"WE ARE FAMILY:" THE NOT-SO-BLOODY HISTORY OF RESOLVING INTERNAL CONFLICTS IN THE NATIONAL LAWYERS GUILD
 

All political groups go through periods of internal debate. Sometimes the conflicts become so intense that the organization actually implodes. The National Lawyers Guild was not immune from sharp, divisive debates. Its 60-year history of resolving conflicts is useful to our future organizational struggles and is relevant to all democratically based groups.

The Guild has always been enmeshed in the political struggles around us. This is our strength and our weakness. As we loudly argue among ourselves in the hopes of becoming a stronger, more politically relevant organization we should always ask, "Do we have to make this particular issue a major organizational struggle?" Let's take a relatively brief sojourn through our history and analyze some of the most bitter debates.

The Guild was formed in 1937 and included Communist Party lawyers; future Supreme Court Justices Robert Jackson, Abe Fortas, Thurgood Marshall; distinguished African Americans Charles Houston, Earl Dickerson, William Hastie; noted civil libertarians Thomas Emerson, Morris Ernst, Jerome Frank; and a variety of New Deal supporters. In 1939 Ernst submitted a resolution which created an irreconcilable rift. The key part read that the Guild should go on record "opposing dictatorship of any kind, whether left or right, whether Fascist, Nazi or Communistic." The resolution was voted down as it was seen as a form of red-baiting within the organization and it detracted from building a "united front" against the main enemy­fascism.

At the Convention the same debate continued. Although the resolution did not address specific legal work it had to be decided as it went to the character, the very nature of the organization­determining who would be in the Guild and what would be its political perspective. When the resolution was again voted down a number of liberals resigned. This was followed by the loss of many prominent New Dealers who worked in Government. This split in the membership had both a positive and negative consequence. Free from reliance on the previous support of President Roosevelt and Government lawyers the Guild could criticize the Administration and develop positions that were fundamentally opposed to the compromises necessarily made by the political establishment. However on the negative side the Guild became an unprotected target of Government red-baiting as the Cold War began. The FBI burglarized the D.C. office and photographed the membership files. Brave attorneys of integrity like Carol King, Clifford Durr, and Robert Kenny who had been the Attorney General of California refused to leave the Guild (Kenny became President), but many others, like thousands of Americans frightened by McCarthyism, fled from any political involvement. An FBI memo in 1950 indicated that only 6.6% of the Guild's membership was, or had been, affiliated with the Communist Party. But the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee and other Government bodies led an all-out assault on the Guild as a "Communist front." Membership in the 1950's dropped from 3,500 to approximately 600; law school chapters were disbanded.

There was no way the Guild could have avoided this result. The debates in 1939-40 defined the character of the organization. Given that we were dedicated to profound social and economic change, it was inevitable that McCarthyism would view us as a serious threat, try to have us legally declared "a subversive organization" (unsuccessful) and attempt to destroy the organization (also unsuccessful). In retrospect no compromise in 1939-40 would have made sense and that fight had to be fought to its bitter end.

As the 1950's drew to a close, the Guild slowly began to regenerate. In 1962 two African-American lawyers from Virginia, Len Holt and Ed Dawley, traveled to the Guild Convention. They were defending literally thousands of civil rights demonstrators and needed help. They educated and inspired the membership. As a result of that interaction, George Crockett and Ernie Goodman, who had the distinction of founding the first integrated law partnership in the country, advocated for a project to assist the Southern civil rights movement, and the Committee to Assist Southern Lawyers was created.

In 1964, the Guild faced a decision that would forever define the organization. Goodman, Crockett, John Conyers and others wanted to expand the Southern project, focusing most of the Guild's energy into support for the civil rights movement. However, a vocal group was afraid this work was more political than legal. McCarthyism had forced progressive lawyers to retreat into their offices, emphasizing amicus curie briefs and bar association efforts, while always worrying about government harassment and economic survival. A genuine mass movement was growing in the South and it needed on-the-spot creative legal support including attorneys who were willing to go to the South, walk the backroads finding witnesses, sit in poverty-stricken shacks taking depositions, and do whatever was necessary to help black people stand up against the violence of the Southern state.

The controversy climaxed at the 1964 Convention. Amidst intense debate, the delegates voted to make the Southern project their primary focus. In order to facilitate this effort, they moved the national office to Detroit, made Ernie Goodman president and opened a law office in the belly of the beast­Jackson, Mississippi. Within a few months, 60 lawyers volunteered to go South. Their work gave legal power to the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, which registered hundreds of politically disenfranchised blacks. In the fall of that year, the Jackson office coordinated the work of 153 lawyers who came to Mississippi for a week each to document the State's interference with black people's right to vote. It culminated in the legal foundation for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This internal debate had to be fought out to its conclusion because it involved specific programmatic and legal work. It also re-energized the organization, emphasizing our role as an arm of the Movement. It extended the model of lawyering to include sleep-ins at besieged Black Panther headquarters, setting up draft counseling centers in minority communities, sending lawyers to Japan and into the teeth of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines to support dissent Gis, and to create on-the-spot legal defense projects for Attica prisoners and Wounded Knee warriors.

The late 60's and early 70's were a test of whether an organization could exist with leftists of the 30's and leftists of the 60's working together and building on each others experiences. The two primary fights involved resolutions to include law students and legal workers as full voting members. There was a fear that the Guild would be transformed from a lawyers' organization into a Movement organization which would then rise and fall as the Movement rose and fell. The debate, at times verbally violent, went not to specific legal work but to the nature of the group.

The legal worker/law student voting resolutions were passed. The torch was handed to a generation of young lawyers and legal workers, most of whom had no more than 2 years experience in the legal world, but whose militant style had been formed by the resistance of the civil rights and anti-war movements, educated by the women's liberation movement, and influenced by the counter-culture. The older lawyers (the "real lawyers" who had argued before the U.S. Supreme Court and built the Guild) stayed because they had a commitment to the existence of a progressive legal organization, because they knew how to seek principled compromise, and unlike some of the younger people, did not act like they knew the answer to everything. The merger of the legal and political experience of the old left with the energy, direct action philosophy and Movement contacts of the new left created a dynamic organization much more powerful than its individual members.

International solidarity with liberation movements was a hallmark of the Left. Therefore, it was no surprise that in 1975 our influential International Committee proposed studying the Palestinian-Israel conflict even though this did not seem to be related to any legal work and offended many Jewish members. Educationals took place and although some people resigned, a consensus slowly grew. In 1977 a resolution was passed which recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organization as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians, urged joint recognition of Israel and the PLO and advocated for the withdrawal of Israel from the occupied territories. In 1978 a Guild delegation went to the Middle East and wrote a report on the violations of human rights by Israel in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Looking back we see a painful debate which resulted in the education of the membership to Israel's oppressive policies, the merger of political critique and legal work in that we produced a report founded on international legal concepts of human rights which became an important worldwide tool in the battle of Palestinians for justice.

Enmeshed in the political struggles of the times we also became entangled in the ideological debates. Within our organization the "anti-imperialist caucus" was formed; an unfortunate and arrogant name as it implied the rest of us were less than serious or confused opponents of imperialism. The caucus had two primary slogans "oppose both superpowers" (the U.S. and USSR) and "oppose the revisionist Communist Party U.S.A." They made the critical mistake of seeing their political program as the program of the Guild and attempted to engineer that false identity.

This activity took place in the context of an intense Soviet-China split, with the caucus almost always putting forth the Maoist view of the world. Their major tactic was to interject their agenda into resolutions. For example, they attempted to amend a resolution condemning the U.S. intervention in South Africa to include all "foreign intervention." Looking back we can clearly see that the major threat to the self-determination of South Africa was U.S. support of apartheid, not Soviet influence. Our role, particularly as Americans, was to focus on our country's actions. The amendment was defeated, but the debates grew more contentious and energy consuming.

Many of the disagreements had no relation to our actual work. The caucus tried unsuccessfully to amend a resolution in support of imprisoned African-American Gary Tyler, so that the existence of a separate "black nation" in the South would be recognized. This was based on the black nation thesis in vogue among the Left in the 30's. While it may have been intellectually interesting to discuss the application of Stalin's famous criteria for self-determination the debate drove most of the membership to distraction.

After many, many resolutions we saw a serious problem. The political issues had little or nothing to do with legal work; they took an inordinate amount of time, were divisive as hell and pushed people away from the Guild. Compounding the problem was the anarchy of our national meetings held every 6 months. Resolutions were being submitted at any moment with no chance for thoughtful discussion. The process had become anti-democratic because there was no time for education among the membership. An ideological gap was developing between the activists and the membership who did not regularly attend national meetings. Our decisions were often paper-resolutions, as the chapters had no commitment to implement them. To meet these problems we re-structured the resolution process, stressing education prior to the meetings.

In 1979 and 1980 these changes bore fruit as two extremely controversial issues worked their way through the organization. They were the anti-pornography and anti-racist speech resolutions. Both raised important concerns­sexist violence against women, and racist intimidation against minorities. But both resolutions conflicted in some ways with the First Amendment. They involved our legal work for there were growing attempts in the country to pass race-hatred and anti-pornography criminal laws. For at least 6 months before the national meeting, articles were run in Guild Notes and chapter newsletters, presentations were made at Regionals and chapters were able to fully debate the issues. When the resolutions were ultimately passed their final versions were the result of principled compromises. They were not paper-resolutions; the education process had raised consciousness about sexism and racism and had built a constituency within the Guild to actually work on these issues.

As we entered the difficult Reagan era the Guild had grown to 7,000 members, and there was a coming together of the leadership with the membership. As we faced major internal debate we tried to begin an analysis by asking four questions: 1. Does the debate go to the nature and purpose of the organization? 2. Does it go to our specific legal work? 3. Is it a combined legal/political issue? 4. Is it primarily a political issue?

Conflict is all around us. We fight the state, we fight the courts, we fight reactionary groups­when we fight each other we must do it with respect and with an understanding of the history and role of the Guild as a democratic, multi-issue organization not a political party.

We are family­we have disagreements, adolescent rebellions, trial separations and reunions. We share our work, our ideas, our doubts­we care about each other and we support each other. In this way we continue to be an effective, necessary legal arm of the peoples struggles.

 
Written by Paul Harris who is a former National President of the Guild, co-founder of the San Francisco Community Law Collective, and author of Black Rage Confronts the Law. He currently works with the Center for Guerrilla Law in San Francisco.