Cover image for William M. Kunstler : the most hated lawyer in America
William M. Kunstler : the most hated lawyer in America
Langum, David J., 1940-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : New York University Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
xii, 452 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Introductory images -- Family and early years -- Getting started in the law -- The shock of the South -- Black power advocate -- Circus in Chicago -- Directions outside the courtroom -- Radical lawyers in modern America -- Representing the Attica prisoners -- Private life and practice in the 1970s -- Indian defenses -- The 1980s and a more diverse practice -- The scapegoat and the killer cops -- Return to the limelight -- Kunstler in his final years.
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KF373.K8 L36 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
KF373.K8 L36 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Alternately vilified as a publicity-seeking egoist and lauded as a rambunctious, fearless advocate, William Kunstler consistently embodied both of these qualities.

Kunstler's unrelenting, radical critique of American racism and the legal system took shape as a result of his efforts to enlist the federal judicial system to support the civil rights movement. In the late 60s and the 70s, Kunstler, refocusing his attention on the Black Power and anti-war movement, garnered considerable public attention as defender of the Chicago Seven, and went on to represent such controversial figures as Leonard Peltier, the American Indian Movement leader charged with killing an FBI agent, and Jack Ruby, the killer of Lee Harvey Oswald. Later, Kunstler briefly represented Colin Ferguson, the Long Island Railroad mass murderer, outraging fans and detractors alike with his invocation of the infamous "black rage" defense.

Defending those most loathed by mainstream, conventional America, William Kunstler delighted in taking on fiercely political cases, usually representing society's outcasts and pariahs free of charge and often achieving remarkable courtroom results in seemingly hopeless cases. Though Kunstler never gave up his revolutionary underpinnings, he gradually turned from defending clients whose political beliefs he personally supported to taking on apolitical clients, falling back on the broad rationale that his was a general struggle against an oppressive government.

What ideological and tactical motives explain Kunstler's obsessive craving for media attention, his rhetorical flourishes in the courtroom and his instinctive and relentless drive for action? How did Kunstler migrate from a comfortable middle-class background to a life as a staunchly rebellious figure in social and legal history? David Langum's portrait gives depth to the already notorious breadth of William Kunstler's life.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Langum, a law professor, presents a probative and insightful account of the life and times of one of the most controversial lawyers in the U.S. Kunstler's sometimes hated, sometimes admired public persona grew out of his defense of the Chicago Seven following the riotous demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic convention. He viewed what some called the "police riot" as a transformative experience. He began focusing more on educating the public about government abuses. Kunstler had already gotten hooked on the civil rights movement after observing the sit-in demonstrations in the South in the 1960s. Thereafter, his clientele ranged from Martin Luther King Jr. to H. Rap Brown. In later years, he represented Mafia figures, providing the strained rationale that he was defending victims of government oppression. Langum notes that although Kunstler threw himself into his clients' causes, he was not a radical idealogue himself, but rather a man of action. Langum goes beyond the conventional reading of Kunstler to uncover a man who often embellished his experiences to get at deeper truths about American society. --Vernon Ford

Library Journal Review

Cumberland Law School professor Langum's spectacular and thoughtful biography of radical lawyer William Kunstler is distinguished by an even-handed presentation and deep research, which includes interviews with the late attorney's family, his ex-wife, judges, and attorneys. Langum traces Kunstler's affinity for society's outcasts and malcontents to his civil rights work in 1960s Mississippi. While praising Kunstler for his dedication to the cause of individual rights, the author debunks his claims that he never received fees for civil rights cases and points to his habit of stretching the truth in recounting his exploits. Organized chronologically, the book takes the reader inside Kunstler's famous cases, such as the Chicago Seven trial in 1968, the Attica prison riot in 1971, the Wounded Knee trial in 1975, and the World Trade Center bombing case. In sum, Langum opens a fascinating window on four decades of legal firestorms and the lawyer who stood close to the flames.ÄHarry Charles, Attorney at Law, St. Louis (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Langum's portrayal of the late William Kunstler is an in-depth profile of a person who by all accounts is viewed in the American legal profession as having been notoriously bullish in championing the causes of underdogs. Although vilified by his critics as a publicity-seeking egoist and a rambunctious advocate, one wonders whether Kunstler truly embodied those qualities. Langum (law, Stamford Univ.) thinks so and sides with Kunstler's critics. By representing society's outcasts and pariahs, Kunstler took up fiercely political causes, even if doing so paid him nothing. Langum argues that Kunstler's unrelenting critique of racism and the legal system in the US took shape from his persistence to enlist support from the federal judicial system for the struggle for civil rights, and the support of Black Power and antiwar movements in the 1960s. Using the media, Kunstler seized the opportunity to "demystify" the law and to explain the oppressiveness of the establishment. While conservatives viewed Kunstler with disdain, liberals praised his petulance. The 15 chapters provide a vivid and expansive catalog of Kunstler's life and contributions; ultimately Kunstler's significance depends on the politics one bears in the evaluation of an American legal iconoclast, the defender of the powerless. Recommended for general readership. M. G. Pufong; Valdosta State University