From the freedom riders to the “Chicago Seven,” William Kunstler defended political and social activists for four decades. Martin Luther King and Kunstler first met during the 1961 Freedom Rides. King asked Kunstler to take on several cases throughout the 1960s and praised him for the “magnificent job” he had done as a civil rights attorney (King, 30 December 1963).
Kunstler was born in New York City on 7 July 1919. After graduating from Yale in 1941, he served in the Philippines in World War II. When he returned to the United States, he attended Columbia Law School, graduating in 1948 and opened a law practice with his brother. He taught at Pace College’s Business School from 1951 to 1960, and at New York Law School from 1949 to 1961. In 1961, while working with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Kunstler defended freedom riders challenging segregation on interstate bus travel.
In 1961, King asked Kunstler to speak at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) annual convention on the legal implications of the Freedom Rides. Kunstler subsequently took on several cases referred to him by King or SCLC, ranging from defending Fred Shuttlesworth in an appeal stemming from a 1958 Birmingham bus protest to representing the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in their struggle to unseat the Mississippi congressional delegation. Kunstler’s wife, Lotte, participated as a demonstrator in the Albany movement, and the couple arranged a fundraiser for King near their home in Westchester, New York.
Kunstler also served on the board of directors of the Gandhi Society for Human Rights, a charitable nonprofit group committed to providing, “front line emergency legal assistance in lower courts, particularly where nonviolent demonstrations involve mass arrests and imprisonment” (Kunstler, Deep, 93). Kunstler chronicled some of his civil rights work in his book, Deep in My Heart, for which King and James Forman, executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, each wrote a foreword.
From 1964 to 1972, Kunstler served as director of the ACLU. In 1966, he also co-founded the Center for Constitutional Rights. By the late 1960s, Kunstler was representing black militants H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael as well as white radicals such as Abbie Hoffman and Tom Hayden. During his successful defense of the “Chicago Seven,” protesters arrested during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Kunstler’s quick wit and sharp retorts initially earned him a sentence of more than four years in prison for contempt, but the sentence was later overturned.
Throughout his career, Kunstler remained staunchly committed to defending people and movements who were widely unpopular. In fall 1992, Kunstler returned to New York Law School to teach a seminar on constitutional law. Three years later, he died of a heart attack.
King to Kunstler, 30 December 1963, MLKJP-GAMK.
Kunstler, Deep in My Heart, 1966.
Kunstler, My Life as a Radical Lawyer, 1994.
Langum, William M. Kunstler, 1999.