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Guide to the New York Bureau of Legal Advice (New York Bureau of Legal First Aid) Records TAM.044

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
70 Washington Square South
10th Floor
New York, NY 10012
(212) 998-2630

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Collection processed by Tamiment staff, 2009; Edited by Rachel Schimke for compliance with DACS and Tamiment Required Elements for Archival Description and to reflect the incorporation of nonprint materials, 2013

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on April 23, 2018
Description is in English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

Historical/Biographical Note

The New York Bureau of Legal First Aid was organized on May 11, 1917 with a one hundred dollar grant from the Women's Peace Party. Individuals contributed to the treasury and in August the People's Council, the Socialist Party, the Civil Liberties Bureau and the Workmen's Council all became sponsoring affiliates. A few months later the People's Council and the Civil Liberties Bureau withdrew their support, but a strong Executive Committee continued the organizing work. In May 1918, the organization changed its name to the New York Bureau of Legal Advice (NYBLA). During that year, the Bureau estimated that it aided at least 5,000 clients. In September 1918, a raid by the Federal Bureau of Investigation disrupted organizational functioning temporarily. NYBLA continued with its anti-war campaigns and only ended its work in the autumn of 1919, shortly before the Armistice.

NYBLA was the first organization to furnish free legal advice and counsel to anyone who came into conflict with the new laws related to America's entry into World War I, including draft resisters, conscientious objectors, and deserters. The Bureau sought to gather information and investigate and publicize war-related instances of infringements of First Amendment rights. The Bureau campaigned for amnesty for conscientious objectors and also monitored their treatment in military prisons. Lobbying by NYBLA was instrumental in forcing Secretary of War Newton B. Baker to order an end to the practice of holding conscientious objectors in manacles. The Bureau cooperated actively with the Industrial Workers of the World and other radical groups in defense of free speech and in opposition to the deportation of immigrant radicals.

Charles Recht, a Czech-born attorney, was the General Counsel of the Bureau. As Secretary of the Bureau, Frances M. Witherspoon, an ardent feminist and socialist peace activist, carried on the daily work of the Bureau, including fundraising, working with attorneys and volunteers, organizing lobbying campaigns, maintaining correspondence, and interviewing clients. She worked with the leading socialists, anti-war activists and civil libertarians of the time, including Roger N. Baldwin, Ella Reeve ("Mother") Bloor, M. Eleanor Fitzgerald, Albert De Silver, Jacob Hillquit, and Scott Nearing.