Clarence Darrow, the criminal lawyer who defended murderers Nathan Leopold Jr. and Richard Loeb–they had killed a 14-year-old boy while reasoning, like Raskolnikov of his murder of two women in Crime and Punishment, that their intelligence and ends justified the crime–who defended Big Bill Haywood and two other miners accused of plotting a governor’s assassination, Eugene Debs and the American Railway Union, who represented John Scopes in the Tennessee Scopes trial of 1925, who advocated for the poor, for labor, for atheists and agnostics, and against the death penalty (no one he represented was sentenced to death), died on this day in Chicago in 1938. A part-time epigrammatist, he had famously said: “No man is white and no man is Black. We are all freckled.” And: “Everybody is a potential murderer. I’ve never killed anyone, but I frequently get satisfaction reading the obituary notices.”
His defense of Arthur Person is not as well known but still among his most important cases. Person had joined the Communist Labor Party. In 1920, he was charged under an Illinois law that made it a crime to aid or join an association that advocated either the change or the overthrow of the government of the United States by force. The question at trial was whether Person knew this when he joined. A jury found him not guilty, following one of Darrow’s great closings, which can be summed up by the phrase attributed to Voltaire: he may not agree with anything his client stood for, but he would defend to the death his right to say and believe it.
An excerpt: “What could we think of a jury who would deprive a man of his freedom because he does just what every other human being in the world is trying to do; tries to get enough of his fellow men to see things as he sees them, that he may change laws and institutions so that the workers will have a better chance? Now Person may be wild and crazy; I don’t know. I am not here to try another man’s views; I am not here for that, and neither are you. It may be that there isn’t a single plank in that platform that I believe, and there may not be a single article of faith in the Lutheran Creed that I believe or in the Catholic Creed or any other creed ever made by man; but, gentlemen, unless I will stand for the right of every man on earth to accept his own religious faith and his own political creed and his own ideas, whether I believe in them or not, unless I will do that, I am a very poor American. I would be a very poor citizen and I would belong to that class of bigots who in almost every age have piled the fagots around their fellow men and burned them to cinders because of difference of faith.”
He continued: “I am engaged in the difficult task of trying to preserve a Constitution instead of destroying it, and I am seeking to save for the people of this country such liberties as they have left. It is hard for me to realize that men of power and some intellect would seek to terrorize men and women into obedience to their opinions. We wiggled along for a hundred and fifty years without this Espionage Law, and we did pretty well. Where did it come from? It came from the people who would strangle criticism; it came from the people who would place their limits upon your brain and mine, and if we give them their way in this world, every man, if he would be safe, should wear a padlock on his lips and only take it off to feed himself and lock it up after he gets through. No man would dare speak above a whisper; no man would feel himself safe to belong to an organization, whether it was for American freedom, Russian freedom, Irish freedom or any freedom, because the word ‘freedom’ is the most dangerous word that the English language knows. The time will come very soon when America will be ashamed of her cowardly attempt to send men to jail under laws of this kind; ashamed of the suppression of freedom of thought and freedom of speech which is making a madhouse of a once-free land.”
Henry Fonda starred in “Clarence Darrow,” a one-man play by David Rintels and directed by John Houseman. In 1974 NBC aired the play, adapted for television, in a 90-minute special on Sept. 4, sponsored by IBM. It was in later years rebroadcast by PBS. It is one of Fonda’s finer performances. Here is the play in full:
Death penalty: In a morbid irony, it was on the 36th anniversary of Darrow’s death, on March 13, 1974–the same day the Arab oil embargo was lifted (see below)–that the U.S. Senate voted 54-33 to restore the death penalty, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 29, 1972 decision, in a 5-4 split, declaring capital punishment as it was then imposed unconstitutional. The Senate vote on a bill that had President Nixon’s support applied to federal authority only. Sen. Harold Hughes, an Iowa Democrat, pleaded with colleagues not to take “a step into the past,” saying: “Man cannot make the world a better place to live by returning brutality for brutality.” The Senate ignored him, and voted down an amendment by Sen. Ted Kennedy to add gun-control measures to the bill. Twenty-six Democrats and 28 Republicans in the Democratic-controlled chamber (they had a 56-42 advantage, with one conservative and one independent senator) voted for the bill. Among those voting for the bill were Florida’s Lawton Chiles and Arizona’s Barry Goldwater. Among those voting against: Joe Biden. By then, 22 states had already re-imposed the death penalty, including of course Florida, long an enthusiast of state-sponsored killing, though it was 1979 before killings resumed there, with the execution of John Spenkelink. See the Senate’s full debate transcript from that day’s Congressional Record here.
The Arab oil embargo against the United States, the Netherlands, Portugal and South Africa ended on this day in 1974 after five months. Arab members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the once but no longer fearsome OPEC, imposed the embargo 11 days into the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, in protest of American arms supplies to Israel. Oil prices were at $4.75 a barrel in 1973 ($29.83 in inflation-adjusted, 2022 dollars), nearly doubling to $9.35 in 1974 ($53.23 in adjusted dollars).
The Insurgent Calendar
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