Michael Steven Smith

Michael Steven Smith is an author, speaker, and New York City attorney with the firm Michael Steven Smith and Associates. His firm has for twenty years successfully represented victims in suits against insurance companies in cases of medical malpractise and other accidents. He has authored our edited five books including "Notebook of a Sixties Lawyer: An Unrepentant Memoir and Selected Writings", "Lawyers You'll Like: Putting Human Rights First", "The Emerging Police State" by William M. Kunstler, and Che Guevara and the FBI (with Michael Ratner). Mr. Smith has written articles for The New York State Bar Association; Capitalism, Nature and Socialism; Against the Current; and Socialism and Democracy. He is a co-host on the weekly magazine format radio show Law and Disorder (lawanddisorder.org) heard on Monday mornings at ten o'clock on WBAI, 99.5 FM. He is on the board of directors of The Center for Constitutional Rights, The Left Forum, and The Brecht Forum. He lives in New York City with his wife Debby and parrot Charlie Parker. AFFILIATION Board member of The Center for Constitutional Rights, and The Brecht Forum.

Remembrance of Malcolm X on his 84th Birthday

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Dear Friends,

I heard Malcolm speak when he came to The University of Wisconsin in 1963.  He had yet to break with The Nation of Islam and was protected by several of their bodyguards.  All were dressed nattily in suits and small knotted narrow neckties.  Malcolm had light skin and reddish hair.  “Detroit Red” they had called him when he lived there.   He spoke in a cadence which was musical.  I can’t remember the details of what he said.   The short of it was that he counseled fighting back.  He had a wonderful sense of humor.  A lovely and courageous man, I thought then.   He once posed for a photo in front of a Levy’s rye bread advertisement which proclaimed “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.”  Despite my atheism, I identified with him, supported him, followed his evolution into a revolutionary and supporter of socialism.  I smiled when he said, reflecting on reforming capitalism, that a chicken can never lay a duck egg.  And if it ever did, well,  it would be a pretty revolutionary chicken.   A friend of mine had a photo of him on her apartment wall and said she loved Malcolm.  I knew what she meant.

I remember clearly the night Malcolm X was murdered in the winter of l965, a cold February night.   I had come home late to my law school dorm at NYU and picked up the New York Times, which you could get after midnight.  The story of his death was on the front page.  Crushing.  The true story emerged later, the story of Co-intellpro and how the government assassinated Black leaders in order to “prevent the rise of a new messiah,” in J.Edgar Hoover’s words.

It was a blow we are still reeling from.  Imagine the level of consciousness and organization we in America would be at if Malcolm was still here, instead of say Reverend Al Sharpton, whom the media foists on us as a leader.  Or, truth be told, Barack Obama, who just appointed General MacChrystal, an assassin, to head the U.S. imperial forces in Afganistan.  Obama, promoted by modern advertising, as Chomsky has written, foisted  upon us as “Brand Obama”, in Chris Hedges description, a Black man with the keys to the car, now driving the empire, misleading, widely, for the time being, supported by both those who profit from empire and those who don’t.

Two years later in l967, I moved to Detroit.  A real Black nationalist place.  I appreciated that Malcolm had lived there.  When Pathfinder Press published Malcolm Speaks, edited by George Breitman and then a second seminal volume by Breitman, Malcolm X:  The Evolution of a Revolutionary,  I got them carried by the central book distributor in the area and they appeared in many bookstores Detroit.  Later when I worked for Pathfinder in New York City I helped get them distributed nationwide.   They are still in print. Malcolm has been relegated to an icon, the fate as Lenin wrote, of many revolutionaries.  His picture adorns a U.S. postage stamp.  This is now.  Who can tell the future?   I think it is likely that what Malcolm stood for, Black consciousness, uinity in action, identity with those struggling against imperialism worldwide, independence from the two capitalist parties, self-defense by any means necessary, a deep sense of love, as Che said,  those ideas will have a time to come to the fore.

A birthday salute to our brother Malcolm X,

Michael Smith

Harvey Goldberg: Teacher – Historian – Political Activist

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

Harvey Goldberg brought to life the history of social movements in Europe and much of the world to thousands of students during his teaching career at Oberlin College, Ohio State University and at the University of Wisconsin. His passionate and electrifying lectures regularly filled halls to maximum capacity. Many of his lectures were recorded. Below please find one of my favorites:

Ideology of Private Property 2/25/1977

Where did the idea of Private Property come from and how did the world work before then? What has become of mankind since the concept took hold. What beliefs do you hold regarding the sanctity and persistence of private property and what would happen if you gave up those beliefs? These are some of the questions that are addressed in this spellbinding lecture

You can find more his recorded lectures at the Harvey Goldberg section of the The Brecht Forum website. – put together by Richard Bonomo.

Review: The Dissidents: Cuban State Security Agents Reveal the True Story

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

The Dissidents: Cuban State Security Agents Reveal the True Story
by Rosa Miriam Elizalde and Luis Baez
published by Editora Politica/ LaHabana, 2003

This is an important and persuasive book. It should be brought to the attention of all those who are inclined to support Cuba but who are not fully informed about the “dissidents”, tried and imprisoned by the Cuban government last year. “Progressive Cuba bashers,” to use Richard Levins’ apt term, mistakenly believe, like David Frankel, writing in the September/October 2004 issue of Against the Current, that those imprisoned were victimized “for non-violent expression of views the regime can’t tolerate.” This is not the case as this book proves.

In his speech given at the launching of this book, which is printed as the introduction to the English edition, Felipe Peres Roque, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, observed that “the so-called ‘dissidents’ in Cuba are a creation of the aggressive policy of the U.S. government…and form part of the strategy to obtain, through pressure and blackmail, the condemnation of Cuba in the (U.N.) Commission on Human Rights, which can then be used as justification for the blockade.” While tolerated for years, it was only after Bush made “pre-emptive war” against Iraq and, without a sense of irony, labeled Cuba “terrorist,” and put it high on its list for “regime change” that the “dissidents” were arrested for provocation and subversion – not for “non-violent expression of views the regime can’t tolerate” – and brought to justice. Their efforts to build a network to overthrow Cuban socialism, to “aid in the transition,” as American legislation authorizing money (some 20 million so far under the l966 Helms-Burton Act) delicately puts it, was thwarted by these agents of Cuban State Security.

The eight Cuban State Security Agents interviewed in “The Dissidents” had all surfaced as prosecution witnesses at the 2003 trials in Havana, thus blowing their covers and infiltration of the “dissident” groups in Cuba and making this book possible. These eight are the cream of the Cuban revolution and the counterparts to The Cuban Five, their comrades, also members of Cuban State Security, long imprisoned in America, for joining and reporting on the activities of counter-revolutionary groups in Miami.

The interviews were done in a week’s time by two Cuban journalists. Luis Baez Hernandez, age 78, of Havana, was a war correspondent during the Bay of Pigs invasion.  He is a recipient of the Jose Marti National Journalism Prize and the Jose Marti International Journalism Prize awarded by Prensa Latina international press agency among other awards.  Rosa Miriam Elizalde of Sancti Spiritus, age 38, is also an award winning journalist. She was a columnist and then assistant director of Juventud Rebelde, the Cuban youth newspaper. She has written two books on prostitution, Jineteros en La Habana and Flores Desechables. Currently she directs two major Cuban online publications (www.cubasi.cu and www.antiterroristas.cu).

Agent Miguel, one of the people interviewed, joined the Cuban Democratic Socialist Current (CSCD) in l992 and then on instructions from Cuban State Security, the Cuban Association of Independent Journalists (APIC). There he found a “crazy world of gossip and intrigue.” He was given a computer and paid $l00 a month from sources in Miami and given instructions by the Cuban American National Foundation, the counter-revolutionary U.S. supported group in Miami, and from Charles Shapiro, the head of the Cuba desk at the U.S. State Department. He was also lead by Judith Bryan of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana.

The U.S. broke ties with Cuba in l960 following Cuba’s nationalization of U.S. property, an act the U.S. provoked by refusing to refine oil in its Cuban refineries. Cuba offered to pay for the nationalized property, which is proper under international law, but the U.S. refused, initiating (more…)

Michael Steven Smith on “Conversations with Harold Hudson Channer”

Saturday, February 9th, 2008

WOBBLY ROOTS OF THE GUILD: A Piece of Our Hidden History

Sunday, November 18th, 2007

WOBBLY ROOTS OF THE GUILD: A Piece of Our Hidden History

James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 by Bryan D. Palmer: Book Cover

A Book Review of:
University of Illinois Press, www.press.uillinois.edu, 2007

A root of the National Lawyers Guild, formed in l937, goes further back to the post WWI American revolutionary left, to the newly established Communist (Workers) Party (1919) and beyond that to the legendary Industrial Workers of the World, the legendary often romanticized fighters for industrial democracy and the precursor of the CIO, the magnificent Wobblies.

For the IWW, “An Injury To One Is An Injury To All.”  It was the Wobby poet Ralph Chapin who wrote the famous working class anthem “Solidarity Forever”.  They expressed their class solidarity in the concept of “mass defense”, a practise the NLG undertakes to this very day with its support to and work in the defense, say,  of Mumia Abu Jamal, The Cuban Five, or The Jena Six.  The one person most responsible for this aspect of our heritage  was James P. Cannon, as Professor Brian Palmer shows in his beautifully written and exhaustively researched new book JAMES P. CANNON and the ORIGINS of the AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY LEFT 1990 – 1928.

Cannon was a radical Irishman from the Midwest.  His dad, John Cannon, was a rank and filer, what was called then a “Jimmy Higgins”, and a stalwart in the Debsian wing of the Socialist Party.  Jim Cannon, at age 18, joined the SP in 1908.  He took up with the Wobblies in the left wing of the SP and developed into an excellent organizer and speaker.  Jim worked with two outstanding Wobbly leaders, Vincent St. John and the founder in1905 of the IWW and head of The Western Federation of Miners, the great almost mythical figure William “Big Bill” Haywood.

The IWW defended immigrants, persons of color and strike victims.  They insisted on freedom of speech and assembly.  They were very radical and knew deep in their bones the truth about law as Bill Kunstler once described it.  “To me, (the law) is in its fundamental essence, nothing more than a method of control created by a socioeconomic system determined, at all costs, to perpetuate itself by any and all means necessary, for as long as possible.  Clarence Darrow put it even more expansively…..when he said ‘there is no justice – in or out of court.’”

When their Russian socialist comrades, led by the Bolshevik party of Lenin and Trotsky, overthrew capitalism, stopped World War One, and got rid of the Russian feudal monarchy and the Christian Orthodox church, the left wing of the American movement gave total support and solidarity.  Jim Cannon helped form and was one of the three leaders of the new Communist Party.  Actually two parties were formed.  They soon merged. Cannon was elected Chairman of the Workers Party.

Cannon helped get the movement – faced with fearsome repression, jailings, deportations and the Palmer Raids – up from underground and into the public political arena.  He worked to bring together the native American born radicals and their foreign born brothers and sisters then in the foreign language federations.

Revolutionary parties formed around the world in support of the great Russian revolution.  They banded together in what was called The Third International and met periodically in Moscow to conference and plan how to carry forward their work of defending and extending the revolution.  Because they didn’t have teleconferencing, e mails, or DHL, these meetings often lasted for months.  Cannon was the delegate from the American party to the conference in l926.   He and his companion, Rose Karsner, current NLG leader Matt Ross’ grandmother, met there with “Big Bill” Haywood, who had escaped a frame-up and was living in exile, protected by the Russian comrades as Assata Shakur is now protected by the Cubans.   Together they sketched (more…)

How I First Found the National Lawyers Guild

Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

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 (more…)

Book Review: Overcoming Zionism by Joel Kovel

Saturday, January 13th, 2007

This review was written for Socialism and Democracy
(www.sdonline.org) and will appear in the journal’s November 2007 issue (no. 45; vol. 21, no.3).

Joel Kovel, Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine (London and Ann Arbor Pluto Press, 2007).

Joel Kovel has given us an impressive and important book. Its first printing sold out without a single review, major or otherwise. Nevertheless word of this extraordinary work is spreading. The taboo in the United States (not Israel) against seriously discussing and criticizing Zionist Israel has been broken with the publication of Jimmy Carter’s bold book labeling the situation in the Occupied Territories “apartheid” and with the exposure by prestigious professors Mearsheimer and Walt – in the London Review of Books after rejection by the Atlantic Monthly – of the power of the Israeli lobby. Kovel, by focusing squarely on how to “overcome” Zionism, takes the discussion exactly where it needs to go from there. He writes beautifully, even poetically, not just on Zionism’s sordid history, but on its ideology, its ethics, and even on the terrible ecological devastation in Israel itself, where every river is polluted, some to lethal levels. And he writes with courage and hope.

Kovel believes that the creation of Israel in l948, as a colony of settlers who established an exclusively Jewish and discriminatory state, has created a multi-faceted disaster – “a dreadful mistake” – that should be undone, with Israel de-Zionized and integrated into the Middle East. His solution is stated in the book’s subtitle and restated in the title of the last chapter: “Palesrael: A Secular and Universal Democracy for Israel/Palestine.” This is an elegant solution, and he lays out an action program to accomplish it.

How did Kovel, a Jew from Brooklyn, the oldest son of Ukrainian immigrants who did well – moving with Joel to “the purgatory of Baldwin, Long Island” – come to this radical critique and equally radical solution? Joel graduated from Yale and became a successful psychiatrist. He taught at medical school before switching careers and taking a social science professorship at Bard, where for a time he held the Alger Hiss chair. He is still there, the only Marxist on the faculty. This book is not going to further his career.

“What kind of Jew am I?” he asks, and answers “a very bad one.” More accurately, he defines himself as what Isaac Deutscher called “a non-Jewish Jew.” Not that he is not spiritual; he writes of reaching for the infinite. But he is not religious. Being part of a sect is too narrowing and confining. He identifies with the Jewish heretics who transcended Jewry, but who are nonetheless part of the Jewish tradition – he lists Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Proust, Einstein, Kafka, Wittgenstein, and Luxemburg – and for whom “the true glory” of being Jewish is to live “on the margin and across boundaries.”

Kovel writes that the ethical reference point for Jews is the tribal unit. Since ancient times they set themselves off as “a people apart,” chosen by Jehovah, with whom they have a covenant. In Kovel’s view, “Zionism’s dynamic was drawn from the most tribal and particularistic stratum of (more…)

The Magical Animal

Monday, January 8th, 2007


We bought Charlie almost fifteen years ago. We hadn’t intended to buy a bird. It was supposed to be a zoo visit. Debby found out about this cool place in Tribeca, The Urban Bird. All the baby birds for sale were just out there, standing on perches, sleeping in little cozy nests. No cages. Just young parrots – all kinds, sizes, and colors. Green ones from South and Central America; white ones from Australia; blue and scarlet ones from Indonesia; and Charlie, a grey one with a red tail from Central Africa. Charlie was featherless at the time and living above the store in the nursery. But I am getting ahead of my story.

All the birds in the store were babies, with one exception. One old bird was living in a cage, hanging high from the ceiling, in the back of the store, commanding a view of all who entered. I opened the door and Eli, our son, age ten, and I walked in. Debby lingered by the cash register reading a New Yorker article about this “only in New York” place.

The old bird spotted us. He was old and bitter. The two guys that had owned him had abandoned him when they split up. He saw us and yelled out “I’ve got a yeast infection.”  ”What?”, said Eli, looking up first at the bird and then at me. Before I could answer the bird added a “fuck you.” Instantly Eli responded, “Dad, can we get a bird like that one?” And so we did.

Parrots bond with one mate for life. Since we were part of the flock it would be one of us and with Eli at camp, it would be me or Debby. The issue was settled when Charlie, sitting on my index finger, bent down and bit me. “You son- of- a- bitch,” I exclaimed and reflexively dropped the poor bird. He never forgot it. And he bonded with Debby. He even tries to feed her, so that she will lay a good egg.  Even though she rebuffs his attempts, he still loves her.  And when he is mad he still says ” you son-of-a-bitch” in my voice.

Along with Charlie we had an outsized grey cat named Moe. Charlie was smarter than Moe and used to mess with him. “Come here Moe,’ he would command, in my tone of voice. Moe would wander over. And Charlie would wait until he got over to his cage and say “You grey son-of-a-bitch.”

When Eli would practice guitar in the living room where Charlie lives in his cage he frequently would meet with Charlie’s free associations. Once a day Charlie unburdens himself with every phrase he knows, going on and on until it could make you crazy or you leave the room. That’s how he learned how to say “I’m gonna kick your ass.” Eli would yell that at him, hoping he would shut up, but to no avail.

On the morning of 9/ll I was supposed to meet my friend John Pellaton for breakfast at Windows on the World, atop of Tower Two at the World Trade Center. We were to meet at 8:00 o’clock. The first plane hit the building at 8:40. But John had a meeting and called just before to cancel. So we were still at home at the time the crash shook our apartment. When it shook it again for the second time we thought we were being bombed. With the big cat and Charlie we weren’t very portable, so we stayed put the first night. Everyone in our building left, except for us, Moe, Charlie, and a blind bass player on the 6th floor. The FBI rousted us the next morning. (more…)

Book Review: Radicals, Rabbis, and Peacemakers

Tuesday, November 29th, 2005

RADICALS, RABBIS, AND PEACEMAKERS: Conversations With Jewish Critics of Israel, by Seth Farber, Common Courage Press,  252  Pages, $l9.95.  207-525-0900.

Reviewed by Michael Steven Smith

My grandparents came to America from Hungary in 1912. My family who stayed there and the Hungarian Jewish population were mostly killed by the facists in the bitter winter of l944, some 800,000. Twenty thousand alone died of the cold and disease, huddled in the great unheated synagogue, the largest in the world, on Dohany Street in Budapest. I was in Budapest with my wife and sister and friends this past October vacationing and visiting my cousins. As it happened it was during Yom Kippur, the Jewish high holiday and new year. We are not religious, nor are my Hungarian relatives, but we asked them to take us  to that synagogue  for Yom Kippur services. It was quite stirring to be there amongst the remnant of that ancient Jewish community that had been in Budapest going back to the times of the Romans.

My Hungarian cousin Anti is still alive and vigorous at age 96. He was not picked up in l944 with the others but rather in l94l, because he was a communist. So was his wife Manci. They managed to place their two year old son Vili with a sympathetic Christian woman before being arrested and put in separate labor camps. Anti soon escaped and fought in the forests with the Partisans. He is figure mentioned by his country’s historians. Manci lived. In l945 with the Russian liberation they returned to Budapest to fetch their son. Vili answered the door. “I am your mother,” said Manci. “No you are not,” answered Vili. “My mother was beautiful.” She was ninety pounds and bald. So they started anew.

The history of the Zionists in Hungary is a sordid one, even before they established their exclusivist colonial settler state in Palestine. My cousins, who were not important people, were amongst the several thousand Hungarian Jews who survived the fire. A pact was signed by Dr. Rudolph Kastner of the Jewish Agency Rescue Committee and Nazi exterminator Adolph Eichmann in l944 allowing 600 prominent Jews to leave in exchange for Zionist silence on the fate of the remainder. Malchiel Greenwald, a Hungarian survivor, exposed the deal and was sued by the Israeli government, whose leaders at the time had actually drawn up the terms of the pact. Greenwald won. The Israeli court concluded, “The sacrifice of the majority of Hungarian Jews, in order to rescue the prominent ones (and send them to colonize Palestine – MSS) was the basic element in the agreement between Kastner and the Nazis….In addition to its Extermination Department and Looting Department, the Nazi S.S. opened a Rescue Department headed by Kastner.” ( Judgment given on June 22, 1955, Protocol of Criminal Case 124/53 in District Court, Jerusalem.)

In point of fact, members of the Zionist movement actively collaborated with Nazism from the beginning. The World Zionist Organization sabotaged world Jewry’s attempt to boycott the Nazi economy in order to be allowed to send money from Germany to Palestine. They fought against liberalization of U.S. immigration laws, for they wanted European Jews to go to Palestine, not America. As Ralph Schoenman, like me, an American Jew of Hungarian descent, wrote  “This obsession with colonizing Palestine and overwhelming the Arabs led the Zionist movement to oppose any rescue of the Jews facing extermination, because the ability to deflect manpower to Palestine would be impeded.(The Hidden History of Zionism, Veritas Press, P. 50)   David Ben Gurion summarized to a meeting of “left” Zionists in 1938 in England: “If I knew that it would be possible to save al the children in Germany by bringing them over to England and only half of them by transporting them to Eretz Israel, then I opt for the second alternative.” (cited in Lenni Brenner, “Zionism in the age of the Dictators,” p.49)

The first time I toured and worked in Israel was over the summer of 1959. I was sixteen years old. Israel was eleven. Anti’s brother Carl and his son managed to survive and get to Israel. The lived in Jaffa, a once Arab village north of Tel Aviv which was ethnically cleansed in l948. I found (more…)

Judge Bruce M. Wright is Dead

Saturday, September 17th, 2005

NLG friend Judge Bruce M. Wright died at age 86 this past March.  He was a significant figure in the heritage and history of our country not only as a jurist and attorney, but as a humanist intellectual, a poet, and a humorist, as the two volumes of his autobiography reveal ( Black Robes, White Justice, and Black Justice in a White World).

Wright became a New York City judge relatively late in his life, unexpectedly appointed by Mayor John Lindsay in l970.  When Lindsay told him of his appointment, Wright, unbelievingly, replied that he couldn’t accept the judgeship because he did not have the money to pay for it.  He was then 52 years old.  He had been a published poet, a lawyer, a decorated WWII combat veteran, an Army deserter, a manager and advisor to jazz musicians, and an expatriate intellectual in Paris.  He met Gertrude Stein, Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, and James Baldwin, with whom he got drunk on scotch ending up in a French hospital with a bleeding ulcer.  He worked on a magazine with Leopold Senghor, the future president of Senegal, with whom he remained a life-long friend.  Like many black Americans, Bruce Wright found the City of Light less oppressive, deserting the Army on his way back to America from European combat, making the decision en route when a white officer looked at his medals and then looking straight at him said, “I didn’t know they allowed niggers to fight.”  During the war From the Shaken Tower, a book of his poetry, was published in England and it was at that time also that he began his collaboration with Langston Hughes.

Returning stateside and moving to Harlem, where he lived for six decades, Wright knew Harlem renaissance artists Romaine Bearden, Charles Alson, and Aaron Douglas, whose murals of the African American experience decorate the Harlem library.  Wright was closely associated with the post WWII jazz scene.  The emergence of black nationalism in the northern ghettos in the l950s coincided and interrelated with revolution in black music called Bebop.  The Beboppers were rebels, culturally and personally, if not overtly politically.  They took jazz and stood it on its head, taking traditional “American classical music,” the great gift of black America to the world, and elevated it to new levels of complexity and beauty.  Bruce Wright, a rebel himself, identified and associated with the new music at its birth and was a manager and business advisor to great artists including Max Roach, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Mary Lou Williams, and Sonny Rollins.

Wright’s mother was Irish, one of l3 children, whose ancestors came from Ireland around l825, settling in Newark, New Jersey.  Bruce was raised in Princeton in a loving home with a brother and sister.  His father was black man from Monserrat, a Caribbean island from which he immigrated because “there was nothing to do except haul water to Antigua.”  Wright remembered his mother as “a tall, handsome woman, jolly and a moderate drinker.  she seemed to be at ease with the black neighbors among whom we always lived.  “My father,” he recalled, “was five feet four inches tall, a pefectly reasonable height for a pacifist.  A survivor of WWI, he preached to me from childhood the imagined virtues of imagined peace.”  They were buried in a segregated cemetery, separated on the basis of race.  “My mother and her old sister…are buried in the white section.  My father lies in the same obscurity he knew in life, in the areas reserved for the black dead.”

Wright ran afoul of the New York City police and prosecutors when he refused to rubber stamp routinely high bail requests, which not only denied the accused the right to be free to help prepare their own defense but worked in practise as preventive detention.  When he released an accused cop killer (latter acquitted) the Policemen’s Benevolent Association went ballistic.  The tabloid press dubbed him “Turn ‘em Loose Bruce.”

A demonstration, built with the help of the Guild and Bruce’s friend Guild President Hal Mayerson was called in his defense.  Hundreds gathered to support him in front of the downtown Municipal Building.  When his judgeship was not renewed, he ran for the Civil Court from Harlem and won a ten-year term.  Bruce was extremely popular among lawyers who appeared before him because of his intelligence and courtesy.

Bruce M. Wright was a well known figure in Harlem.  The encomium that he liked best was given him the day a car knocked him off his bicycle, seriously injuring him.  As Wright lay in the street, a passerby looked down at him and said, “Oh shit, its the judge.”

by Michael Steven Smith