Blacklist Resistance: the NLG Fights for Its Life

More than any previous attack, the 1950 publication of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) report decimated the ranks of the National Lawyer Guild. The HUAC report, titled “National Lawyers Guild: Legal Bulwark of the Communist Party,” was part of the federal campaign to have the NLG officially listed as a “subversive organization,” a move that would almost certainly drive the Guild's remaining members to ruin. But the HUAC report alone struck a blow that would take the Guild more than a decade to recover from.

It is a simple enough document. Lists take up fully two thirds of the report’s fifty pages—lists of the names and addresses of national officers, of their affiliations with “Communist enterprises,” and, in an appendix that runs longer than the main text, of positions taken by the NLG placed alongside statements by the Communist Party USA, supposedly showing party control. These items include stances on foreign policy, calls for an investigation into the Peekskill Riots, and criticism of the FBI’s illegal surveillance of political groups. The report presents all of this as definitive evidence of Communist affiliation which, it went without saying, was tantamount to treason.

The HUAC report is remarkable as an exercise which attempts to prove guilt in association itself. In the paranoid political climate of the time, just being named in HUAC proceedings was enough to destroy a person’s livelihood, and HUAC knew that. To achieve its intended goal the report did not need analysis; all it required was names  on paper. Perhaps the most jarring example of information used this way is the HUAC report's list of Guild lawyers alongside clients who they represented before HUAC. The lawyers who dared to represent accused Communists, the report explains, must be taking orders directly from Moscow themselves. So much for the Sixth Amendment.

(Not that this tendency to override the right to counsel has left the American legal system—to see it in action today one need only look to Guantanamo Bay or the case of Guild lawyer Lynne Stewart.)

Then, in August 1953, Attorney General Herbert Brownell took the podium at the American Bar Association convention and announced his intent to do the one thing that NLG members feared most: to officially list the NLG as subversive. This began a period in which the NLG clung to its very life, directing almost all its energy at resisting the listing that would push it over the brink.

Those who remained, however, were not cowed. Under the leadership of Executive Secretary Ann Fagan Ginger, the NLG adopted a “concentration policy,” culling all but a few strategic projects to be able to focus on that primary goal: resisting the listing. It took years of litigation and several appeals in the case that became National Lawyers Guild v. Brownell but the NLG prevailed, forcing the Justice Department to drop its action.

Still, the damage had been done. By the early 1960s several Guild lawyers faced disbarment proceedings. Relationships and careers had suffered incredible strains. The NLG was a skeleton of its former self, with membership at an all-time low and the national presence it had held in the early 1950s evaporated. Only four chapters were left, each of them concerned mainly with local issues. The Detroit chapter, which had weathered the McCarthy era relatively unscathed, emerged as the most active.

The local ties that Detroit members had sustained in the Guild’s darkest days would now revive the whole organization and allow it to join the political ferment of the 1960s.