Wondering why the W. Haywood Burns Institute is named that? Who is Haywod? Welcome to learning about a justice legend too many do not know...
W. Haywood Burns, a former dean of the City University of New York School of Law at Queens College and a longtime civil rights advocate who worked with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., represented the black radical Angela Davis against charges of kidnapping and murder, and coordinated the defense for inmates indicted in the Attica prison riot, died on Tuesday in an automobile accident. He was 55 and lived in New Rochelle, N.Y.
Mr. Burns was killed in Cape Town, where he was attending a conference on democracy and international law, when a truck ran a stoplight and hit a car in which he and M. Shanara Gilbert, an associate professor at the law school, were riding. She also died.
Mr. Burns stepped down as dean in 1994, and at the time of his death was back in the classroom, teaching courses like "Race and Law" and "Critical Race Theory" as well as constitutional law.
From the time he was involved in a successful effort to integrate a swimming pool in Peekskill, N.Y., at age 15, Mr. Burns worked continuously for black people and for civil rights, moving smoothly from academia to activist organizations. He spoke out frequently for human rights and did not hesitate to criticize people in power. At the Annual Conference of Human Rights Workers in 1970, he called law enforcement in this country "a repression of American justice" and a way of restricting the nonwhite population."
And at a hearing on the Attica prison revolt before a Senate Committee in 1974, he charged Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller with the responsibility for "human tragedy that ranks in the annals of national disgrace with My Lai."
He spoke out against the nomination of numerous candidates for the Supreme Court of the United States, from Clement F. Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell to David Souter and Clarence Thomas.
For example, in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times in 1991 opposing Judge Thomas's nomination, Mr. Burns recalled his childhood visits to his great-aunt, Vinnie, in the South, who had raised his mother in a shack with a tin roof and no indoor plumbing. "My background closely resembles that of Judge Clarence Thomas, a sharecropper's grandson from Pinpoint, Ga," he wrote. But he made it clear that he and the judge had headed in different directions. He called Judge Thomas a "counterfeit hero" who has "made it infinitely harder for other poor blacks from our Pinpoint, Georgias, to make it."
Mr. Burns was born on June 15, 1940, in Peekskill. His father held a variety of jobs, including harvesting tobacco and driving a truck. His mother worked as a home attendant. He graduated from Harvard College with honors and from Yale University Law School in 1966. In between, on a Harvard fellowship studying in Cambridge, England, he conducted research on black Muslims that he turned into a book, "The Voices of Negro Protest in America," published in 1963.
After graduating from Yale, Mr. Burns joined the New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, but left shortly after to become law clerk to Judge Constance Baker Motley of United States District Court. From there, he became assistant counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc.
During that time, he served as general counsel to Martin Luther King Jr.'s Poor People's Campaign in 1968. He often told the story later of how he had stood on the steps of the Supreme Court as campaign marchers headed toward the Court and watched the doors slam closed.
After two years with the civil rights group, Mr. Burns helped found the National Conference of Black Lawyers in 1969 to serve as "the legal arm of the black revolution" 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. Within months, the group was representing the Black Panthers, Vietnam War resisters and Cornell University students who had staged an armed occupation of the student union building.
Mr. Burns successfully defended Ms. Davis, who was acquitted of kidnapping and murder charges in connection with the invasion in 1970 of a San Rafael, Calif., courthouse to free black prisoners. A state judge and three others were killed in the incident.
In 1974, he moved again, becoming a visiting professor of law at the State University of New York at Buffalo and coordinator for the defense for 62 inmates indicted in the Attica prison uprising, during which more than 40 people were killed.
"He lived on about four hours of sleep a night," said Herman Schwartz, a professor of law at American University who had defended one of the Attica murder suspects. "He had two full-time jobs. He would go to sleep around midnight or 1 A.M. and get up around 4 A.M. He taught a full load, and taught very well, and the students loved him. At the same time, he was coordinating the defense for the Attica uprising, which was both an intellectual and an administrative challenge."
Mr. Burns returned to New York City in 1975 as an associate law professor at New York University, then became chairman of the urban legal studies program at City College and vice provost and dean for urban and legal programs.
In 1987, he was named dean of the Law School at Queens College, becoming the first black dean of a law school in New York. Although he did not find much time to return to the poetry he wrote as a young man, he did write frequently for law journals and popular publications, including The Nation, on topics like race and affirmative action.
He was a trustee of many organizations, including the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Community Service Society, the Vera Institute for Justice and the Prisoners' Legal Services of New York. He was president of the Nation Institute, a foundation devoted to the alternative press and social justice. Susan Bryant, associate dean for academic affairs at the Queens law school, said that at a memorial service yesterday, student after student talked not only of a gifted teacher but also of one who met with them after class, gave them advice on their careers and helped them find jobs.
Rest in peace to a powerful bringer of peace and distruption. I am proud to work at your name sake.