Leonard Weinglass, A Lawyer Who Made History

by on August 23, 2016

If you were a politically active lawyer in the 1960’s or 1970’s, or aspired to be one, you are likely familiar with the late Leonard Weinglass. Best known for his role with William Kunstler as defense counsel in the legendary Chicago 7 trial, Weinglass was a classic “movement” attorney of the time. This meant he worked long hours for low pay, often on behalf of clients on the margins of society.

A Yale Law grad, Weinglass was a brilliant attorney who never sought the limelight. That’s why it’s fortunate that AK Press has now published a graphic novel on Weinglass’s life, Len, A Lawyer in History. Written by Michael Steven Smith, edited by Paul Buhle, and illustrated by Seth Tobocman, the story of Leonard Weinglass takes us back to a time when many went to law school to make social change rather than for money. The authors point out in the preface that Weinglass was actually a child of the 1950’s not the 1960’s, which makes his early and lifetime commitment to serving the disenfranchised and outcasts even more significant.

A Career Shift

Unlike those of us who started law school in an era where law was viewed as a tool social justice, Weinglass went to law school in the far less political 1950’s. He began in a big law firm, went on to the New Jersey Attorney General’s office, and then gave it all up to start his own practice in Newark. Working out of a streetfront office where he also lived, he connected to Newark just as its racial upheavals in the 1960’s began. Weinglass soon met Tom Hayden of SDS, who was trying to build an organization for the poor in Newark.

This connection soon led Weinglass to represent Newark tenants on a rent-strike. When activists were arrested during protests, Weinglass was there to represent them. The book depicts Newark’s racial dynamics (which exploded in the 1967 riots) as akin to Ferguson, Missouri today.

The combination of Newark’s racially unfair policies and the Vietnam War turned Weinglass into a movement attorney for the rest of his long life. It also brought him his greatest fame, which occurred when he represented defendants in the notorious Chicago 7 trial. That trial, which put antiwar activists at risk of long prison sentences for protesting during Chicago’s 1968 Democratic Convention, is the subject of many books and dramatic productions. Weinglass came out of that trial a progressive hero, and it likely overshadowed the rest of his legal career.

Other Major Cases

Graphic novels are a great way to discover the life histories of people without having to read a full length text. Last year’s graphic novel about Rosa Luxemburg showed this approach at its best. In contrast, the Weinglass book proceeds episodically, highlighting his work on important cases but leaving out what was otherwise happening in his life.

The  cases portrayed—-involving Daniel Ellsberg, Native American activist Jimi Simmons, Abbie Hoffman (in a case that put the CIA on trial), and the Cuban 5—-make great reading and highlight Weinglass’ remarkable patience and legal skills. But by leaving so much of Weinglass’ life out of the book, I finished Len, A Lawyer in History without as vivid a portrayal of the man as I had hoped. A more complete biography seems warranted.

I asked a number of progressive attorneys and activists under the age of 50 if they knew about Leonard Weinglass and the answer was overwhelmingly no. This book will hopefully remedy this. Weinglass personified the movement attorney of his time, and remains a great role model for current attorneys and those entering the field.

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron. His most recent book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco


Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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