William Kunstler

William Kunstler

William Kunstler was born in New York City in 1919. He obtained degrees from Yale University and Columbia Law School he became a lawyer. Kunstler specialized in civil liberties law and his clients included Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, H. Rap Brown and the Chicago Seven.

Books by Kunstler included Politics on Trial (1963), Hall-Mills Murder Case (1980), The Disenchanted Island: Puerto Rico and the United States in the 20th Century (1992), Hints and Allegations (1994) and an autobiography, My Life as a Radical Lawyer (1994). William Kunstler died in 1995.

Primary Sources

(1) William Kunstler, interviewed by Dennis Bernstein in 1995.

I met Martin Luther King in Nashville, Tennessee in 1961, and I had expected to see an Old Testament saint. He asked me to be his special trial counselor and I agreed. I don’t put Martin on a pedestal; I think that’s the wrong thing to do with him. He had some drawbacks. He was not decisive in many areas. But he was a man without malice, and he was a marvelous speaker. He could say things that in my mouth would be dross, you know, using all these hyperboles, "the silver sword of justice will cleft the hills of injustice and let the stream of righteousness pour forth," which I could never say, but which sounded beautiful when he said it. "I have a dream," all that type of rhetoric that he used is very effective. I was out to see him in April 1968 with a lawsuit he had asked us to formulate on behalf of the striking garbagemen in Memphis, when he was shot and killed, the shot in the neck that opened the whole side of his face.

When I heard that he had been killed, I wanted to kill. Boy, there was a rage in my heart that was second to none. It subsided, finally, but I can’t describe the feelings I had. He was such a symbol of goodness in the movement, that to have him slaughtered - and done really by the FBI, you know, they gave him such a bad rep - "He’s the greatest liar in America," said J. Edgar Hoover - that any nut would be stimulated by it, as was the murderer, James Earl Ray. So really, Ray may have pulled the trigger, but the one who loaded the gun was the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

(2) Dennis Bernstein, Z Magazine (October 1995).

William Moses Kunstler died on Labor Day at age 76 of a heart attack. But I assure you it was a purely technical matter. He never lost hope, and the heart he brought to his work was huge, and was never lost to paralyzing bitterness or cynicism. Bill’s good heart will go on beating in many of us for a long time to come.