BOOKS: Clarence Darrow Twice.

Clarence Darrow in his natural habitat, a packed courtroom weighing life or death for two unpopular defendants, in this case rich teenage murderers Leopold and Loeb in 1924 Chicago.  

I recently had the honor of being asked by the new Washington Independent Review of Books to review the two new biographies of one of my unabashed favorites from American history, lawyer Clarence Darrow.  It ran this week.  Here’s what I came up with:
Clarence Darrow: American Iconoclast
Andrew Edmund Kersten

Hill and Wang, 320 pp.
Clarence Darrow is a biographer’s gift. America’s premier lawyer, he lived a fantastic life, fraught with drama, epic achievements and stark character flaws ― all supported by a rich paper trail of letters, trial transcripts, speeches, memoirs and newspaper clips. He had an outgoing, sarcastic personality played by some of Hollywood’s best actors: Spencer Tracy (Inherit the Wind), Orson Welles (Compulsion) and Kevin Spacey (Darrow), among others.
Darrow is best remembered today for defending Tennessee high school teacher John T. Scopes in the 1925 “Monkey Trial,” in which Scopes was accused of violating a state law that barred the teaching of evolution in the classroom. Darrow turned the occasion into an epic clash of science against superstition (his view of religion) and got Scopes off with a $100 fine, later reversed on appeal. But this barely scratches the surface of Darrow’s career. Think of the dozen most important, high-profile legal contests in America’s last 150 years: Darrow appears in at least half of them.
How good was he? 

By the time he defended Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb ― two wealthy Chicago teenagers facing execution in 1924 for murdering Bobby Frank, a younger friend, on a lark ― Darrow had defended more than 100 capital cases and lost only one client to the executioner. He repeatedly defended the most hated, vulnerable people in society, making a trademark of facing down stacked prosecutions and public prejudice. Yes, he also represented plenty of gangsters, politicians, bootleggers and socialites ― someone had to pay the rent ― but he made his mark as Attorney for the Damned.
Darrow is one of the truly interesting people in American history, and if anyone deserves a new biography today, it is him. Now, after a long drought, we suddenly have two very good ones: John A. Farrell’s Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned and Andrew E. Kersten’s Clarence Darrow: American Iconoclast. As they say, when it rains, it pours (though I do think it a bit unfair to each of these fine books that they are being released so closely back to back).

As they should, Kersten and Farrell both inevitably build their stories around Darrow’s famous legal cases ― a series of irresistible dramas, which trace the country’s own emergence into the modern age. Darrow lectured prolifically about philosophy and religion ― his views were mostly cynical and atheistic ― but he spoke most eloquently through the clients he chose to defend. They started with labor leaders such as Eugene Debs (future four-time Socialist candidate for president, charged with conspiracy for leading the 1894 Pullman Strike) and William D. “Big Bill” Haywood (founder of the radical Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies”; accused, with two other defendants, in the 1905 murder of Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg following a labor dispute and found not guilty) ― this at a time when working men’s efforts to assert collective rights against unfettered Gilded Age capitalism was the cutting-edge human rights issue in America.
Darrow defended self-declared Communists at the height of the post-World War I Red Scare. He defended Leopold and Loeb, plus a political assassin named Patrick Eugene Prendergast (convicted of murdering Chicago mayor Carter Harrison, in 1893), on grounds of opposing capital punishment. And, at a time late in his career, when he could charge exorbitant fees, he chose instead to defend Ossian Sweet, a Detroit black man accused of murdering a white man he shot while defending his house. Darrow won him an outright acquittal from an all-white jury.
It is no exaggeration that many of these confrontations were life-and-death, win-at-all-costs, bare-knuckled, adrenaline-pumping affairs covered breathlessly by newspapers coast-to-coast. As a result, this gave Darrow a unique platform to shape modern attitudes toward free speech, civil liberties, racial equality, criminal psychology, the death penalty, fair play for minorities and unpopular defendants, and the legal profession itself.
His dark side

Neither Farrell nor Kersten spares Darrow a good flogging for his many character flaws.  Darrow could be vain, self-absorbed and deceitful ― as in his womanizing and cheating on his second wife, Ruby, with young journalist Mary Field. He could be corrupt. After he defended the McNamara brothers, two union organizers, for the 1912 dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times building, which killed more than 20 people (he pled them both guilty to life sentences), prosecutors charged Darrow with jury tampering. He denied it and won an acquittal in his first trial but escaped jail only by a hung jury in the second. Afterward, with a cloud over his reputation, Darrow justified the tactics. “Do not the rich and powerful bribe jurors, intimidate and coerce judges,” he asked in a letter.
Darrow could also be personally cruel with people he disliked.  Describing his sharp, embarrassing cross-examination of William Jennings Bryan ― the former presidential candidate who led the prosecution against John Scopes in the famous Monkey trial ― he admitted to a friend: “I made up my mind to show the country what an ignoramus he was and I succeeded.”
I particularly enjoyed John Farrell’s richly written and well-structured narrative. Farrell, a Washington-based political journalist (he recently joined the Center for Public Integrity as senior reporter) and biographer of former Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill, manages to cut through the complexity of Darrow’s legal cases to expose the human dynamic, the core conflicts and underhanded courtroom tricks, as well as the deeper national issues at stake.
Andrew Kersten, professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin and author of three books on labor history, brings a sharp academic eye to the story. His writing is clear and efficient, and he lets the story shine through. He, too, presents Darrow warts and all, though he occasionally seems a bit too eager to forgive Darrow for his shortcomings.

Happily, neither book falls into the trap of trying to decipher “what would Clarence Darrow do?” about modern issues like the Guantanamo Bay prison, the Patriot Act or other elements of today’s War on Terror. Darrow was far too idiosyncratic for that. In real life, he constantly confounded his friends. He managed to forget all about civil liberties during some of the most shameful World War I-era crackdowns on dissent, and F.D.R. himself lived to regret putting Darrow on a 1930s New Deal program review board only to have Darrow publicly blast the program as autocratic.
For my money, there cannot be enough biographies, movies, documentaries, speeches or memorabilia about Clarence Darrow. And as long as we keep Darrow’s profile high in the American consciousness, it keeps the country and our civil rights safer as a result.

For May Day — We give you Big Bill Haywood

Bill Haywood (in Derby hat) leading strikers in Lowell, Massachusetts, 1912.

Happy May Day, Comrades. Remember back when Red States had nothing do to with Republicans and May Day had nothing to do with trees and birds and the environment?  Red meant RED, as in communist or socialist, and May Day was for Revolution.

Ninety-two years ago today, on May Day 1919, Socialists staged Red Flag marches in every major American city. It was American socialism was at its peak. Almost a million US workers went on strike against The Capitalist Enemy, led by radicals like William Z. Foster and Louis Fraina.  Bolsheviks had just taken power in Russia, and Eugene Debs would soon win almost a million votes for President in 1920 running from a prison cell on the Socialist ticket. The Red Scare was at its peak, and Emma Goldman still scared the socks off complacent American bourgoisie

Bill Haywood, circa 1910.

And of all the prominent lefties, the emblematic leader was Big Bill Haywood, president of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) — the biggest, baddest, toughest, roughest leftiest labor leader of them all.

Haywood wanted his IWW to be “One Big Union” for the entire American working class to battle the Corporate Plutocrats of J.P. Morgan’s Gilded Age.  IWW organizers faced lynching or murder by company detectives. Strikers faced beatings, blacklists, and trumped-up prosecutions.  Still, the IWW attracted some 300,000 members at its peak. 

Bill Haywood himself — a former cowpoke and miner — didn’t hesitate to push back,  He used sabotage or strong-arm tactics where needed. In 1905, he faced murder charges for the death Idaho governer Frank Steunenberg, blown up after a bitter mining strike.  This set the stage for one of America’s  great courtroom dramas.  Idaho prosecutors, backed by Pinkerton detectives, blamed Haywood for the killing, and famed Chicago lawyer Clarance Darrow traveled to Idaho to defend him.  He won Haywood an acquittal.

During the World War I, Federal agents under direction of President Woodrow Wilson launched a sweeping crackdown of the IWW.   His Justice Department arrested over 100 Wobblies and in 1918 tried them en masse for Espionage. Haywood, convicted and facing prison, fled to Bolshevik Russia for his final years.

So this May Day, forget the flowers and trees. Forget the Red States and Blue States. Let’s all wear Red, sing The Internationale, shake our fists at the Power Structure, and toast Big Bill Haywood, a socialist’s socialist, a radical’s radical, a Red’s Red — as American as apple pie.   

Here is Joan Baez singing her famous version of the ballad to Bill Haywood’s best-known IWW organizer, Joe Hill.  Enjoy– 

The best book on Bill Haywood is his own autobiography, published in 1929.


The Bush Torture Memos

Clarence Darrow
Clarance Darrow, the famous defense lawyer, got it right back in 1920 talking about that era’s parade of hysteria-driven abuses known as the First Red Scare: “People are getting more cruel all the time, more insistent that they shall have their way,” he told friends back then. “The fact is that I am getting afraid of everyone who has conviction.”

Eighty years later, in 2001, President George W. Bush showed plenty of conviction when he declared his Global War on Terror after the attacks on our country of September 11 that year. Every American, as a basic civic duty, should spend the few minutes it takes to read the “Torture Memos” released yesterday by the Department of Justice, written in 2002 and 2005 to justify dispensing with two centuries of American decency — just to see when happens when hysteria is allowed to control the minds of normally rational people.

These memos — well-wrtten, highly-researched, and technically cogent — specify in sobering detail just how cruel our government was prepared to be in waging this War, with no weighing of any consequences outside these narrowest legal grounds. They explain how ten forms of aggressive interrogation did not amount to torture and thus were protected by law: “(1) attention grasp, (2) walling, (3) facial hold, (4) facial slap (insult slap), (5) cramped confinement, (6) wall standing, (7) stress positions, (8) sleep deprivations, (9) insects placed in a confinement box, and (10) the waterboard.”
Imagine if any other country ever dared to use these techniques against American citizens, and then justified them on the basis of the attached legal mumbo-jumbo.
Here are the links:

The August 1, 2002 memo, initially justifying the ten technogues, written by Jay Bybee, who sits today as a Federal Appeals Court Judge. (On whether Judge Bybee should be impeached, click here to see Yale Law Professor Bruce Ackerman’s take on the issue from last January);

The May 10, 2005 memo providing a more detailed legal justification (much more graphic);

The May 10, 2005 memo, justifying use of the techniques in combination; and

The May 30, 2005 memo, justifying how the techniques do not violate United Nations Conventions.

Eric Holder: “Nation of Cowards”? Not Really.

Eric Holder, the new Attorney General, raised hackles in Washington, D.C. yesterday for calling Americans a “national of cowards” on race relations, pointing to failures to build inter-racial ties outside the workplace. I certainly respect Holder for raising a sensitive and important issue. But on the history, I think he’s wrong.
The roster of heroes on this score is long and impressive and, to my mind, it deserves more attention than the cowards. Other countries have struggled with racism and zenophobia, but America is rare in addressing it so directly. Obviously, divisions and prejudice still exist. But we live in an tie of promise and good will, with Barack Obama in the White House and Holder himself making history at Justice.

As my brief contribution, I’d like to mention some heroes, specifically two relationships that crossed the divide during times when attitudes were ugly and simple handshakes required courage. Both helped lay groundwork for the civil rights successes to come later:
— A friendship among two US Senators, Roscoe Conkling and Blanche Bruce; and
— The work of a great lawyer, Clarence Darrow, for a ground-breaking client, Ossian Sweet.

Blanche Bruce (photo above) was the second African-American to reach the U.S. Senate (Riram Revels of Mississippi was the first), the first to serve a full term (1875-1881), and the only black senator during those years. Bruce had escaped slavery during the Civil War and gone north. He taught school in Hannibal, Missouri, and briefly attended Oberlin College. After the War, he returned to Mississippi to make money as a planter and rose in Reconstruction politics.

By 1875, when Bruce reached Washington, D.C., America had already lost its wartime idealism and grown tired of Reconstruction, spawning an attitude of resentment against freed slaves. Lynchings and other crackdowns were were on the rise. Bruce, as the only black Senator, confronted stark bigotry from colleagues — particularly fellow Mississippi Senator Lucius Lamar. On the day of his swearing-in on the Senator floor, Bruce rose to step forward and take the oath, but both of his Mississippi colleagues (Lamar and out-going Senator James Alcorn) refused to escort him. For a moment, Bruce stood absolutely alone — until one Senator finally saw his embarrassment, stood up, and walked over from across the chamber, took Bruce’s arm, and announced himself Bruce’s sponsor. It was Roscoe Conkling of New York.

Roscoe Conkling was one of Washington’s most powerful figures in 1975, boss of the NY State Republican machine, leader of the Republican Stalwarts and intimate with President US Grant. Conkling took Bruce under his wing, made him a protege, coached him in Senate procedures and helped him win key committee seats. They became fast friends, and Bruce would go so far as to name his first-born son after Conkling. Young men named Roscoe would populate the family tree for generations.

Clarence Darrow had never met Ossian Sweet in 1925 when he agreed to take Sweet’s case. Sweet, an African-American physician, had purchased a home in a white neighborhood in Detroit. A mob of neighbors tried to drive him out, but Sweet refused to be intimidated. Mobs started congregating around the Sweet home. One night, gunshots rang out, and Sweet fired back. A white man in the crowd was hit and died.
Local prosecutors quickly indicted Sweet for murder and set trial before an all-white jury.
The recently-formed NAACP had trouble at first finding a lawyer to take Sweet’s case, until they asked Darrow. Darrow was already famous from a lifetime defending headline clients from labor leaders Eugene V. Debs and Bill Haywood to most recently John Scopes, the high school tachers accused in 1924 of teaching evolution in Dayton, Tennessee. Darrow quickly saw the importance of the case and agreed to lead the defense.
His appeal to the jury based on common humanity became an instant classic:

“You are facing a problem of two races, a problem that will take centuries to solve. If I felt none of you were prejudiced, I’d have no fear. I want you to be as unprejudiced as you can be…..Draw upon your imagination and think how you would feel if you fired at some black man in a black community, and then had to be tried by them…. The danger of a mob is not what it does, but what it might do. Mob psychology is the most dreadful thing with which man has to contend. Its action is like the starting of a prairie fire. A match in the stuble, and it spreads and spreads, devouring everything in its way….the mob was waiting to see the sacrifice of some helpless blacks. They came with malice in their hearts…”

It took two trials, but ultimately Darrow prevailed, presuading the jury to reach a unanimous verdict of not guilty on ground of self defense. Ossian Sweet went free, and a precedent against housing discrimination was set forty years before the Civil Rights Act.

We don’t often think of Clarance Darrow and Roscoe Conkling as civil rights heroes, and Blanche Bruce and Ossian Sweet rarely get attention for their ground-breaking roles. But if today we are keeping score on heroes versus cowards on achieving racial justice in America, then I am happy to offer them as evidence on the good side. Thanks. –KenA
For more background, see my two book recommendations for today:

— On Blanche Bruce, The Senator and the Socialite: The True Story of America’s First Black Dynasty, by Lawrence Otis Graham.
— On Darrow and the Sweet trials, Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, by Kevin Boyle.