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William Kunstler: Armchair Liberal Turned Radical Lawyer

William Moses Kunstler (July 7, 1919 – September 4, 1995) was a giant in the legal profession most well-known for his groundbreaking civil rights and social justice work. While a highly controversial figure throughout his career, his work continues to inspire movements in the ongoing fights for human rights and social justice, legacies that run deeply in the streets and hearts of Greenwich Village, where Mr. Kunstler lived and worked for decades.

William Kunstler in his Greenwich Village home/office at 13 Gay Street. Photo courtesy of Getty images/Ron Galella

Mr. Kunstler’s championing of left-of-center causes dates from the height of the civil rights movement’s sit ins and continued through the most divisive days of the Vietnam War and into the mid-1990s.

Kunstler was born in New York in 1919, the oldest of three children in a middle-class Jewish family that lived on Central Park West on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He graduated with honors from Yale University in 1941 and subsequently served in the Army Signal Corps during World War II, where he earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and rose to the rank of major.

After serving in the military during WW II, Kunstler earned a law degree from Columbia University, married, and moved to the New York suburbs. He started a modest law practice there with his brother Michael. He described himself as an “armchair liberal.” He was a member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who believed in the principle of equal justice under law, but was not particularly engaged in making that a reality. Kunstler & Kunstler had an ordinary civil practice until 1960, when William Kunstler represented Paul and Orial Redd, the African American founders of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter, in a housing discrimination lawsuit — Kunstler’s first civil rights case.

In 1961, the ACLU asked Mr. Kunstler to go to Mississippi to support the Freedom Riders, young activists who were traveling through the South by bus to challenge the segregation of bus station waiting rooms and restaurants. Kunstler went to a Mississippi bus station, where he watched as five determined young people sat down at a lunch counter and were promptly arrested. Kunstler would say that on that day he learned “All the talking in the world meant nothing; it was the doing, the action, that had meaning.” And from that moment on, his life and career took a radical turn.

He went on to work with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to play a major role in the legal battles of the civil rights movement. He participated in King’s desegregation campaigns in Albany, Georgia, Danville, Virginia, Birmingham, Alabama, and St. Augustine, Florida in the 1960s.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In addition to his work in the South, Kunstler took on a string of cases involving civil rights and political dissidents, many of them high-profile. This included defending Vietnam War protesters the Catonsville Nine, and perhaps most famously, the trial of the Chicago Seven.

Portrait of the Chicago Seven and their lawyers as they raise their fists in unison outside the courthouse where they were on trial for conspiracy and inciting a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, 1969. (L-R) Lawyer Leonard Weinglass, Rennie Davis, Abbie Hoffman, Lee Weiner, David Dellinger, John Froines, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, and lawyer William Kunstler.

His new line of work took Kunstler, unsurprisingly, to Greenwich Village. His marriage to his first wife, Lotte Rosenberger, fell apart. Soon after, Kunstler met Margaret Ratner, a young radical attorney in New York City. They rented the townhouse at 13 Gay Street and married in 1976. They raised two daughters there: Sarah, who was born in 1976, and Emily, born in 1978. They later bought the home, a Greek Revival structure, built in 1844. It has a separate entrance to a first-floor office space where Kunstler worked.

13 Gay Street
William Kunstler and law partner Ron Kuby in the Greenwich Village office. (Photo by NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Kunstler continued representing protesters throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He represented prisoners who rioted at Attica Correctional Facility in 1971, Native American protesters who seized Wounded Knee in South Dakota in 1973, and a man arrested for burning an American flag outside the 1984 Republican National Convention as an act of political protest.

Image from the Attica Prison riots

Also in the 1980s, however, the self-proclaimed “radical lawyer” began to take on clients viewed as less defensible by his left-leaning fan base. These included Larry Davis, a 23-year-old drug dealer accused of the attempted murder of six police officers in 1986; El Sayyid Nosair, an Egyptian immigrant acquitted of the 1990 murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the controversial founder of the Jewish Defense League in New York state court; and Yusef Salaam, one of five teenagers who was originally found guilty of raping and severely beating a young woman in the notorious Central Park jogger case of 1989, one of the most widely publicized crimes of the 1980s. Interestingly, Mr. Kunstler was vindicated in this case, posthumously, as Salaam’s conviction was vacated in 2002. The Central Park 5, one of whom was Yusef Salaam, were exonerated after convicted serial rapist and murderer Matias Reyes confessed to the crime while serving time in prison.

Kunstler was a maverick who most often risked his career in the cause of justice. He will long be remembered as a crusader for civil rights.

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