by Franklin Siegel, NLG-NYC
Henry (Hank) di Suvero, a peripatetic activist lawyer who served as national President of the NLG from 1977 to 1979, died on July 3, 2020 in New South Wales, Australia, where he was a law professor and practitioner for the last three decades.
Hank was a lawyer in New York and Los Angeles prior to becoming national NLG president. As a member of the NYC Chapter from the mid-1960’s until 1972, he worked at the New York Civil Liberties Union and as Executive Director of the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee-ECLC (a national civil rights litigating organization formed by NLG founder Victor Rabinowitz, Leonard Boudin and Edith Tiger). Gerald Lefcourt, later the lead counsel for the NY Panther 21, worked for Hank at ECLC in late 1968 and remembers Hank “was a very fine lawyer and demanding as a boss.” Hank was part of a noted New York movement law firm, di Suvero, Meyers, Oberman & Steel, where he defended the Fort Dix 38, a high profile case involving GIs protesting against the Vietnam War at a New Jersey Army stockade in 1969; represented the Tombs 3, detainees indicted for participating in a rebellion at the Manhattan House of Detention in a six month trial in 1970; and as Daniel Meyers, a past NYC chapter president recalls, represented “the Schermerhorn Row Artists” in an anti-eviction struggle. Lewis Steel, another former NYC president, recalls Hank representing revolt leaders after the 1970 Auburn prison revolt. Hank also led lawyers who went to Chicago to protest the arrest of NLG lawyers appearing in pre-trial proceedings of the Chicago 8 trial. Hank and his wife, the late Ramona Ripston, led and revived the New Jersey Civil Liberties Union at the start of the 1970’s, following-up Hank’s work during the 1967 Newark Rebellion.
Hank and Ramona departed New York in 1972 when Ramona became the Executive Director of the ACLU of Southern California, the first woman and one of the few non-lawyers to head an ACLU affiliate. Hank became the Senior Attorney of the Greater Watts Justice Center, a War on Poverty-funded organization representing criminal defendants in the Watts community, where he worked for nine years.
Hank was the lead organizer in the creation of the People’s College of Law (PCL), a groundbreaking part-time night law school in L.A., where for five years he was the Treasurer and also taught criminal law. A 1975 New York Times article called PCL a “product of the left-leaning National Lawyers Guild and the only radical law school in the country.” (PCL was a joint project of the NLG, La Raza National Students Association, the Asian Law Collective and the National Conference of Black Lawyers). PCL opened in 1974, and was one of 36 “unaccredited” (non-ABA) law schools that sprung up when California began permitting students attending non-ABA schools to take its bar exam. It had a mission unique at the time: to promote enrollment of people of color and women, setting out with the goal to have two-thirds of its enrollment be Black and Chicano students, and equal numbers of men and women. PCL’s model was followed by the New College School of Law in San Francisco, and was an inspiration for the mission of CUNY School of Law which opened in 1983.
“We’re trying to turn out fully trained people’s lawyers”, di Suvero told the Times as PCL began its second year, “lawyers who will go back to their communities to practice.” The Times also reported that John Garfinkel, chair of the ABA’s committee on standards, who was critical of many of California’s unaccredited law schools, had much praise for PCL, observing “They’re idealists, I think they’re trying to do a good job.”
Hank was elected national president of the NLG at its 40th Anniversary Convention in Seattle in 1977, opening an era of programmatic vitality following several years of contentious and harsh political in-fighting in the mid-1970’s. Hank enlisted his L.A. chapter colleague, former NLG-National Office Collective member Phyllis Bennis (now a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies), to work with him as one of the regional vice presidents. Phyllis recalls one of the things they took on was the fight for the Guild to adopt an organizational position supporting Palestinian rights: “It was a bit of trial by fire in maintaining unity in the Guild, figuring out the right political position to fight for, [and] not losing members or funders.” Notwithstanding the bitter, largely generational divisions, Hank and Phyllis worked with an NLG cohort who persisted and won a strong pro-Palestinian position (albeit, Phyllis recalls, with a sometimes unfortunate lack of appreciation by many younger NLG members for some of the heroic work the older generation had accomplished in other contexts). It resulted in the NLG being recognized today as an early U.S. organizational supporter of the Palestinian liberation struggle.
At the end of his term as national NLG president, di Suvero left the U.S. intending to take a respite from being a criminal defense lawyer. He went to India, where he took up meditation and yoga, travelled throughout Asia, spent time with the then-independence movement in Irian Jaya in Indonesia, and ended up in Sydney, Australia where at first he became a yoga teacher.
Hank became a law professor at the University of New South Wales, and in 1987 became a Barrister in Sydney, specializing in criminal defense work. Ysaiah (Stan) Ross, a professor at NSW law school, noted Hank quickly developed a “reputation for an unusual form of criminal advocacy for Australian courts and other advocates would come to witness LA law in action.” Reflecting the British-influenced Australian system, the even-tempered di Suvero was brought up on bar charges for being “disrespectful” to a judge, and was suspended for six months. Hank also became a playwright, including authoring a play in 2005 about Palestine solidarity activist Rachel Corrie.
Hank’s widow Jinny, his sister Anna and two brothers, the sculptor Mark di Suvero and poet Victor di Suvero, survive him. Hank’s several peripatetic careers, from gritty prisoner’s rights lawyer in New York to yoga teacher to Justice Lionel Murphy of the Australian High Court, resonates with a memorable image at the conclusion of the NLG’s 40th Anniversary Convention. Hank departed the Convention facility at Seattle University in a fire-engine red convertible sports car with the top down, heading home to Los Angeles, the open road and a new era in the NLG ahead of him.
Donations can be made on the People’s College of Law website, peoplescollegeoflaw.edu, noting the gift is in Hank’s honor.
Franklin Siegel worked in the NLG National Office Collective at the beginning of di Suvero’s presidency, and is a past president of the New York City Chapter. He gratefully acknowledges information provided by Phyllis Bennis, NLG members Peter Franck, Gerald Lefcourt, Alan Levine, Dan Mayfield, Daniel Meyers, Frances Schreiberg, Lewis Steel and Martin Stolar.