Weinglass is one of the forgotten giants of the 1960s. He's not mentioned in most of the standard Sixties' history texts. When one thinks of "the Sixties," Lenny is not the first person who comes to mind.
Too bad, because nobody did more to defend the marginalized, the radical, the down-and-out, the railroaded and the "lost causes" generally than Lenny. When it came to the heavy hitters of the "people's lawyers," Lenny wasn't as flamboyant as fellow radical attorney Bill Kunstler, nor was he as connected to people in high places as Civil Rights champion Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. But he was always there for those who needed him the most. He gained fame as the attorney for the Chicago 8 (later 7), the group of activists accused of conspiring to riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
"Leonard Weinglass, an attorney from Newark, ...was asked to enter the case by Tom Hayden, a former client," wrote Frank L. Jonas and Diana Kelbanow in their book People's Lawyers. "A detail-oriented attorney who did much of the research for the case, Weinglass had never previously tried a case outside of New Jersey."
The Chicago 8 Trial catapulted Weinglass to nationwide fame. He went on to defend the late Anthony Russo (1936-2008), Daniel Ellsberg's co-defendant accused of helping to leak sensitive documents in the Pentagon Papers case, imprisoned Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Cuban Five (a group of five Cubans accused of spying on the United States for the Castro government), and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, as well as a myriad of other activists, prisoners of conscience and assorted dissenters. He got his start as a U.S. Air Force judge advocate. He later went to Yale Law School.
Weinglass was constantly busy, yet he never liked attention, and shunned the role of celebrity attorney. Way back in the 1990s, before I decided to write my Ph.D. dissertation about Vietnam Veterans Against the War, I asked Lenny if he'd be willing to be the subject of a biography. He wrote back, simply, "No. If I were willing, I'd pick you to do it. But I'm not, so there you go."
Yet years later, in August 2001 (just a few weeks before the 9/11 terror attacks), I had a chance to interview Weinglass in his spacious, yet cluttered office in Manhattan. The place was full of framed political posters, some dating back decades, others very recent. There were stacks of case files everywhere. We had the most fascinating conversation imaginable. But never once did Lenny take credit for any of his successful cases. He wanted to talk more about the history he witnessed and the other people he met. He always tried to keep himself out of the picture.
A few weeks later, when those planes hit the World Trade Center, Weinglass, a lover of all things New York, was devastated. But he still took on the cases nobody dared touch, from Muslims who'd been the victims of racial profiling to militants who marched in the streets against George W. Bush's policies. "The typical call I get is the one that starts by saying, 'you are the fifth attorney we've called,'" he said. "Then I get interested!"
When I heard Lenny was ill, I signed the guest book on a tribute website. I noticed the countless other wonderful messages from men and women, young and old, from all walks of life, who'd been touched by him in one way or another. What a poignant thing to read all of those well wishes, all of those words of hope and kindness.
In my little note to Lenny, written just weeks before he died, I told him that American democracy was much healthier because of him. No doubt Leonard Weinglass, attorney for the outcasts, the falsely accused and the dispossessed, would have been the first to object to such an accusation.