position of trust in New York’s black community, having been a trusted defender of just about every major black leader, including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, the Black Panther Party leadership, the accused cop-killers of the Black Liberation Army, and the Tawana Brawley “family advisers.”
What brings Sharpton and Kunstler together today on the steps of a courthouse in Brooklyn is an explosive police-brutality case, one of a number of such incidents that have been detonating with escalating frequency and violence throughout this ugly season of race in New York City.
Reverend Sharpton: “I read where Bill Kunstler said he was the only white guy Al Sharpton liked. And I said to myself, Kunstler’s white?”
This afternoon, Sharpton and Kunstler are announcing an aggressive, if untested, legal tactic: Kunstler’s filing a writ of mandamus, a little-used device to compel public officials to enforce the law. This one seeks to force a city prosecutor to reinstate murder charges against five cops originally indicted for murder in the choking death of a young Hispanic, Federico Pereira, an episode that sparked enraged protests at the time, When a new prosecutor succeeded in getting nearly all the charges against the cops dropped, the victim’s embittered mother came to Bill Kunstler, lawyer of last resort.
She came to him on the recommendation of the publisher of The New York Amsterdam News, the Harlem-based weekly paper, for which Kunstler—one of the only regular white contributors—writes occasional sonnets on current events. Kunstler’s undergraduate sonnets at Yale were once published in a slim volume of verse called Our Pleasant Vices. Now he turns out lines like these, on Clarence Thomas:
The President has found his Judas goat A black man with a soul of snowy hue Who knows just how to wear the bigot’s coat
And keep the poor from their God-given due.
Kunstler’s position at the Amsterdam News is not the only example of his unique relationship with the black community. He relishes pointing out to me that he was “the only white honorary marshal of the Malcolm X Parade” and that he was giving Malcolm legal advice around the time he changed his name from Malcolm Little. He was also one of the only white attorneys (or whites of any profession) to publicly back Sharpton and his fellow Brawley family advisers to the bitter end, proclaiming it “makes no difference” whether Brawley fabricated her rape-by-white-cops story, since “a lot of young black women are treated the way she said she was treated.”
Sharpton, whatever else may be said of him, is a guy with a sly sense of humor, and he has a wickedly funny way of commenting on Kunstler’s pride in his special status among blacks. Reverend Al is telling me how he and Kunstler go way back together, back to when the teenage Reverend was doubling as James Brown’s personal manager and Kunstler was representing the Godfather of Soul on some radio-station deal gone sour down South. The black Reverend and the white attorney have been through thick and thin together. Bill Kunstler: the Consigliere of Soul.
Then Sharpton grins and says, “I read in the papers where Bill Kunstler said he was the only white guy Al Sharpton liked. And I said to myself, Kunstler’s white?”
Sharpton winks. Kunstler beams. No jury verdict could give him more satisfaction than this benediction. Kunstler’s white? Here in this backhanded accolade is the acquittal he’s been seeking all his life. Absolution from the white man’s burden of racial guilt. Not guilty, on the grounds of being (for all practical purposes) not white.
This is the key to why Bill Kunstler makes people (white people) so uncomfortable. For some thirty years, ever since the civil-rights struggle began in the South, America has been engaged in a great national debate over race. Which is in large part a debate over white guilt: Just how much does white America owe to black America for the legacy of slavery and segregation and racism? How much guilt, what kind of expiation?
At a time when the pendulum has swung so far that it’s hard to find even white liberals who will defend the idea that whites “owe” anything more to blacks than mere statutory equality— when even some blacks, like Clarence Thomas, reject the idea of reparations— Bill Kunstler’s stance, his work, his life provoke outrage, contempt, hostility, grate on many like the proverbial fingernails on the blackboard. Because Kunstler insists that it’s not a question of whether society owes anything to the victims of racism. In Bill Kunstler’s view we owe everything and, in the words of Stevie Wonder, we haven’t done nothin’.
This is not merely an abstract belief about white guilt; it’s at the heart of the passion he brings to defending his clients. And frequently the focus of his political-trial strategy: his belief that, for the most part, black defendants should be looked upon not as perpetrators of the crimes they’re accused of, but as victims of the larger, ongoing crime of white racism.
Actually, “for the most part” is my own temporizing qualification. I once asked Kunstler flatly, “Do you believe all black defendants are victims?”
“I guess I do,” he said.
Tuesday morning. The day begins with Kunstler himself facing a jail term. Practically begging for it. He’s seventy-two years old and finally beginning to look his age after a recent bout with bladder cancer. But he sounds as if nothing would make him happier than getting thrown in the slammer for a month. Which is what he’s up against this morning as he descends the rickety steps leading down to his cellar offices from his family living quarters in the two upper stories of the ancient town house he inhabits with his second wife and their two teenage daughters.
Ventilation in this cramped space seems not to have improved much in the century since it served as a sanctuary for fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad to Canada and two of them died of asphyxiation down here. The tiny, low-ceilinged two-room basement “suite” that Kunstler shares with his young law partner, Ron Kuby, still has the dank air of a fugitive hideout. And in a sense it is: it’s the place where the legal radicalism of the Sixties and Seventies, once loud and boisterous and flourishing, has gone to ground. Most of the best and brightest radical lawyers of that era are still fighting the F.B.I. and the system, but they’re fighting as high-paid criminal-defense specialists for corrupt politicians and mobsters—outlaws, but outlaws with deep pockets and fewer pretensions to revolutionary ideals. But Kunstler’s kept going, kept defending penniless pariahs and problematic outlaws like Larry Davis as if they were political activists.
“He’s sort of like the last person at the party,” Steven Brill, American Lawyer and Court TV founder, says of Kunstler’s lonely eminence. “He hasn’t realized the party’s over, and he’s still having a good time.”
Indeed, as Kuby—a ruddy, energetic guy half Kunstler’s age who sports a floppy ponytail that is more Berkeley 1971 than New York 1991—reads off from their wall calendar the staggering list of trials, pre-trial hearings, appeals hearings, written briefs, and client meetings they’ve got lined up for the weeks and months to come, you get the feeling that Kunstler and Kuby are single-handedly shouldering the entire radical-pariah caseload which a whole movement once handled. (In fact, the chief criticism of Kunstler you hear from those on the left is that he takes so many cases that he’s sometimes flying by the seat of his pants in court—relying on quick study to cover up for lack of preparation.)
Kunstler opposed Christian Brando’s guilty plea, “I don’t think what was done was best for Christian. The case was triable.”
After a court appearance for Kevin McKiever and a consultation with McKiever’s mother, Kunstler’s flying down to Georgia to argue the appeal (for a new trial) of convicted murderer Wayne Williams. (The appeal, prepared with Alan Dershowitz, claims Williams, a black man, was framed by Atlanta officials hysterical over the wave of child murders and fearful a race war would result if the actual, white, Klan-related killers of Atlanta’s black children were exposed.) Then it’s up to Fargo, North Dakota, to argue the third habeas corpus appeal for imprisoned Native American radical Leonard Peltier. This is a case Kunstler’s been fighting for more than fifteen years now (he won an acquittal for one of Peltier’s two co-defendants). It’s a cause that’s close to his heart. Indeed, on the wall across from the court appearance calendar in his office there’s a photograph of Kunstler standing shoulder to shoulder with Marlon Brando as the two of them marched into a prison to calm a disturbance which had broken out in support of one of the Wounded Knee defendants.
(Two years ago, Brando woke Kunstler up at three one morning to tell him he’d discovered that his son Christian had shot a man in his house. Kunstler flew out to handle the initial stages of the case, but dropped out or was eased out by Brando after calling the judge who denied Christian bail, “a toad.” Kunstler says they fell out over a sharp disagreement about trial strategy: he opposed making a deal to plead Christian guilty. “I don’t blame Marlon,” Kunstler told me. “Except I don’t think what was done was best for Christian. I think that case was triable. We might well have gotten him off on a lesser offense.”)
But before he can go about the business of getting his clients out of jail, Kunstler’s got to take steps to prevent being thrown into the slammer himself. He’s got to file his final appeal to the latest contempt-of-court sentence hanging over his head. He drew the penalty in the midst of a heated exchange with Justice Thomas Galligan, who was presiding over a post-trial hearing for convicted Central Park rapist Yusef Salaam. (Kunstler entered the case after the conviction.) When the judge denied his appeal motion, Kunstler called it “outrageous! You will not have an evidentiary hearing despite all the law that calls for it?”
The following dialogue ensued:
THE COURT: I will not hear oral argument. Call the next case.
KUNSTLER: You have exhibited what your partisanship is. You shouldn’t be sitting in court. You are a disgrace to the bench!
THE COURT: Sir, I hold you in contempt of court … You are fined $250 or 30 days in jail.
Music to his ears. This morning he’s searching the chaotic heaps of files on his desk for the notice of appeal he’s supposed to file (the sentence has already been upheld by the first-level appellate court). But I have the sense that Kunstler would just as soon not bother with the appeal and go directly to jail. The contempt sentence calls for a fine of $250 or thirty days in jail, but Kunstler’s already announced to the press that he intends to “do the time” rather than pay the fine. (In December, he lost his final appeal, but an anonymous donor paid the fine and kept him out of jail.)
“If I just pay the fine, people will say, ‘Here’s a white lawyer who can buy himself out by paying $250.’ It would make me feel like a big shit to pay the $250,” he tells me. “I remember Dr. King when he was in jail said, ‘I’m not going to be bailed out—the other people can’t get out, why should I?’ ”
“So this is a symbolic gesture?”
“My super-romantic view of the lawyer’s role.”
And, perhaps, his hyperawareness of the role of public relations. In Peter Matthiessen’s book on the Wounded Knee/Pine Ridge cases, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, one of Kunstler’s fellow attorneys describes how one time, threatened with jail for contempt of court, Kunstler “started doing his thing …. He all but threw himself into the arms of the U.S. marshals, smiting his brow and crying, Take me! Take me!”
Kunstler himself referred me to this passage in the book, but for him the point of the story comes in the sentences that follow, which describe the even more egregious publicity-seeking conduct of Kunstler’s co-counsel in the trial, Mark Lane: “Lane couldn’t let … Bill get busted and not him, so he went running over there yelling, Take me too!”
The lust for publicity exhibited by Lane, Kunstler tells me piously, “becomes, I think, a terrible sickness.”
“Has Bill Kunstler ever fallen victim to it?” I ask him.
He’s been mightily tempted at times, he allows. And he admits he’s found a way to use his celebrity, his notoriety, to give him an advantage with judges and juries. “I think the stereotype, the caricature, that I’m just a crazy, you know, loose cannon—the judges are tremendously relieved when they find out I’m not that way. I’m kind of gregarious. I embrace people, I joke with people. And I have a good time.” Being a celebrity, he says, “can give you an edge.”
But Kunstler avows solemnly that he long ago realized there are limits to the love of publicity. He describes an epiphany he had on the subject of P.R., when he saw the line even he wouldn’t cross. It happened back in 1971 when Esquire asked him to pose on their cover for a story they were doing about radicals and their cats. “The picture they wanted was me lying in the arms of a giant papier mache cat that [Richard] Avedon had created. My wife told me, ‘That’s such a ridiculous reason for you to be on. In the arms of a cat? You just want to be on the cover of Esquire. If they asked you to pose nude, you’d do it.’ I said, ‘Jesus, you’re absolutely right.’ I turned it down. And I realized that I had to watch this tendency. Because it’s almost like a narcotic.”
The lust for publicity “becomes a terrible sickness,” Kunstler says. But being a celebrity “can give you an edge.”
Still, he did consent to pose for a photograph on the inside of the magazine, holding his cat Thunderpussy. And he’s constantly doing things that show his almost childish pleasure in minor P.R.— like when I suggest getting a burger in a nearby tavern rather than his favorite local coffee shop, the Waverly, on Sixth Avenue in the Village, he’ll say, “But you gotta see the picture they’ve got up of me on the wall.” And when we were eating in that beloved coffee shop and he was telling me about how he won his first big court case for Martin Luther King, I asked him how it felt suddenly being a force at the very heart of the great moral crusade King was leading.
“It was marvelous,” he said, adding, “I got good press. All of my ego needs were met.”
As with most famous lawyers, those ego needs are not inconsiderable. Someone who worked closely with him put it this way: “The only thing that surpasses Bill’s commitment to the movement is Bill’s commitment to Bill …. While his passion is morally directed, the movement also provides him with a vehicle to satisfy voracious emotional and psychological appetites. He is a proud, outrageous, courageous, competitive, guilt-ridden, egotistical man who needs a forum.”
The McKiever case is, in a way, the perfect Kunstler case because it gives him the high-profile forum he craves for himself—and for the convictions about racism which so possess and obsess him.
Consider the way Kunstler handles the consultation with the mother of his “most hated” client later that Tuesday.
A consultation which Kunstler turns into a forum by agreeing (with the consent of McKiever’s mother) to have it filmed by a camera crew from CBS’s prime-time news show 48 Hours.
It’s part of a remarkably shrewd media campaign Kunstler and Kuby have been waging on behalf of their client, with the goal of shifting the public perception of McKiever from predator to victim, a campaign that has had some success by the time they sit down with McKiever’s mother and the cameras start to roll.
One thing they’ve done is make an ad hoc alliance with a city-magazine reporter, letting him track down McKiever’s medical records to document the long history of schizophrenic episodes and hospitalizations—a solid basis for an insanity plea. They’ve been leaking details of McKiever’s history of mental illness to local dailies, which have begun depicting him less as a malevolent, feral predator than a victim of his own neurochemical demons. In December, court psychiatrists found McKiever “competent” to stand trial, but Kunstler is still determined to prove that his client’s mental capacity was impaired at the time of the killing.
The medical records show repeated instances of McKiever being released from hospitalization and then forgotten, never followed up on. In part because he was homeless and resistant to care. In part because, Kunstler and Kuby contend, he was poor and black and nobody cared enough about his fate. Which makes him—as well as the murdered woman— both victims of underfunding and neglect by the system. Of racism as well. Or so Kunstler’s trying to get McKiever’s mother to say for the cameras.
The mother, Eleanor Matthews, a well-dressed middle-class black woman (she sent Kevin to artsy Bard College, where he studied drama—acted in A Midsummer Night’s Dream—before giving way to schizophrenia in his twenties and ending up a homeless drifter), is sitting on the battered green couch across from Kunstler’s desk in the basement of his Gay Street townhouse.
She’s telling a heartbreaking story about the death of her other child, a daughter who also began manifesting symptoms of schizophrenia in her twenties. “Nobody cares,” she says bitterly. “The same thing happened to Kevin”: hospitals discharged him, nobody tried to follow up.
“Well,” says Kunstler as the network cameras roll, “I don’t want to bring this totally into a racism situation. But it is, you know, from my point of view.”
‘‘It happens to white people too,” Matthews says, seemingly not as ready to charge racism.
Kunstler has no such reluctance. ‘‘But with black people, I mean, there’s even less care by the dominant society of what happens to black people—the lack of care and not really giving a damn what happens to them.”
Kunstler has no doubt that this isn’t a murder case; it’s a political case, a racial case, and the real guilty party is the white-run society that failed to save a sick black man on his way down from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a bloody midsummer nightmare.
Cut to Memphis, later that month. The balcony of the Lorraine Motel. The very spot where, in 1968, Martin Luther King fell bleeding from an assassin’s bullet. Kunstler was here that night, staying in a room just a few yards away when he heard the shots. And now, twenty-three years later, he’s back. They’ve washed away the blood but not the memories. And now the memories and the motel are being turned into a shrine: the National Civil Rights Museum, built on the skeleton of the old motel, is being dedicated this week, and Kunstler’s been invited down to participate in the dedication ceremonies. Which have turned into an emotional reunion for the scattered black and white and graying veterans of that genuinely heroic and idealistic epoch.
On the flight down to Memphis, Kunstler was telling me about that moment in 1961 when his whole life changed and he found himself swept into the whirlwind of Martin Luther King’s moral crusade.
It was something very surprising and sudden. He was a latecomer to radicalism. “I was forty-three, I was living in Mamaroneck with a wife and two kids,” he recalls. His law practice then was mainly low-profile trust and estate work. He’d written a textbook on corporate tax law and passed his first fifteen years as a lawyer doing nothing more radical than joining the A.C.L.U.
In fact, he was more a writer than a lawyer, working on a book about famous crusading attorneys such as Clarence Darrow (The Case for Courage), but only dreaming of becoming one himself.
The summer of 1961 found him out on the West Coast doing publicity for his most recent book (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt?)—on the then celebrated Caryl Chessman ‘‘red-light bandit” death-penalty controversy—when he got the phone call which changed his life.
He remembers the day as if it were yesterday: “The day my life changed, June 14, 1961. Rowland Watts [of the A.C.L.U.] called me in California and said, ‘You’ve got to go to Jackson, Mississippi. The Freedom Riders are being arrested by the hundreds and being sent to Parchman’ “ (the notorious Mississippi chain-gang state pen).
Abraham Lincoln’s assassination turned out to be a good thing, Kunstler says. “Lincoln was a pretty bad guy, you know.”
“So he said, ‘There’s a black lawyer there by the name of Jack Young who is handling these cases. Drop in and say hi from the A.C.L.U.’ ”
When Kunstler arrived in Jackson, capital of the most defiantly segregationist state in the South, “I walked into Jack Young’s office—he was a postman who’d studied law in the office of the only other black lawyer in Mississippi at the time. And I said, ‘The A.C.L.U. sends you regards.’ He said, ‘Fuck the A.C.L.U. I need bodies here. I’m going crazy.’ ” Kunstler soon became more than a body. He became the co-architect of the legal strategy that played perhaps the crucial part in the success of the civil rights struggle in the South.
The Freedom Riders, you’ll recall, were trying to implement recent Supreme Court decisions banning segregation in interstate-transportation facilities (buses and bus-station lunch counters, rest rooms, and drinking fountains). What they were really doing was offering up their bodies as fodder to be beaten, jailed, and brutalized by the southern segregationist legal system in order to arouse northern outrage against the apartheid-like conditions down there.
They never expected to win their court casts. They expected to be jailed as Gandhian moral witnesses. What Kunstler did was help devise and implement a strategy that often led to their actually winning the cases, beating the racist system.
“Shortly thereafter, I met a young lawyer, a Mississippian whose great-grandfather was governor of Mississippi when it left the Union in 1861, William Higgs. And when we got to know each other he said, ‘Bill, there is this little-known statute coming out of the 1866 Civil Rights Act. Called Civil Rights Removal. It was enacted in order to keep newly freed slaves from being tried in the state courts by their old masters.’ ”
Kunstler thought the century-old Reconstruction statute could be used in the context of the Freedom Riders and King marches: to get the cases of protesters “removed” to federal courts, and—more importantly—to get the bodies of the protesters out of the jails, out of the custody of the murderously bitter southern lawmen.
A segregationist federal judge named Harold Cox heard Kunstler’s Freedom Rider-case removal argument. “We surprised all those Mississippi lawyers and D.A.’s. They knew nothing about the rule. But Cox, who was a bastard but at least read the law, he granted the motion.” And a legal revolution in the South was bom that made possible the success of the civil-rights crusade and brought Kunstler to Martin Luther King’s side, where he became his personal trial counsel, a position he held until King’s death.
It’s impossible to overestimate the exhilaration, the fear, the camaraderie that bound together those who went through that amazing struggle in the South, before it all turned sour after King’s assassination. You can hear it in Kunstler’s description of the first court case he handled for Dr. King, at a pivotal moment early in King’s desegregation campaign.
“They called me to Albany, Georgia, where there had been an injunction issued prohibiting Dr. King from speaking in public. The night the injunction came down I was with King,” Kunstler recalls. King wanted to go to the church where he was scheduled to speak, to see if it was filled. “Because if he couldn’t speak maybe he’d join in. And it was really filled. People stomping and cheering. And then two guys came up to us saying, ‘Dr. King, there’s a bunch of men with rifles looking for you. White men. You better get off the streets.’
“So we went back to the house and King said, ‘Let’s pull all the shades.’ And we did and we got a candle to light the room. And there was a piano in the room and King said, ‘I think we ought to sing.’ And from nowhere came a woman who played the piano. It was Coretta [King], myself, Martin, a couple of other people. And we sang for an hour. It was the most thrilling experience I ever had in my life.”
As he recalls that peak experience he adds, characteristically, “I wanted to pull the roof back. Let all America look in at this one white guy, brand-new to the southern civil-rights movement. With Martin Luther King and his wife … ”
That addendum is pure Kunstler. Here’s a story of undeniable courage, camaraderie, moral beauty. But he can’t help thinking of it in terms of a spotlight on “this one white guy”; the public-relations consciousness of the moment is inseparable from the emotional power of the thing in itself.
He stayed by King’s side all the way to Memphis in 1968, where King was leading a black sanitation men’s union strike. Kunstler had flown down from New York to seek an injunction against the Memphis police, who were breaking up picket lines. He arrived at the Lorraine Motel, where King was staying, checked into his room, and checked in with King.
“We were planning to have dinner that night to discuss the injunction. But he told me he had appointments elsewhere that evening, so we’d talk in the morning.”
They never did. That night, April 4, 1968, in his room at the Lorraine Motel, a few yards from King’s, Kunstler heard the shots.
Something changed that night. For Kunstler, for the country. A new, meaner, more violent and divisive spirit entered into the racial politics of America when King departed. For Kunstler it meant a shift from being at the very center of the middle-class moral consensus in the country as legal champion of King’s nonviolent crusade to a far more controversial, more marginal and dangerous association with far angrier, emphatically non-middle-class black militants like H. Rap Brown, the Black Panthers, and the “Attica brothers.” Whose credo was Rap Brown’s famous repudiation of King’s Gandhian stance: “Violence is as American as cherry pie. “
Not that Kunstler necessarily regretted the shift from center to fringe. Even before King died, Kunstler had come to prefer the caustic, sarcastic edge of Malcolm X to Dr. King’s noble piety.
“Martin’s been elevated into a plaster saint,” he tells me that day down in Memphis. “He’s become the white man’s Negro—remember the way Reagan lectured the blacks in South Africa, telling them they should be ‘more like Martin Luther King’?
“Malcolm,” he says, “had something Martin didn’t have. Martin had a private sense of humor, not a public one. Malcolm had a public one.”
After Malcolm became famous as the steely-eyed militant with the eloquent, hectoring rhetoric who rejected King’s nice-guy integrationism, Kunstler still saw another side of Malcolm, a kind of private warmth and generosity rarely on display to whites. There was the time Kunstler asked Malcolm to give an interview to a friend, a disabled man who worked part-time at a suburban paper near Kunstler’s Westchester home. “The guy was paralyzed and could only type with his toes, but Malcolm spent four hours with him, slowly, patiently repeating each sentence until he got it, all for an interview no one would see anyway.”
Kunstler has been supplying Spike Lee, who is doing the big, already controversial Malcolm X movie, with material he’s dug up from his personal files, including one of the first radio interviews Malcolm gave, in which Kunstler—the interviewer—opens by asking, with mock naivete, “Would you mind explaining for me the meaning of your name, which is the letter X?”
Spike Lee had told Kunstler he wanted to cast him in the film and Kunstler had thought he’d probably play himself. Somewhat to his surprise, he’s learned that Lee wants him to play the white judge who sentenced Malcolm to jail.
Interesting choice. I wondered if Lee, no mean student of character, had sensed something about Kunstler. Sensed perhaps a streak of judgmental harshness beneath his genuine warmth and gregariousness.
I get a hint of that hanging-judge side of him in the course of an argument we have on the question of assassination. The subject comes up in the aftermath of an extremely tense pre-trial hearing for alleged Kahane assassin El Sayyid Nosair.
Kunstler had succeeded in enraging the J.D.L. contingent that was watchdogging the Nosair trial by embracing the alleged assassin and planting a big kiss on his cheek. There was an audible gasp from the row of Kahane supporters in front of me. Followed by an urgent, outraged whisper: “Look! Kunstler kissed him!” “They don’t like it at all,” he says. “But you know, with me and clients—I get a relationship. I don’t want to feel that I have to conduct myself differently because they don’t like it. And besides,” Kunstler says, “Nosair looks in many ways like every nice Jewish boy I know, wouldn’t you say?”
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far, Bill,” I say.
What was it about that kiss that made it so incendiary, so transgressive? I sensed that what the J.D.L. contingent objected to was not the kiss but the blessing implied by the kiss, a blessing for the bloody deed Nosair was accused of: approval of the assassination, sealed with a kiss.
Were they right? I put it to Kunstler directly: “Nosair denies shooting Kahane, but what if he’d announced that he did kill him and that he was proud of it, that he did it to defend Palestinians in Israel, whatever? Would you have defended him on those grounds?”
“Of course,” he says quickly. “Because you felt that Kahane deserved to die?”
He pauses, and his words in response to that question come more slowly:
“No … You know, you know … I don’t want to sound too liberal in the article.”
I thought at first he meant he didn’t want to sound too extreme, too left. But, in fact, he was saying he didn’t want to sound too temperate: “I think there are some people that do deserve to die, who add nothing but misery and … I mean, Kahane was a hard and bad man … He was an awful guy. I won’t say that I don’t think the world is a better place without him.”
He pauses and sighs. “I got into a lot of trouble some years ago, remember, with the Kennedys? I was in Texas, where I had argued Jack Ruby’s appeal case, and I said that I thought that the world was a better place without the Kennedys, that they were two of the most dangerous men America ever produced. And there were revelations later that proved I wasn’t so far off-base: Vietnam, the wiretaps of King, the viciousness of the Kennedys. They were not a good crew, so I was just ahead of my time. The New York Times said in an editorial I should be disbarred, my associates were totally shocked, and it was probably a bad thing to say. But I don’t want to sound like some mealy-mouthed liberal who says, ‘Everybody has got a right to live.’ I’m not, you know. It may sound cold and callous to say that he deserved to die. But—think of Hitler— there are a lot of people that if they had been assassinated early in the game probably the world would be a better place, no question about it.”
“But isn’t that a double-edged sword?” I ask. “I mean, the guy who killed Martin Luther King thought the world would be a better place without him.”
“It’s a double … but you make political choices, you know,” Kunstler says. “King’s assassin was wrong.”
At this point he goes even further and says something even more inflammatory: he tells me the assassination of Abraham Lincoln turned out to be a good thing. “The assassination of Lincoln saved Reconstruction.” Lincoln, he says, opposed the efforts by northern liberals to enact laws to force the former Confederate states to treat the newly freed slaves fairly.
“Lincoln was a pretty bad guy, you know,” he persists. “His being assassinated gives him an aura.” He cites instances of Lincoln manifesting overt racist attitudes even while the Civil War was raging.
“But don’t you have to look at him compared with others of his time, actual slaveholders for instance?”
“No, you can’t do that. I don’t buy that. You can excuse anything that way. “
No excuses for Bill Kunstler, moral absolutist. Not even for himself: he faults himself for lacking the guts assassins have. “I wouldn’t say ‘Do it’ or encourage it,” he says. “But that’s because I’m still too much a middle-class white man.”
“Are you saying you wish you could be the type who would do it?” I ask him.
“In a way you always get the feeling that you would like to be more of a revolutionary. I’m doing a book about revolutionary lawyers—among them Thomas Jefferson, Robespierre, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro, Gandhi, Lenin, etc.—that have done it. Made a revolution. And yet maybe the times aren’t right or you lack the guts. But I can certainly understand it and I can defend people who do it. I don’t believe that everything can be done by law and order and the courts and the system. So, I’m not going to lie to you or anyone else, even though it makes me look a little hard sometimes.”
Where does all this guilt about middleclass inhibitions come from, this near religious self-laceration for failure of nerve? After thirty years of putting himself on the line and demonstrating the courage of his convictions, why does he still feel he “lacks guts,” why does he still have to prove he’s “hard” enough?
There’s a story he tells me one day in the Manhattan criminal-courts building, about his childhood, the story of The Black Boxer Who Still Waits for Bill, one that cries out to be read as a kind of Rosebud of Kunstler’s quest.
Kunstler is telling me about his childhood on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where he grew up in a family prosperous enough to have black servants in the house (his father was a doctor). For a while, he says, it looked as if he was headed for juvenile delinquency, hanging out, in his pre-high-school days, with a gang of poor Irish kids, committing petty crimes like robbing gumball machines for coins. Being accepted as part of “a gang of goyim” (as he calls it) gave him a sense of pride, but this brief brush with a life of crime vanished, he says, once he entered high school, felt himself challenged by the work, and turned into the honor student who would graduate Phi Beta Kappa from Yale.
But beneath the bright surface of this cursus honorum (which included winning a Bronze Star during W.W. II army service in the Pacific) there was a dark stain, he says, a legacy of racism that ran in his own family. One, he tells me that morning in court, which no white American can escape from.
“You get it in your mother’s milk,” he says, although he recalls getting it from his father’s mouth. “You know when you’re a kid in a car, and you hear your father yell ‘nigger’ at someone who cuts him off?”
“What do you mean ‘your father’?” I say. “My father never used the word.”
“Well, mine did,” Kunstler says, “and my mother had black servants, it was there in the background.”
But there was one moment in particular when it emerged suddenly: racism red in tooth and claw. It happened when young Bill told his father he wanted to pay a special visit to Harlem to see a sick black man.
“I’d seen a story about a black boxer named Sam Langford who’d been injured or something and I wrote to him, you know, an encouraging letter saying I’d like to meet him. And he wrote back saying I could meet him if I showed up at a certain place at a certain time up in Harlem. But then I told my father about it and he told me, ‘Harlem! You can’t go up there, they’ll cut you up with razors.’ When I wouldn’t listen he brought in this police detective he knew who tried to scare me with all these stories of dangerous criminal black people who’d rob me and kill me.”
Young Bill bought the scare story.
“I bought this bill of goods,” says Kunstler, still remorseful sixty years later. “I didn’t go.”
He shakes his head. “I didn’t go,” he repeats. “I always regretted it. I tore up the letter he wrote me. I flushed it down the toilet. I didn’t want it around.”
You can hear it in his voice as he tells it: he still has a mortifying vision of the injured black boxer sitting in a lonely room somewhere up in Harlem sorrowfully waiting for the white boy who never showed up.
Not that the real-world boxer necessarily gave it a second thought. But, magnified by the distorting lens of adolescent emotion and guilt, the wounded black athlete is still there waiting, an eternal reproach to the boy who let him down. And a constant metaphorical admonition embedded in the psyche: Never let a black man down again, never fail to come to his rescue, never give in to that white middle-class caution ever again.
What that means in practice is crucial: that Kunstler is virtually unable to criticize, or even advise moderation to, any black radical for fear that the impulse to restraint comes from the same infirmity—white middle-class inhibitions—that held him back from visiting that boxer.
Once, in a coffee shop, the one that boasts his picture on the wall, I asked him directly: “You believe no white person can have the moral standing to criticize the strategy and tactics of black people?”
“No,” he said flatly. “Until some mythical day when whites and blacks are really truly equal in their own eyes and in the eyes of each other, white people cannot have more than a surface input into decisions that affect blacks.”
“So you can’t criticize Sharpton, say?”
“No, not publicly.”
What’s disturbing about this attitude is the overtone of paternalism: he might be willing to tell a few black leaders in private his reservations about their strategy. But he won’t communicate any such criticisms to the ordinary newspaper-reading, TV-news-watching black citizen. He may have his reasons (solidarity in the face of white America), but in effect he’s denying the black man on the street the best, truest fruits of his intelligence and experience. Why? Because he doesn’t think they can handle it? Or because Kunstler himself is a bit too dazzled and intimidated to dissent from charismatic black figures? Like, say, Larry Davis: is Kunstler’s praise of Davis for shooting cops really going to “put the fear of God in police officers”? Or is it more likely to end up putting a bullet in the heart of an unarmed black kid because a cop on the beat has taken Kunstler’s ill-considered words to mean that every black kid is gunning for him?
And isn’t it ultimately condescending to assume that all black defendants are victims? Doesn’t that deny black people the power and dignity of taking responsibility for their own actions?
The paradoxes of white guilt offer no easy way out to those obsessed with absolution.
“Bill has a lot of guilt,” someone who knows him suggested to me. “You can see it in the way he treats his family now, his second wife and kids. With his first wife it was, well, he was traveling all over the country and, you know … and he was away from his kids a lot, too, and you can see how he’s been really devoting his time to his new kids now, really wants to do right by them. And with the people he defends, he wants so badly to be loved by them, to have them hug him, to be the one who rescues them, to make up for …”
There’s some truth to this observation. At one point, while we were in Memphis, Kunstler spoke frankly about the failure of his first marriage. About his fears in marrying a much younger woman (by twenty-six years), how he worried whether he should have started a second family at that age—what if he’d died too soon and left his new kids fatherless at a tender age? There is a lot of guilt in his personal makeup. But nothing as profound as his guilt over being white—and his relentless search for expiation for the Original Sin of his skin color.
Memphis again. Bill Kunstler is sobbing in a church. He’s up at the pulpit in front of a packed house of his civil rights-movement brethren. He’s begun to introduce his old comrade-in-arms H. Rap Brown (now a Muslim named Jamil Al-Amin). He’s started to recall some of the trials they’ve gone through together, but he reaches one particular point, one particular memory, and he can’t go on. He breaks down and flees the podium.
Now, Kunstler is an emotional guy and a good actor for a lawyer (some might say a good lawyer for an actor). And I’ve seen him get emotional and go around embracing friends and strangers, kissing alleged assassins and the like. But this weeping, this loss of control, seems different, seems to come from a deeper place, the place where the black boxer still waits for Bill.
The break point came when Kunstler was describing an extremely intense period back in 1970, when Rap Brown was a fugitive wanted by the Feds for “crossing state lines to incite a riot.”
Brown disappeared, went underground. But Kunstler kept the faith— even after viewing a horribly mangled corpse he had been told was the remains of his friend. “I saw half a brain sliding down a stop sign, but I knew the body wasn’t Rap’s.”
And then suddenly, in late 1971, Rap Brown did surface, in a bloody shootout with cops in New York at a bar called the Red Carpet Lounge following what the cops claimed was a bungled armed-robbery attempt. Brown wound up near death from two slugs in his stomach, under arrest, under heavy guard, in a Rikers Island hospital bed.
Most white liberals were scandalized by the episode, a confirmation of their fears about the new, militant leadership of the movement. But Kunstler didn’t hesitate. He rushed to be at Brown’s side and, after conferring with his client, told the world that H. Rap Brown wasn’t some common stickup artist, that the shoot-out actually resulted from Brown’s attempt to put some drug dealers out of business. That it wasn’t a crime but an act of idealism. It was a foreshadowing of the defense he used for Larry Davis: one brave man taking on a ring of drug dealers.
It’s a defense that provoked intense skepticism. Kunstler knew it would, but he didn’t care. Once again a stricken black fighter had summoned him to his side, once again the voices of white middle-class caution were warning him it’s too dangerous, back off. It’s the test of faith he failed in that Lord Jim moment as a youth. But his tears today, as he recalls his visit to Rap Brown’s hospital bed, are tears of triumph because this time he backed up the black fighter, stayed at his side. Whatever the truth about what Rap Brown did, Bill Kunstler kept the faith.