Eventually called both a “great American hero” and “the most hated lawyer in America,” William M. Kunstler was born in New York in 1919, the oldest of three children in a middle-class Jewish family that lived on Central Park West on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. After graduating with honors from Yale University in 1941, he served in the Army Signal Corps in the Pacific during World War II. He earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart and rose to the rank of major.
After returning to the United States at the end of the war, he earned a law degree from Columbia University and settled into a relatively quiet life in the New York City suburbs with his wife, Lotte Rosenberger, and their daughters, Karin and Jane. He opened a modest law practice, Kunstler & Kunstler, with his brother Michael in 1946.
During this period, Kunstler wrote a number of books, including the Edgar-award nominated The Minister and the Choir Singer, and hosted a radio program called The Law on Trial on WNEW and taught classes on trusts and estates at New York Law School.
Kunstler was an “armchair liberal” — a member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) who believed in the principle of equal justice under law, but did not himself act on it. Kunstler & Kunstler had an ordinary civil practice until 1960, when William Kunstler represented Paul and Orial Redd, the African American founders of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter, in a housing discrimination lawsuit, his first civil rights case.
In 1961, the ACLU asked Kunstler to go to Mississippi to support the Freedom Riders, young activists who were traveling through the South by bus to challenge segregation of bus station waiting rooms and restaurants. Kunstler went to a Mississippi bus station, where he watched as five scared but determined young people sat down at a lunch counter and were promptly arrested. Kunstler would say that on that day he learned, “All the talking in the world meant nothing; it was the doing, the action, that had meaning.”
He went on to work with Martin Luther King Jr. and to play a major role in the legal battles of the civil rights movement. Notably, he represented Fred Shuttlesworth, who was languishing in a Birmingham jail. Kunstler filed a writ to the Supreme Court, which then ordered Shuttlesworth’s release. Kunstler also participated in King’s desegregation campaigns in Albany, Georgia, Danville, Virginia, Birmingham, Alabama and St. Augustine, Florida in the 1960s.
Kunstler also represented Black Power activist H. Rap Brown, now known as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin. Al-Amin replaced Stokely Carmichael as leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and faced years of federal charges, including violation of an anti-riot law enacted in response to his powerful speeches and known as the “H. Rap Brown Law.”
In addition to his work in the South, Kunstler took on a string of cases involving civil rights and political dissidents, many of them high-profile. This included defending Vietnam War protesters the Catonsville Nine and the Chicago Eight.
Kunstler was personally changed by his new line of work. His marriage to his first wife, Lotte Rosenberger, fell apart. Soon after, Kunstler met Margaret Ratner, a young radical attorney in New York City. The two moved in together in Greenwich Village, married in 1976 and had their daughter Sarah in 1976 and their daughter Emily in 1978.
Kunstler continued representing protesters throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He represented prisoners who rioted at Attica Correctional Facility in 1971, Native American protesters who seized Wounded Knee in South Dakota in 1973 and a man arrested for burning an American flag outside the 1984 Republican National Convention as an act of political protest.
Also in the 1980s, however, the self-proclaimed “radical lawyer” began to take on clients viewed as less defensible by his left-leaning fan base. These included Larry Davis, a 23-year-old drug dealer accused of the attempted murder of six police officers in 1986; Yusef Salaam, one of five teenagers found guilty of raping and severely beating a young woman in the notorious Central Park jogger case of 1989; and El Sayyid Nosair, an Egyptian immigrant acquitted of the 1990 murder of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the controversial founder of the Jewish Defense League in New York state court.
Kunstler suffered intense scrutiny and criticism as a result of taking these cases. He received frequent death threats and was confronted by protestors outside his home.
Kunstler wrote numerous books over the course of his career, including two autobiographies and several legal histories and books of poetry. He was the co-founder, with three other radical lawyers, of the Center for Constitutional Rights in 1966.
Kunstler died of heart failure on September 5, 1994. He was 76.