Remembering Arthur Kinoy

Arthur Kinoy, best known as a leading civil rights attorney during the zenith of the protest phase of the movement during 1960s, and as a law professor who taught for some 20 years at Rutgers University, died in September 2003. He was 82 years old and lived in Montclair, New Jersey.

Throughout his adult life Arthur  was a professed radical. Having graduated from Harvard university and receiving his law degree from Columbia Law school, where he was executive editor of the Law Review, after graduation he served as  a member of the legal staff of the United Electrical Workers (UE). As the Cold War heated up in the months after World War Two the union, the third largest in the CIO with half million members, became the prime target of the government’s efforts to smash independent progressive unions, a campaign that was shamefully joined by the leadership of the CIO which finally expelled or forced out a dozen of its affiliates, including the UE. In 1949 Arthur was among the attorneys for  the 11 national Communist leaders indicted for "conspiracy to advocate" the overthrow of the United States government. He was among the lawyers  defending Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and never ceased, throughout his life, involving himself in unpopular cases and was often at the center of political controversy.

During the 1950s and 1960s Arthur was a leading theoretician of a substantial Left within the Civil Rights Movement, which embraced many, like Ella Baker and the Southern Conference Education Fund(SCEF) of which she was a staffer, and the Southern black student activists, who were closely associated with both Arthur and Ms. Baker. His basic argument was that the historic task of the movement was to complete the movement toward black freedom that had been thwarted by the two-party and Northern capitalists’ betrayal of Reconstruction. In this Arthur was prescient. What Charles Beard had called the "second democratic revolution" became the substance of the radical wing of the movement’s goals, especially in the wake of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955. For Arthur and many others winning voting rights and access to public accommodations and education was a necessary step in the course of the black freedom movement, but it was not sufficient.

Long before Stokely Carmichael announced "Black Power" at a 1966 Chicago conference on independent politics, Arthur was among those who argued that the achievement of full racial equality must go beyond rights and embrace the task of  winning black political power, especially in the South,  in effect, to redeem the promise of the Reconstruction laws. As he often pointed out these laws, which implemented the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments not only guaranteed legal freedom for the former slaves, but affirmatively established the preconditions for their quest for economic equality and political power.

As WEB Dubois and Eric Foner have demonstrated the Reconstruction Congress enacted legislation such as the Homestead act that, among other constituents, granted land and agricultural implements to former slaves; the Southern branch of the Act was the most radical agrarian reform program in American history because it was backed by the presence of United States troops to insure that the Southern Aristocracy would not, through means of terror and intimidation, recapture their plantations. The Federal government’s betrayal consisted in the gradual withdrawal of US troops during the Grant administration, Federal court decisions that affirmed the property rights of the plantation-owners and, in flagrant violation of the intent of the law, tolerance for the reign of terror, perpetrated by organizations like the Ku Klux Klan against black homesteaders. 

Arthur and Bill Kuntsler who, in the firmament of the movement’s rise, were key players, not only in the legal aspects of the militant, phase of the movement(Bill was Martin Luther King’s counsel and as his partner, Arthur was equally important), but in contributing to the strategy of direct action, of re-invoking the radical Reconstruction laws-which had never been revoked– and making new law based on the them. Arthur wrote many of the briefs delivered in the Supreme Court and in Federal District Courts by others as well as himself.

As much as the more mainstream decisions such as Brown v Board of Education, these cases paved the way for the genuine legal changes blacks enjoy today.  In this respect Arthur was always skeptical about liberalism’s reliance on legal reform: he greeted the Voting and Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 as a step forward but was suspicious of both major political parties’ commitment to black freedom and civil liberties, and later became a fervent advocate of independent political action.

The group that Arthur brought together from 1955, ending in the early 1970-of which I was a part-played an important role in the nuclear disarmament movement of the late 1950s and in locally-based peace groups, and the initial stages of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of 1963.  Many of us were involved in the Civil Rights movement, some at the local level and others nationally, but it was Arthur’s prestige that paved the way for our participation in planning and organizing that momentous event.

In late 1962 and early 1963 some of us, including Arthur and myself,  met several times with Bayard Rustin, the principal organizer of the March, and with King to discuss how to broaden  its appeal to Northerners, especially to the section of the  labor movement to which we had ties. Rustin coined the slogan March for Freedom to which we added "Jobs", one of the first post-war events to publicly recognize the crucial issue of economic equality. Rustin accepted our contention that, in the context of the recession of 1960-62 when millions of workers lost their jobs, taking on the jobs question might prove attractive to Organized Labor. Besides we argued, black workers were among the hardest hit in the economic downturn.

Arthur’s voice was forceful and highly regarded by Rustin and King, although it must be noted that many among Rustin’s Socialist Party friends who were deeply ensconced in Cold War versions of anti-communism many urged him to disdain forging an alliance with the likes of  Kinoy, Kuntsler and the rest of us. Note well, King himself had succumbed to the Gay bashing Rustin suffered during the Bus Boycott years; he had Bayard to leave Montgomery. But by the early 1960s neither had patience for baiting of any kind. Rustin knew that the resources of neither King nor A.Phillip Randolph, America’s leading black trade union leader, however necessary, were not sufficient to mount a major national demonstration.   Seven years after Montgomery King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) enjoyed the confidence of few major unions, largely because AFL-CIO President George Meany had effectively thwarted the ideological independence of many of them. During this period Rustin was happy to collaborate with the Left because he knew that people like Arthur had standing in circles that became vital  for building the movement, both organizationally and financially.

Since I was on the national staff of the Clothing Workers union and had labor contacts throughout the country, I served as Labor Coordinator for the March and helped secure the endorsement in the Spring of a number of national unions in the wake of AFL-CIO President George Meany’s vehement opposition. The UE, Packinghouse Workers, District 65 of the Retail and Wholesale union and the West Coast Longshoremen’s union were among the first to sign up and donate money. Of course, their collective left-wing credentials presented problems for others such as the UAW and the ILGWU whose open support for civil rights was tempered by the top leadership’s cold war commitments. These unions were far more difficult to move. 

In fact, UAW President Walter Reuther drove a hard bargain for his and his union’s participation: it should be a peaceful event, that is, no civil disobedience; the leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) — arguably the igniting force of the Southern Movement-must refrain from attacking the Kennedy Administration for its lax enforcement of existing law and protection of civil rights workers; and no representatives of the ideological left other than Randolph should be permitted to speak. In the end, Meany had his way with the fervently anti-radical ILGWU which refused to endorse the March.

Arthur was constantly consulted by local movements throughout the South, not only on legal matters but on strategy as well. During the summer of 1964 he worked closely with the Mississippi  Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), especially Fannie Lou Hamer and Lawrence Guyot, and played an important support role in the party’s refusal to bow to the demands of Rustin, Michael Harrington, and Hubert Humphrey to soften  their criticism of the official Dixecrat wing of the Mississippi Democrats. Like the MFDP, Arthur rejected and countered the argument that militant opposition to the Southern white Democrats would alienate too many Southerners and centrist Northerners. Their rejection earned the scorn of the Democratic Party establishment, Rustin who, in the last decades of his life had adopted a more centrist strategy parallel to that of the AFL-CIO, Harrington, and the attorney Joseph Rauh, and the Johnson administration. Yet we must remember that it was the radicals who dragged Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Congress to codify the demands of the mass movement.

In the 1970s and 1980s Arthur formed a national network of advocates of a mass independent political movement of which Ted Glick, who ran in 2002 as Green Party candidate for Senator in New Jersey was director. He was a beloved teacher, training several generations of law students to orient their work to the interest of  freedom and equality. Despite his lifetime as a very prominent "peoples’ attorney" Arthur was not a populist, in the American meaning of the term. His fundamental commitments were to the cause of revolutionary socialism of the kind that believes that power must be invested in ordinary people, not economic and political elites. That these commitments never had the public force of his other contributions should be ascribed, not to his timidity but to the de-redicalization that marks most of  the post-world war two era.


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