A lawyer's legacy

From the Red Scare to civil rights, Ernie Goodman helped shape issues of his time

Mar 21, 2012 at 12:56 am

The Color of Law: 

Ernie Goodman, Detroit, and the 

Struggle for Labor and Civil Rights

by Steve Babson, Dave Riddle and David Elsila

Wayne State University Press, $24.95, 558 pp. 


"I'm partial to Mark Twain's understanding that history doesn't repeat itself; at most it sometimes rhymes," Steve Babson said to start out when he sat down to talk about The Color of Law. Co-authored with two fellow Detroit historians, Dave Riddle and David Elsila, the biography of lawyer-activist Ernie Goodman follows their subject from Detroit's Jewish ghetto to an early job as a repo man to seven appearances (and six wins) before the U.S. Supreme Court. The rise (and internal clashes) of the UAW, the defense of civil liberties during the Red Scare, the civil rights movement, opposition to the Vietnam War, the Black Panthers, the Attica prison uprising ... the movements of his time and numerous key events all intertwine with Goodman's life. An activist through and through, he's on the book cover, a year before his death in 1997, being arrested in a protest supporting Detroit newspaper strikers.

Babson notes that, like today, there was mass unemployment in Detroit during the early years of Goodman's career; sit-down strikes were the response then, today the Occupy Wall Street movement. There was the Red Scare of the 1950s just as there are fears (again both valid and ginned up for political gain) in the post-9/11 world. The specifics change and the contexts evolve, and historians like Babson and his co-authors strive to hear meaning in the rhymes. 

Metro Times: What was your sense of Ernie Goodman when you went into the project and how did that change? 

Steve Babson: I had the sense of him as a very successful lawyer, important to the history of the city. But what I, over time, came to understand about him was that he was an activist and an organizer. There are two kinds of lawyers. There's the activist lawyer, who's looking for the ways of moving forward and challenging the status quo understanding of what justice represents. And then there's the kind of lawyer who is inclined towards a kind of top-down control on behalf of saying what you can't do and how the law handcuffs you. He never became that kind of lawyer.


MT: Were there other ways that your view changed? 

Babson: He would've been a lot of fun to be around. He was empathetic and curious, two qualities about him that I found especially appealing. His identification with the left was never a matter of sympathy for the downtrodden, which can have a patronizing attitude. His was empathetic, it was a capacity to actually recognize what others were about and what others were thinking and doing and what it must have felt like to be in someone else's shoes. Empathy, I think, is a basis for a genuine solidarity as opposed to charity. 


MT: Maybe some of the empathy is related to Ernie's own situation being precarious so often. His livelihood was sometimes jeopardized by his stances. And he reasonably thought he might end up in jail, a number of times.

Babson: At one point his son Dick remembered that Ernie took him out to dinner to have a father-son chat, and said to him, "Look, I want to give you a warning, I'm probably going to be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee as a witness, and very likely end up in dire straits economically. Who knows what will happen as a consequence?" Ernie was prepared to basically go through what many of his clients went through, some of whom did end up in prison. 


MT: And of course, his law partner — and later a judge and congressman — George Crockett did go to prison in the aftermath of a trial defending U.S. Communist Party leaders.

Babson: For his role in the Foley Square trial — and the perfectly ludicrous terms the trial was conducted under. The trial proceeded as something of a circus, partially the fault of the defendants who insisted on a sort of rhetorical style of denunciation and often did disrupt the trial proceedings. Crockett was not party to that, and advocated a different approach. But in effect he was guilty by association. He was swept up in the general indictment of the defense lawyers' behavior and ended up spending four months in a federal penitentiary — a segregated federal penitentiary.


MT: The twists of fate in the book are striking. For instance, Goodman was on a secret list of subversives to be rounded up in case of a national emergency. Had the timing of the attack on Pearl Harbor been different, the list probably would have been used.

Babson: It had thousands of names on it. At its peak had something like 25,000 names on it; they would be swept up and without indictment or charges simply on the assessment, made by the FBI that they represented, somehow, a danger to the republic. 


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.