Haywood Burns

Above photo: Haywood Burns (second from right) with client Angela Davis (center), and fellow NLG defense attorney Margaret Burham (far left) during 1972 trial.

W. Haywood Burns was an activist, attorney, and civil rights advocate who inspired people to help underserved communities.

Burns’s civil rights career began at age 15, when he helped integrate a public swimming pool in Peekskill, New York. As a law student at Yale, he participated in the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi. He became Assistant Counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and later served as General Counsel to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign.

He was one of the founders of the National Conference of Black Lawyers in 1968 and became its first director, hoping to displace the more traditional National Bar Association. At the time, there were fewer than 3,000 black lawyers in the nation. The group represented the Black Panthers, Vietnam War resisters, and Cornell University students who had staged an armed occupation of the student union building. Haywood Burns successfully defended Angela Davis, who was acquitted of kidnapping and murder charges in connection with the invasion in 1970 of a San Rafael, California courthouse to free black prisoners.

Burns went on to serve as dean of the Law School at the City University of New York (CUNY) and president of the National Lawyers Guild, 1986-87. He was a Visiting Scholar at Yale Law School and returned to New York to establish a Harlem-based law firm. His talents, passions and zest for life were his signatures. He was tragically killed in an automobile accident while attending the International Association of Democratic Lawyers conference in Cape Town, South Africa in 1996. The National Lawyers Guild subsequently named its fellowship program after him.

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