The Guild in the Tamiment
Today’s post is written by Camilo Lund-Montaño, Agnese N. Haury Dissertation Fellow, Center for the United States and the Cold War at NYU.
The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) collection at the Tamiment Library is an incredible treasure trove. The Guild itself is an invaluable source for the history of progressive politics in the United States during the twentieth century. Founded in 1937, the NLG’s intention was to counteract the conservative and segregated American Bar Association, and support the labor and judicial policies of the Roosevelt administration. The Guild continued to move further to the Left and became the legal bulwark for political dissenters and social movements in the following decades. It is the only Popular Front organization to survive the Cold War.
With over 300 boxes the archival collection spans over the history of the Guild, from the late 1930s to the early 2000s. It contains the essential materials to portray the structure of the organization: board meeting minutes; committee proposals; national convention resolutions; regional chapter reports; national and regional publications; position papers; and a massive assortment of correspondence.
More than half of the boxes are the product of a lawsuit filed against the Attorney General. In 1977, the Guild sued the AG and the FBI to determine the extent of illegal surveillance on the organization and its members. The Guild ultimately won the case and the FBI was forced to turn over more than 300,000 documents. These files are a grim illustration of the extent to which the FBI sought to investigate and disrupt dissenting organizations: countless wiretaps; the use of informants and provocateurs; constant surveillance and a whole lot of speculation.
In addition, there are other collections in the archive that complement the history of the Guild. Victor Rabinowitz donated his personal papers as well as several boxes from the law firm Rabinowitz, Boudin, Standard & Krinsky. Several prominent members of the Guild have their files in the library: Frank Donner, Robert Truehaft, Martin Popper, Carol Weiss King, Leonard Weinglass and William Kunstler. The Center for Constitutional Rights, whose membership usually overlaps with the Guild’s, has a significant collection of their legal documents.
My dissertation, Out of Order: Radical Lawyers and Social Movements in the Cold War, tells the story of the Guild and the lawyers who coordinated the legal defense for various organizations and activists. I show how they linked different struggles and strategies: using Reconstruction statutes to secure injunctions against union busting and segregation of public spaces; setting up mass defense offices to support protesters in civil rights and anti-war demonstrations; ascertaining the constitutional right to dissent of fellow travelers in the 1940s and conscientious objectors in the 1960s; and arguing that inherent racism in juries and grand juries denied a fair trial to Black Panther leaders, Puerto Rican nationalists, and Native American activists. The Guild was a space, a platform, where progressive politics and legal tactics could be discussed and developed. Furthermore, the relationships between the lawyers and their clients, and the debates amongst the legal community, mirrored the trajectory of the Left and the frictions and tensions it generated. I argue that radical lawyers played an important and overlooked role in shaping the political landscape of the postwar United States.
All social movements must, at one point or another, encounter the legal system. Lawyers and organizations like the Guild, ACLU, NAACP, and the National Conference of Black Lawyers have buttressed and mediated most of those encounters. They have defended a wide range of groups: from the IWW, UE, SCLC, SNCC, SDS, UFW, and political prisoners, to the FALN, Weather Underground and the Black Liberation Army. The kinds of relationships they tried to build, and how these lawyers have represented and interpreted the politics of these groups, will continue to reveal a critical aspect of the trajectory of social movements and the pursuit of human rights and social justice in the twentieth century.