History of the National Lawyers Guild

The National Lawyers Guild was born at a meeting of 25 lawyers in New York City on December 1, 1936. The lawyers — New Dealers, union lawyers, civil libertarians, and progressives of varying stripes — conceived the new organization as the first racially integrated bar association, and as a counterweight to the conservative, all-white American Bar Association with its corporate focus and active opposition to New Deal reforms.

Within weeks of its formation, the Guild had chapters in a number of cities, including Boston, and more than 2,500 lawyers had expressed interest in the organization. The founding convention was held in Washington, DC on February 20, 1937. A constitution was adopted declaring the Guild open to all lawyers regardless of race, sex, or political beliefs. Among the resolutions adopted at the first convention were demands for anti-lynching legislation, legal protection of labor’s right to organize and engage in collective bargaining, a full-scale social security program, and federally funded neighborhood legal aid bureaus. An international law committee was formed to study misuse of the Neutrality Act to bar support of the Spanish Republic, which was under attack by fascism.

The early Guild supported and participated in many of the legislative achievements of the New Deal. Its progressive positions during the pre-war and World War II years included opposition to Nazism and fascism, opposition to U.S. economic and political domination of Latin America, and condemnation of racism in the military and elsewhere. This work attracted the attention of the FBI and the Dies Committee, the precursor of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Guild members participated in the Nuremberg war crime trials, opposed the attacks on labor that culminated in the Taft-Hartley Act, and devoted major efforts to opposing the repression unleashed upon progressives in the post-war years, including the Smith Act prosecutions of radicals, the institution of loyalty oaths for government jobs, and the witch hunts conducted by HUAC. Guild members came forward to represent many people called to testify before HUAC. Red-baiting of the Guild and its members continued unabated throughout this period, and at the height of Cold War hysteria, reduced the Guild’s membership to a mere 500 by 1955.

Decimated by the attacks of the McCarthy period, the Guild nevertheless came to the assistance of the Civil Rights movement in the early ’60s. Guild lawyers formed the Committee to Aid Southern Lawyers, successfully fighting the prosecution under Louisiana’s subversive control laws of the leadership of the Southern Conference Education Fund, which culminated in the Supreme Court’s decision in Dombrowski v. Pfister; sent members to Mississippi during the 1964 Freedom Summer to provide legal support for the voter registration drive; and supported the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s challenge to seating members of Congress chosen in all-white elections.

The escalation of US intervention in the Vietnam War and the rise of the anti-war movement provided the impetus for the Guild’s revival. Law student chapters formed and became involved in the anti-draft and anti-war movements on campus. Guild lawyers represented thousands of demonstrators arrested in anti-war protests and provided defense at the trials of the Chicago Seven, Black Panther leader Huey Newton, and the Attica defendants. The rise of the women’s movement and the New Left resulted in fundamental changes in the Guild in the late ’60s. Law students, legal workers, and jailhouse lawyers were admitted to full membership and, for the first time, women were elected to positions of leadership.

During the ’70s, Guild members represented anti-war activists, participated in the defense of Puerto Rican independentistas, and provided legal counsel to the Wounded Knee occupation at which the Oglala Sioux asserted their right to sovereignty. The Guild also joined the struggle for recognition of the United Farm Workers union and the movement for gay and lesbian rights, supported self-determination for Palestine, and opposed apartheid in South Africa.

During the ’80s, the Guild fought off the depredations of the Reagan administration on many fronts. It opposed assaults on affirmative action, successfully sued the FBI (A1) for its campaign of surveillance and harassment against the organization, opposed attempts to defund and disarm legal services, defended abortion rights, and provided legal support for the Central America solidarity movement and the anti-nuclear movement. Student members led organizing drives for affirmative action on school campuses. The NLG National Immigration Project began working systematically on immigration issues, spurred by the need to represent Central American refugees fleeing US-sponsored attacks in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

In the ’90s, Guild members mobilized opposition to the Gulf War, defended the rights of Haitian refugees escaping a US-sponsored dictatorship, opposed the US embargo of Cuba, and began to define a new civil rights agenda that included the right to employment, education, housing, and health care (A2). Legal theories for holding foreign human rights violators accountable in US courts based on early 19th century statutes were pioneered by Guild lawyers. As the 20th century came to a close, the Guild was defending anti-globalization, environmentalists, and labor rights activists from Seattle, to Washington D.C., to Los Angeles.

NLG_IraqWarThe world-shaking attacks of September 11, 2001 were followed by a crackdown on immigrants in the United States (A3) and a shredding of civil liberties. As hundreds of immigrants were rounded up, Guild chapters created hotlines to answer questions and provided attorneys for those who needed representation. Guild members held “Know Your Rights” workshops across the country for immigrant communities and fought to turn back the most draconian measures of the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act. With the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Guild’s Military Law Task Force once again geared up to respond to the requests of thousands of G.I.’s.  It receives thousands of hits per month on its website and coordinates training of lawyers and counselors who advise and represent hundreds of reservists and other enlistees who don’t want to serve in this illegal war.

2004 was a time of turmoil in Boston, providing the NLG with the opportunity to be at the forefront of several important causes.  When the Democratic National Convention was in Boston, protesters were unacceptably limited to a small, fenced-off pen.  The Guild took swift action, filing a lawsuit and launching a sweeping publicity campaign, challenging the unconstitutional restriction on free speech (A4).
NLG_PressThat same year, as a result of the paranoia following 9/11, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) announced plans to stop and search passengers getting on the subway, without cause or articulable suspicion of criminal activity.  The Guild sprang into action, creating and handing out buttons for passengers to wear saying “I DO NOT CONSENT TO A SEARCH”.  The Guild also filed a lawsuit, and stepped up efforts to inform citizens of their rights with regard to being stopped by law enforcement.  These actions placed the Guild in the media spotlight (A5).

Also in 2004, a young Emerson college student was tragically killed by police attempting to subdue a crowd celebrating the Red Sox World Series win.  The police misused what was supposed to be a “non-lethal” pepper pellet gun, striking and killing the young woman.  The Guild led an aggressive campaign calling for accountability and the end of using such weapons (A6).

Projects carry out much of the work of the NLG. The Police Accountability Project is dedicated to ending police abuse of authority through coordinated legal action, public education, and support for grassroots and victims’ organizations combating police misconduct.  The Mass Defense Committee (A7) has been working full steam, coordinating the defense of protesters while ensuring the right to demonstrate. It also disseminates the NLG’s Legal Observer Training Manual.  The Labor and Employment Committee continues to serve as a liaison between the Guild and various organized labor and employment groups.  The International Committee seeks to end harmful U.S. policies and support efforts of allied organizations in foreign countries (A8). Delegations in recent years have traveled to El Salvador, Gaza, Bolivia, Pakistan, Oaxaca, and Venezuela.

At the local level, the Mass Chapter is this year celebrating the 40th anniversary of its re-establishment. Our long-term projects are strong. The Street Law Clinic Project has been one of the Chapter’s most successful and exciting activities. Originally founded in 1989 in response to the Boston Police’s stop-and-search tactics, the Project has expanded its educational program to include tenants’ rights, workers’ rights, civil disobedience training, immigrants’ rights, and a new bankruptcy clinic.  With the goal of empowering the participants, Guild members have conducted hundreds of interactive clinics led by law students and supervised by lawyers. These clinics are held in community centers, homeless shelters, schools, youth centers, and pre-release centers. This is the first taste of activism for many law students.  A new component of this project includes individual legal counseling by the attorney supervisors.

Members of the Lawyer Referral Service provide legal services to the community at reasonable rates. The Referral Service provides a means for long-time practitioners and new attorneys just out of law school to receive a steady stream of new clients while providing a service to underserved populations.

NLG_ObserverOur Mass Defense Committee continues to provide legal observers at demonstrations as well as attorneys to represent those who get arrested.

We continue to monitor the progress of the Boston Civilian Review Board, and our Foreclosure Prevention Task Force  — now incorporated into the Street Law Clinics — provides advice and training to homeowners and tenants facing foreclosures and evictions.

Law students continue to be an active and vibrant part of the Guild community.  Many students participate in the Street Law Clinic Project, serve as legal observers at demonstrations, and participate in our campaigns.  We hold mentorship brunches to connect law students with practicing Guild lawyers so they can see the various ways that progressive attorneys practice and to give students a direct connection to potential employers.  Besides working on Chapter projects, student Guild chapters at Northeastern, Suffolk, Boston College, New England, Boston University, Harvard, and Western New England law schools carry out their own campaigns, bring progressive speakers, and hold forums on their campuses.

HappyHourMass Dissent, our Chapter newsletter, is published eight times a year with articles on community and legal issues of interest to the progressive legal community.  And the monthly Happy Hour continues to attract new members and non-members to unwind and connect.

The Massachusetts Chapter continues to try new ways of addressing the pervasive attacks on workers, people of color, women, gays and lesbians, the poor, immigrants, and other people, and to protect our hard-won reproductive and human rights. Join us in the planning and the action! Now, more than ever, we, as progressive lawyers, legal workers, law students, and jailhouse lawyers, and activists need to take action on these issues of our day.

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