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Guide to the National Lawyers Guild Records TAM.191

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
Elmer Holmes Bobst Library
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New York, NY 10012
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Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Collection processed by Part I - Keri A. Myers, 2004; Part II - Jan Hilley, 2006-2007.

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on January 07, 2021
Finding aid is written in English using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

 Edited by Maggie Schreiner for compliance with DACS and Tamiment Required Elements for Archival Description and to reflect the incorporation of nonprint materials Edited by Maggie Schreiner to reflect updated administrative information Edited by Heather Mulliner to reflect incorporation of 2014 accretion Edited by Heather Mulliner to reflect incorporation of 2015 accretion Edited by Heather Mulliner to reflect incorporation of oral history series. Edited by Nicole Greenhouse to reflect added archived websites and updated administrative information  , January 2014 , July 2014 , October 2014 , September 2016 , September 2017 , December 2020

Historical Note

The Great Depression, with its social and political upheavals, also had its effects upon the nation's professional communities. Millions of workers -- native and foreign-born, black and white, male and female -- were being recruited to the ranks of organized labor. On the international scene, the rise of fascism in Europe was viewed with growing alarm on the left, and, by 1936, the first armed conflict again fascist forces was underway in Spain. The advent of the New Deal was also releasing forces for social progress and reform in every sector of the population. Little of this was reflected in the composition or activities of the American Bar Association and other professional legal organizations. Growing numbers of members of the profession were dissatisfied with the failure of their organizations to react to these dramatic social/political changes. This discontent found organizational expression in the formation of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) in Feb 1937. Its avowed purposes would be to protect democratic institutions, individual rights, and advance "the legal well-being of the legal profession." (Weinberg and Fassler, Historical Sketch, p.1) Among the Guild's founding members were Morris Ernst, Jerome Frank, Senator Albert Wald, Frank Walsh, and the general counsels of both the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. From its inception, the Guild welcomed into its ranks all members of the profession without regard to race, gender or ethnic identity; it was the first national legal professional association to do so.

The Guild's membership worked actively on a wide variety of issues. At the outset, it was instrumental in drafting, administering and litigating much progressive New Deal legislation. At the same time, it challenged all forms of discrimination and opposed limitations on the right of free speech. It also fought vigorously for the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively. Many NLG members cooperated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, and NLG work helped to shape the legal precedents that were later incorporated into labor law by the National Labor Relations Board.

The NLG's commitment to the right of freedom of expression became particularly meaningful with the establishment of a number of Congressional investigating committees, starting with the Dies Committee in the 1930s and continuing in the post-World War II period with the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and the McCarthy and McCarran Committees in the Senate. The Guild was steadfast in its opposition to the attempts of these committees to investigate the opinions and associations of private individuals. It also condemned the infringement of First Amendment rights by the federal loyalty program instituted by the Truman Administration. Similarly, it opposed the Smith Act prosecutions of the leaders of the Communist Party (later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court) and the requirement for registration of alleged "subversive" organizations under the Internal Security Act, also later declared unconstitutional. The Guild was vocal in its condemnation of abuses of individual rights by the F.B.I., for example, wiretapping, mail tampering, illegal searches and prying into citizens' beliefs and associations. It was also outspoken in seeking equal protection for the foreign born. During the McCarthy period Guild members defended many of the men and women who were subpoenaed by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee and House Un-American Activities Committee.

Another important aspect of the Guild's work was its service in the communities. It established neighborhood law offices to serve people living in urban slums and provided advice to tenant councils, consumer groups and other community organizations. After its founding as a national organization in 1937, the Guild began establishing chapters in such cities as New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and San Francisco.

In 1944, the Guild's National Executive Board submitted a statement on the subject of punishment of war criminals and, as a result, was invited by the United States prosecutor, Justice Robert Jackson, to be official observers at the Nuremberg trials. Soon after, the U.S. State Department asked the Guild to act as an advocate/consultant to the U.S. delegation at the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco.

After World War II, the Guild was outspoken in its opposition to the nuclear arms race and urged a ban on all such weapons. It fought vigorously against the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 which rolled back many of the protections the labor movement had secured a decade earlier under the Wagner Act.

From the beginning the Guild played an important role in the civil rights movement. In 1947, it convened a conference in order to respond to the lynching crisis in the South. As part of its commitment to civil liberties, it also furnished representation to the "Hollywood Ten" - writers and directors called to testify before and later jailed by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) for refusing to act as informers. The Guild also defended many veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade who had fought against fascism in Spain during the Spanish Civil War and were subjected to political persecution in later decades.

In the 1950s, HUAC labeled the Guild as a "Communist-front" organization and issued a publication entitled "The National Lawyers Guild: Legal Bulwark of the Communist Party." Attorney General Herbert Brownell asserted that the Guild was controlled by the Communist Party and attempted to label it a subversive organization dominated by a foreign power. He brought proceedings in 1953 which dragged on until 1958, at which time the Justice Department dropped its efforts because its evidence was deemed insufficient.

After a period of relative inactivity, the Guild responded quickly and energetically in support of the civil rights movement of the 1960s by establishing its Committee for Legal Assistance in 1962 to provide legal resources for those fighting racism and injustice in the South. It co-sponsored the first integrated bar conference in the South and opened the first office that provided legal representation to the civil rights movement. It also created the Committee to Aid Southern Lawyers and sent attorneys to the Southern states to represent civil rights activists.

During the late 1960s, the Guild worked closely with the peace movement defending many draft resisters and others who opposed the war in Vietnam. Student chapters of the NLG were formed in many cities. In the course of the decade the Guild was wracked by internal strains common to many old left organizations facing new challenges and a new generation of youthful activists. A rival progressive lawyers group, the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee, had emerged from the civil rights and anti-poverty movements and soon had chapters in most law schools. Eventually a cooperative relationship between the two organizations was worked out, and the Guild entered a period of renewed vitality under the presidency of prominent civil liberties attorney Victor Rabinowitz.

In the 1970s the NLG was actively involved in the struggles for affirmative action and women's and gay rights; organized defense teams for Native-American defendants from Wounded Knee and prisoners charged in connection with the Attica Prison uprising; supported self-determination for Palestine and opposed apartheid in South Africa.

A new generation of legal activists during the 1980s organized support for the anti-nuclear movement and for groups opposing U. S. intervention in Central America and the NLG National Immigration Project began working on issues spurred by the need to represent Central American refugees and asylum activists fleeing Nicaragua and El Salvador. In 1989 the organization finally prevailed in its lawsuit against the FBI for carrying out illegal political surveillance.

Guild members mobilized in the 1990s in opposition to the Gulf War, defended the rights of Haitian refugees, opposed the blockade of Cuba and began to define a new civil rights agenda that included the right to employment, education, housing and health care.

Guild members continue into the twenty-first century using their experience and professional skills to support environmental and labor rights activists, fight for social justice, protect civil liberties and encourage respect for the Constitution and international law.


  • Erlinder, Peter, History, National Lawyers Guild. , December 4, 2007.
  • Weinberg, Doron and Marty Fassler, A Historical Sketch of the National Lawyers Guild in American Politics, 1936-1968. National Lawyers Guild, n.d. Photocopy in Tamiment Library Vertical File: National Lawyers Guild.