(The following 1998 interview first appeared in the May 1998 issue of Z magazine. See parts 1-3 below. To see the current issue of Z magazine, you can check out its web site at
The National Lawyers Guild is still around in 1998 [and currently], right?
Bernardine Dohrn [BD]: The Guild managed to survive the 1980s and continues to thrive by embracing a huge array of social issues. From immigration and labor, ecology, international law, women’s rights, children’s rights and so on. It is very much in the tradition of the 1960’s grassroots organization, where local chapters work away on their own priorities, but are a part of a broader network and coalition.
When you worked for the Guild, did you meet William Kunstler?
BD: I met Bill Kunstler, Leonard Boudin, Victor Rabinowitz, Howard Moore, Conrad Lynn, Ann Ginger, Haywood Burns, Ralph Shapiro. A whole generation of people who inspired me.
How were they different from other lawyers? Did they have anything in common, in terms of the quality that they had, that would distinguish them from the lawyers we see when we go to the corporate offices?
BD: Well, what’s distinguishing is that they committed themselves—each and every one of them, really—to being on the side of progressive social change. They were intellectually honest and rigorous, but they did not pretend to be neutral. They were clearly partisan. They were dedicated to their clients. They were people who stayed in touch with their clients for a lifetime. They added to our “new left” analysis a framework, a history of the uses and abuses of law. They identified the incredible strengths embedded in our constitutional and civil liberties, and civil rights traditions, as well as the social control and constraints and pull towards the status quo, which is fundamental to the law.
And the movement also changed them. It was a mutual relationship. Guild lawyers included people who practiced traditional corporate law, and they were influenced by the 1960s élan, the spirit, the notion that politics are not just your ideas, but your whole life and who you are.
Do you have any special memories related to William Kunstler?
BD: My most vivid memory of Bill will always be the Rap Brown conspiracy trial in New Orleans. I happened to be there during the trial. H. Rap Brown [n/k/a Jamil Al-Amin] became the chair of SNCC—Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee—after Stokely Carmichael [a/k/a/ Kwame Ture]. In the Spring of 1968—six days after the King assassination—Congress passed the Rap Brown Amendment, attached to some pending civil rights legislation. Rap Brown was so feared as a speaker on college campuses and within the Black community that Congress passed a piece of legislation to muzzle him. He was indicted for “conspiracy’ and tried in New Orleans.
The courtroom was ringed with armed National Guards. Every day you had to go through the military to get into the courtroom. Every night Rap Brown would speak to crowds of 10,000 people in the Black community. It was a city under a state of siege, practically.
Bill Kunstler and Howard Moore were his lawyers. I remember Kunstler at one point questioning an FBI agent who had followed Rap day and night, as one of the most brilliant pieces of cross-examination I’ve ever seen.
And the thing that was always so striking about Bill is that he played by the rules and he rejected the rules, simultaneously. He rejected the framework in which the legal violation was being discussed, even as he repudiated the allegations, point-by-point. (end of part 4)