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The Making of a Civil Rights Lawyer

Michael Meltsner

BUY Cloth · 336 pp. · 6.13 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813925011 · $39.50 · Apr 2006
BUY Paper · 336 pp. · 6.13 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813926957 · $21.50 · Oct 2007

"It was not until I arrived at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund that I learned my profession, how to work with colleagues and clients, and how it might feel to grow up in the law." So begins Michael Meltsner’s vivid account of how as a lawyer for Muhammad Ali, for the doctors who ended Jim Crow at American hospitals, and for scores of death row inmates he became such a deeply involved activist in the civil rights movement. Part memoir and part critical study, The Making of a Civil Rights Lawyer offers both a personalized history of the civil rights movement from a participant’s perspective, and the compelling account of how a lawyer committed to social change discovered himself in his work.

Focused on the inside story of law reform, the book contains portraits of some larger-than-life figures, including Thurgood Marshall, William Kuntsler, and the charismatic black law professor Derrick Bell, as well as of unheralded movers and shakers such as the attorney C. B. King of Albany, Georgia, and Margaret Burnham, who as a young lawyer representing Angela Davis got caught in a racial and generational crossfire. Alongside these recollections, Meltsner provides a critical analysis of early civil rights efforts to achieve social change through litigation while also providing the wider context of the personalities, policies, and tactics that continue to shape reform efforts today.

Deeply researched and using case files that have previously been off-limits to historians, The Making of a Civil Rights Lawyer will appeal to young and upcoming lawyers, to students of the history of the 1960s, of civil rights, and of African American studies, and to anyone interested in social change.


Michael Meltsner has performed a great public service by recalling from his perspective as a lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund how lawyers helped bring about social change during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. This memoir will be of great interest to a generation unfamiliar with that remarkable time in American history, as well as to those familiar with the people and controversies he recalls.

Stephen B. Bright, Director, Southern Center for Human Rights

Near the epicenter of the battle to eliminate legal segregation, and placed…on a fascinating professional trajectory, Meltsner  presents a thoughtful, wide-ranging, historically rich account of how that experience shaped him.

Boston Globe

About the Author(s): 

Michael Meltsner, former Guggenheim Fellow and Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy, has been a Professor of Law at Columbia and Harvard Law Schools and Dean at Northeastern School of Law, where he is currently Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Law. Author of Cruel and Unusual, the authoritative history of the Legal Defense Fund’s campaign to abolish the death penalty, and a novel Short Takes, he is also a licensed marriage and family therapist. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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