How I First Found the National Lawyers Guild

1965:  How I First Found the Guild

by Michael Steven Smith

The Guild in the early sixties was not so easy to find, especially if you were from Wisconsin.  The culture of the Witchhunt still prevailed.  I had come east to New York and was in NYU Law School in l964 and was one to two radicals in the freshman class.  The other had been a founder of SDS at Ann Arbor.

The Guild in the early sixties was bowed, but unbroken.  It fought successfully to not be placed on the Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations.  It had a chapter in New York City, but zero presence at NYU as far as we knew of.  It took my transfering out of NYU to the law school at The University of Wisconsin to make the connection.  It was fortuitious, as I suspect most additions to the NLG’s ranks were in those days before the broad student radicalization which was to come around l968, four years later.

NYU law cost $5,300 a year and I ran out of money, or more precisely, my parents and I ran out of money.  They had two other children in college at the time.  I had grown up in Fox Point, a small Republican village north of Milwaukee and had set my hopes on escaping.  I went to the University of Wisconsin as an undergrad and now found myself dissappointedly back there, this time in their law school, which charged $100 a semester in tuition.  I was able to work for my room and board.

But Wisconsin had a deservely progressive reputation and it was there at the law school that I met Karen Mills, who would be my connection to the Guild.  She was a red diaper baby from Great Neck, via Brooklyn Heights.  Her dad Saul Mills was an historical figure, I later learned.  He had been a reporter for The Brooklyn Eagle and an organizer of The Newspaper Guild before becoming secretary to John L. Lewis, the head of the militant United Mine Wokers and the newly formed C.I.O.

Saul Mills needed legal help and he got it from two young lawyers with whom he would become friends and who had recently started up a new firm.  They were Leonard Boudin and Victor Rabinowitz.  The firm, Rabinowitz, Boudin, and Standard, would become the great fighting leftist firm for the next generation.

Meanwhile, my new friend Karen was friends with Joannie Rabinowitz, Victor’s daughter.  They had gone to Antioch College, another progressive place,  and Joannie came out to Madison to visit.  That summer I was to be a clerk in a firm in Oakland, California.  Joannie was heading west too and told me she would be organizing farm workers with Cesar Chavez in the Salinas Valley.  (Three years before she had organized for civil rights down south.  While marching in an integrated demo some Ku Kluxer type on the sidelines yelled out to her, “You New York commie Jew nigger lover,” to which she shouted back, simply and proudly, “You’re right.”)

Joannie took me over to have Sunday supper with a woman who was a friend of her family’s.  That’s how I got to meet the extraordinary Ann Fagan Ginger.  Ann was welcoming and talkative.  She lived in a modest bay area house with a detached garage.  If this government did things right that garage today would be a national monument for it housed the Alexander Mikeljohn Library.  It was a tremendous resource for lawyers litigating civil rights cases

Ann showed me the library and told me about the Guild.  I liked what I saw and heard, although I was a little uneasy, knowing that by associating with people of her political coloration I was crossing a line that I suspected the government would know about.  But so what.

I finished law school a year later and to escape the draft joined VISTA, a sort of domestic Peace Corp, and moved to Detroit to do poverty law and tenant organizing in the inner city.  There I met the Guild – on the battle lines.  Jim Lafferty was there, having just finished being National Secretary and running for Congress against the Vietnam war.    Future Guild President Bill Goodman was there in the firm started by his father Ernie, the first integrated law firm in the country.  It was called Goodman, Crocket, Eden, Robb and Bedrosian.  It came out of the rise of the United Automobile Workers, the great C.I.O. union, and went on to spearhead the Guild’s civil rights work in the south in the early sixties.

A year after I got there future Guild leaders Dick Soble and Buck Davis reported for duty in VISTA.    In l969 we formed an NLG firm called Lafferty, Reosti, Papahkian,  James, Stickgold, Smith, and Soble.  We had a non-lawyer woman Linda Mass as a partner, but couldn’t list her on the letterhead.  In an Inter-Office Memorandum of December l, l970, Lt. Dennis Mulaney, Detroit Police Department Red Squad, wrote “There is hardly an underground newspaper, black liberation, or left wing group of any kind in Detroit that at one time or another was not represented by the law firm…”

We have all been Guild supporters and activists through the years.  But it  was my singular good fortune to meet Joannie Rabinowitz and to go over to Ann Ginger’s home for dinner 42 years ago.

by Michael Steven Smith
New York City

Leave a Reply