Detroit attorneys were among the founding members of the National Lawyers Guild in 1937. Two of these attorneys, Maurice Sugar and Ernest Goodman, began a firm that was active in defending unions such as the United Auto Workers and representing the oppressed (particularly by the police) Black community. Theirs was the first racially integrated law firm in the country, and included as partners civil rights leaders and activists such as George Crockett, Jr., Bob Millender and Claudia Morcom.
The hysteria whipped up by McCarthyism in the 1950s dealt a heavy blow - bitter political fights brewed and the membership was devastated and only a small handful of lawyers joined the Detroit Chapter over the next several years.
In 1961, the Chapter was revitalized. During Guild Convention in Detroit, Len Holt, a remarkable civil rights lawyer from Virginia, appealed for the Guild to send lawyers to assist the growing civil rights struggle in the South. Hundreds of Guild lawyers – many from Detroit - went South in 1964 for Freedom Summer. This organizing effort energized and strengthened the Detroit Chapter, which grew rapidly through the 1960s with the emergence of the civil rights, Black power, anti-war youth and revolutionary union movements, culminating in the rebellion of 1967.
After 1967 two young lawyers electrified the chapter and the community – Ken Cockrel and Justin Ravitz. Working with many other Guild lawyers, they revolutionized the jury pools and openly exposed racism on the bench. Major trials dramatized racism and police brutality – New Bethel Church, the Detroit Panther 15, the DPD’s STRESS unit and the Wayne County Jail conditions case. Thousands of anti-Viet Nam war demonstrators were represented by the mass defense office.
During the historic Attica defense effort, Detroit organized many lawyers who went to Buffalo, New York to represent the indicted Attica Brothers. Bernard Stroble (Shango), represented by Ernest Goodman and Haywood Burns, was the lead defendant and test case, and the victory in his case broke the back of the misbegotten Attica prosecutions.
In the 1980s, members of the Guild opened up Michigan prisons to scrutiny. Recently a team led by Guild member Deb LaBelle won an impressive ($15 million) verdict against the Department of Corrections.
Later in the 1980s, Guild members fought for the right to engage in civil disobedience. Hundreds were arrested outside of cruise missile manufacturer Williams International and dozens went to jail for civil contempt.
In 1995 during the Newspaper Guild strike against the News and The Free Press, many Guild member attorneys worked with labor lawyers and activists to defend over 1,000 strikers who were charged with crimes and subjected to substantial violence. Tens of thousands of progressive unionists and others came out, over a period of months, and Guild members worked to represent them. Significantly the wonderful current work of the Sugar Law Center continues the very fight for workers rights that characterized the work of Maurice Sugar when the Guild was founded in 1937.