W. Haywood Burns: to be of use.

Author:Ratner, Michael
Position:Obituary
 
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To Be of Use(1)

The people I love the best jump into work head first without dallying in the shallows and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight. They seem to become natives of that element, the black sleek heads of seals bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart, who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience, who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward, who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge in the task, who go into the fields to harvest and work in a row and pass the bags along, who are not parlor generals and field deserters but move in a common rhythm when the food must come in or the fire be put out. The work of the world is common as mud. Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust. But the thing worth doing well done has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident. Greek amphoras for wine or oil, Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums but you know they were made to be used. The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.

-Marge Piercy

On Tuesday, April 2, 1996, Haywood Bums was travelling to a dinner party following a day at a convention of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers in Cape Town, South Africa. Haywood was accompanied by two colleagues; a young South African friend was driving. Remarking that the driver reminded him of his son, Haywood began to speak of his family when, suddenly, their automobile was broadsided by a speeding lorry.(2) Haywood died that night. He was fifty-five years old.

A week later, an extraordinary outpouring of thousands of people gathered in Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem to say their farewells. Haywood, knowing that his life entailed greater than ordinary risk, had penned detailed instructions. At his funeral, he wanted African drumming, Native American chanting, and Scottish bagpiping to represent the strands of race and ethnicity that made him up. The crowd reflected Haywood's rare gift for bringing disparate people together. The most distinguished members of New York State's bench and bar sat side by side with lifelong militants; academic luminaries shared pews with activist teenagers.

At a time when the legal profession is ridiculed as the refuge of the greedy, the self-absorbed, the ego-driven and the corporate-minded, the life of Haywood Bums instructs us with a very different ideal. As former New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins declared, Haywood "served as a role model, not just for African-Americans, but for all Americans."(3) What is more, Haywood Burns was a role model in a multiplicity of roles. As a scholar, his early essays on the history of racism and American law, along with those of Derrick Bell, secured the foundation for critical race theory. As a teacher, Haywood inspired generations of students.(4) As a civil rights advocate, he defended black militant activists, community organizers, prisoners, and death row inmates. As

an architect of organizations, he led the National Conference of Black Lawyers and the National Lawyers Guild; he was a keystone of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and served as a director, advisor, counsel, or trustee to more than fifty organizations dedicated to social transformation of one kind or another.

Although Haywood earned some of the legal establishment's most coveted honors, he was never entirely at home in it, nor was it ever entirely comfortable with him. Recalling his early years at Harvard, Haywood whimsically described himself as a provincial at the cultural center. In fact, Haywood did remain something of an outsider, perhaps as a result of his implacable identification with the downtrodden. Yet all of these images of Haywood as outsider leave wanting something of the essential man so profoundly loved by such a wide spectrum of the community: They fail to capture his boundless enthusiasm, his delight in human variety, his unique, capacity to listen and encourage, his extraordinary charm and sweetness.

Haywood's dedication to be of use was not without a certain toll. A willingness to travel and speak all over the world and to serve as unpaid legal counsel or director to so many would exact a price from anyone. And ultimately, as Reverend Calvin O. Butts, III, preached at Abyssinian Baptist Church, this commitment to be of use, to reject comfort and complacency, to work and celebrate in free South Africa rather than a comer office in a corporate law firm, cost him his life. This Essay is intended to be both a tribute to Haywood Bums, and a reminder to all of us in the legal profession that a life in the law can be a life of service, and that the highest goal of all may indeed be, as Haywood demonstrated, to be of use.

  1. The Educator: City College and CUNY Law School

    Following Haywood's death, his students turned out by the hundreds to express their gratitude for his teaching and personal support and to express their determination to carry on his work. Educating students and shaping educational institutions were charges he took seriously. At his inauguration as dean of CUNY Law School - the first black dean of any law school in the history of New York State - he expressed his charge this way:

    I thank all of you for me, but I also thank you for all those who went before me who have helped to make this day possible - for my grandfather, William Henry Burns, who was born into an America where it was a crime against the state, a violation of the penal law, to teach him to read; for my late father Junious; for my mother Josephine, who as a little orphan girl with one dress and no shoes, dreamed in the red Virginia dust of a better day; for all those of whatever hue and from whatever origins who sacrificed to make that better day possible, such that, even though I am sure that I am not the first person of my background qualified to lead a law school in this state, I have now been given that opportunity by our great university and am privileged to serve you.(5)

    Haywood wanted more Black, Hispanic, minority, and women students to become lawyers and for those lawyers to serve "the awesome legal needs of the nation's poor and moderate income populations."(6) In a broader sense, he also saw his work in public higher education as "part of the grand tradition" going back to the nineteenth-century goal of "educating the children of the whole people."(7)

    Before assuming command at CUNY, Haywood was first able to put his ideas into practice at the City College of New York, where he served as the Director of the Max E. and Filomen M. Greenberg Center for Legal Education and Urban Policy and Chair of the Urban Legal Studies Program, positions he held from 1977 until 1987. In conjunction with New York Law School, the Urban Legal Studies Program was a "six-year integrated B.A.-J.D. program focusing on the practice of law in an urban environment and designed to produce highly qualified, committed professionals who will use their skills in the service of the underserved - the urban poor and middle class."(8) Up to fifty students a year pursued liberal arts studies with "specialized courses designed to broaden their understanding of the nature of the urban community and its problems."(9) Haywood was proud of the students who came to this program and was pleased that it would "produce a number of lawyers who would not otherwise have been lawyers."(10) The Program "takes lawyers out of inner city high schools ... and it has the highest percentage of minority students of any law program in the country outside of the traditionally black law schools."(11)

    Haywood saw the Urban Legal Studies Program (ULS) as an alternative to affirmative action, which was already under attack in 1978. Characterizing the Supreme Court's decision in Regents of the University of California v.

    Bakke(12) as a "major setback,"(13) Burns nonetheless saw in it opportunity rather than defeat: "One positive outcome of the decision is that we are now forced to reach into our resources and create new models, implement new curricula and think about alternative mechanisms."(14) ULS was exactly that - an alternative curriculum, focusing on criteria other than the LSAT and preparing students to practice law in the "inner cities of our nation."(15) Haywood answered the question, "Are there not too many lawyers?" with a firm "no": "The problem is not one of overproduction of lawyers, but of poor distribution of lawyers, where they are and whose interest they serve."(16)

    Haywood wanted to train lawyers who understood the racism inherent in the legal system and who were prepared to represent the "underserved." By that he meant "not only ... the economic stratum of the clientele, but also ... the insubstantial substantive development of specific areas of the law that have a significant impact on persons of those populations - for example, the legal problems of the aged, the mentally retarded, the abused wife or child, the medically indigent."(17)

    Many perceived the urgent need for such a program,(18) but it was Haywood who actually made it happen. Colleagues at CUNY Law School also mention Haywood's focus on the importance of the individual student, describing his remarkable capacity to make time for students regardless of the administrative and diplomatic demands placed upon him.(19) He knew the students' names, where he had met them, the names of their children. Most students at ULS and at CUNY could say, "I know the Dean." Haywood was a "gifted teacher" who believed in "the tradition of classroom rigor," recalls CUNY Law School professor Victor Goode: "He had the unique ability to engage students and although he used a Socratic style, it was never done in such a way to embarrass students. It really was like a conversation with scholars as he led students through some understanding of a set of cases."(20) In the first week of classes, Haywood's students studied the United States...

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