The first two features in this issue look inward at the Guild itself. “Transformational Movements: The National Lawyers Guild and Radical Legal Service” by Jules Lobel seeks to explain why the Guild, virtually alone among the radical-progressive organizations founded to better conditions for struggling and disenfranchised groups during the Great Depression, has “survive[d]… with its fundamental mission intact.” Throughout the twentieth century it has become something like a sociological rule that activist associations, formed in response to social or political crises, will either fizzle out with the end of the particular problem for which they were created or moderate their radical values as the political climate changes and the audience for systematic social change diminishes and grows less attentive. The Guild has proven itself a striking exception to this rule.
Despite a history of episodic internecine conflicts, some of them factional and contentious, and a period of fanatical state persecution during the McCarthyite period, for 79 years the Guild has been an unyielding force for legal, political, and social change. Among the reasons for this, Lobel argues, is the Guild’s commitment to remaining an internally democratic and egalitarian organization. The Guild has always eschewed ideological tests as a matter of principle and been open to dissenting points of view from members. The Guild has never structured itself hierarchically, like a corporation. It has never lapsed into oligarchy. There have been no perpetual presidents. The Guild has always remained a proudly bottom-up organization with a membership free and bold enough to challenge leaders when disagreements arise.
Perhaps even more importantly, Lobel explains that despite being mostly comprised of of educated professionals (lawyers), the Guild has never thought of itself as an elite political force or intellectual vanguard among political radicals. Instead the Guild has always functioned as a supporter and defender of social movements led by the people themselves. It has consistently stood shoulder-to-shoulder with protesters and reformers—from labor activists in the ’30’s to the Freedom Riders in the ’60s to the 2011 Occupy protesters to #BlackLivesMatter today—but never in front of them. It is on-hand when movements arise but never allows itself to be wholly defined by just one movement. For this reason, when the impetus behind a particular movement begins to wane (as the Anti-war movement after the troops came home from Vietnam, for instance) the Guild, always fighting injustice on many fronts, carries on. Lobel combines history and analysis in a way that shines new light on how the Guild has functioned over time, describing the reasons for both its shortcomings and successes. More than anything else, he explains the secret to the Guild’s longevity—something which, at numerous points in its history, very few could have reasonably predicted.
NLGR is proud that one of our editorial board members, Deborah Willis, was awarded the Arthur Kinoy Award for her twenty years of service to this law review at the Guild’s 2015 convention. During her acceptance speech, Debbie inspired the audience with her thoughts about the Guild, NLGR , and what constitutes good legal writing. A revised version of her remarks are printed here in full.
“The Color of Pain: Blacks and the U.S. Health Care System—Can the Affordable Care Act Help to Heal a History of Injustice? ” by Jennifer M. Smith focuses on a particularly virulent dimension of racism in the U.S. that has never gotten enough public attention: anti-black discrimination in the health care system. Part I of Smith’s article, featured in this issue, explores the history, dating back to slavery, of how black people have been excluded from access to health care and denied entry to health care professions. Part II, which will appear in our next issue, examines whether and to what extent the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) will improve upon this tragic legacy .
—Nathan Goetting, editor in chief