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William Kunstler
(1919 - 1995)


A radical and courageous civil rights attorney and activist dedicated to dismantling systemic racism, discrimination, and injustice in law. An alumni of Yale University and Columbia Law School. His career was dedicated to defending socially marginalized individuals, many of whom were civil rights activists.

Portrait of William Kunstler.
Kunstler, William. 16" x 20". 2016. Collection of the artist. Montreal, Canada.

A Radical Legal Career

The tone of Kunstler’s career took form with the defense of William Worthy Jr., an African American civil rights activist and journalist unlawfully arrested upon return from Cuba. Kunstler’s work continued with the defenses of Martin Luther King Jr., mafia leader John Gotti, the Freedom Riders activists, members of the Black Panthers, and the Chicago Seven. 

Not only did Kunstler defend civil rights activists, but he fought for civil rights and participated in protests linked to the issues he represented in court. As his legal career progressed, his socio-political beliefs transformed. In his book My Life as a Radical Lawyer, Kunstler described his metamorphosis from “a liberal to a radical…from civil rights to Black Power, from protest to militant dissent.” Incensed by the deeply rooted systemic racism in America, Kunstler worked not only to defend the clients, but to bring down the systems of discrimination and injustice.

His legal work, his writing, his beliefs, and his actions were thoroughly transgressive and called out...all that was unjust in justice.

Kunstler was reputed for his outlandish presence in the courtroom, a method and risk necessary to challenge the state on such unprecedented issues. He was known for opening his summations by reciting poetry. However, his unorthodoxy was not always so mild. For 24 contempts of court, born of his characteristic vociferous dissent against the state, Kunstler was sentenced to prison – a charge that was later reversed. Kunstler endured threats and harassment on account of his clients and political position, but did not waver.

At the height of his radicalization, Kunstler took on even more controversial cases: defending Islamic and African American clients against homicide charges. His legal work, his writing, his beliefs, and his actions were thoroughly transgressive and called out the irony of a discriminatory legal system and all that was unjust in justice. For his prolific, radical career, Kunstler is simultaneously revered and condemned.

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Theodore Roosevelt

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