The Books Issue 2012
A lawyer's legacy
From the Red Scare to civil rights, Ernie Goodman helped shape issues of his time
Published: March 21, 2012
MT: One of the other things that is not well known — and the book has this wonderful detail on it — is the role so many Detroiters played in the civil rights movement, particularly in the Freedom Summer that was the center of that as well.
Babson: I knew the sort of broad outline that Ernie and Crockett had played pivotal roles in the civil rights struggle. But I wasn't aware of just how important Ernie was particularly to the Freedom Summer struggle of 1964, that the legal defense of the folks working on behalf of voting rights in Mississippi that summer was organized basically by those two men. Crockett deserves his own book as well. And certainly his role in the Freedom Summer is inspiring. The courage it took to be down there, day after day, working on behalf of folks who were risking their lives. At the end of the summer you totaled up the number of people who were murdered, and how many hundreds had been imprisoned and were still in jail ...
MT: This is the summer when Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman were murdered by Southern racists, and they were the tip of the iceberg when it comes to violence and intimidation.
Babson: That was the summer. The fact that people followed through with it is just inspiring. And you wonder what you would have done under those circumstances.
MT: One of my favorite anecdotes is when a National Lawyers Guild attorney is asked by a Southern judge whether he's a Communist, and he explains that he never has been affiliated with the party. Then he has the gumption to ask the judge if he was a member of the Klan, and the judge says, "No, but I am with the White Citizens Council."
Babson: Yeah, right. So at every level — the courts, the police, the National Guard, the governor — are people committed to, if necessary, the violent suppression, and the deadly force that would be brought to bear against the people challenging their dominance.
MT: You're very active now in the anti-foreclosure movement. Do you think of Ernie a lot when you're organizing and protesting?
Babson: I think often of what would Ernie do? What angle would he pursue in terms of an approach that was activist and focused on bringing pressure to bear in the streets, and politically and legislatively? The legal dimension as part of that broader strategy? It's never that you rely solely on the law, but if you are going to change the law and change the interpretation of it, you have to change the political dynamic that accounts for the law being wrongful in the first place.
MT: If you could pick one of his Supreme Court cases, which was his most important?
Babson: I think it was the Stanley Nowak case. Stanley Nowak had been a state senator, before that an organizer for the UAW, and a man who was closely aligned with the left wing, and might have been a Communist, might not have been — it wasn't illegal but something that could jeopardize your political future. He was charged with misrepresenting his circumstances when he applied for citizenship and that he had not revealed his links to the Communist Party. And he is therefore threatened with deportation and cancellation of his citizenship. And it goes to trial, here in Detroit, and Ernie's defending him. They lose in Detroit, and it's a bench trial because it's a civil federal suit, therefore there's no jury. Ernie and Crockett appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court and eventually win; the court overturns the local ruling. And the reason that was important was that they were bringing these cases across the country. There were a lot of folks who had come from immigrant backgrounds; they were nationalized citizens. And there are hundreds of hundreds of cases being brought against people who were charged with having misrepresented their politics and failing to reveal their links to what were defined as subversive organizations.
Read excerpts from The Color of Law covering the House Un-American Activities Committee's 1952 hearings in Detroit and a turbulent meeting of civil rights lawyers in the Deep South in 1963.
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