Mary Metlay Kaufman ‘37 and The Seeds of Her Radical Advocacy

By Jay Hedges

I hope you will join with me when I say:

I reject the tolerance of corruption in government.

I reject the notion that I sit idly by while our cities rot; our minority people are oppressed, our elderly demeaned by semi-starvation and pauperism.

I reject the inhuman and amoral values which dominate our priorities.

I reject the notion that we are powerless to change the course and I ask that you join with me in the effort we need to make in reshaping our world.

— Mary M. Kaufman, 1976.[1]

The St. John’s chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) was recently asked for a representative from NLG’s Mass Defense Committee to discuss its Legal Observer program for a panel. Little did I know that the request would result in the unearthing of a splendid bit of history connecting our law school with the very origin of the Legal Observer program.

The Mass Defense Committee provides pro bono representation from Guild lawyers for protesters who are arrested during social justice demonstrations. As part of its work, the Committee has also recruited and trained thousands of Legal Observers— the “green hats” who monitor and document police actions during protests.

On the morning of the panel, Bruce Bentley, the former chair of the Committee who agreed to join the panel, forwarded a brief article to me about Mary Metlay Kaufman written by the late Judge Elliott Wilk. Mary, a long-time Guild member, founded the Mass Defense Committee in 1968, and, as it turned out, graduated from St. John’s Law School in 1937. To my delight, the article’s recount of Mary’s life seemingly outlined the history of the legal left in the United States during the 20th Century.

After graduating from St. John’s, Mary became one of the founding members of the National Lawyers Guild in 1937 which was established as a racially integrated bar association in protest against the racist exclusion of Black attorneys from the American Bar Association.[2] Just out of law school, Mary worked as a lawyer in New Deal agencies such as the Works Progress Administration and the National Labor Relations Board, advocating for labor unions and even organizing a lawyers’ union herself. At the end of the Second World War, she joined the effort to prosecute war criminals at the Nuremberg tribunals. But when Mary returned home to the United States, she was disturbed by how the Red Scare of McCarthyism began to ravage leftist political organizing. This suppression of political dissent eerily resembled to Mary the actions of Nazi Germany in the lead up to the war. In response she began representing prominent Communist Party leaders who were being persecuted for their political beliefs.

In the 1960s and 1970s Mary shined as a zealous anti-war and nuclear disarmament advocate. Troubled by the racism and violence of the United States, Mary wrote articles detailing the Nuremberg trials and how war crimes under international law could be applied to the war in Vietnam.[3] Mary also founded the Mass Defense Committee in 1968 to support student anti-war protesters at Columbia University. The Committee’s work expanded under Mary’s watch to support various radical political actions of groups like the Attica prison inmates, Black Panther Party, and Young Lords.

This account, however, merely scratches the surface of Mary’s long history of creative legal advocacy and activism. A voluminous collection of Mary’s papers are housed in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College.[4] Her papers contain incredible nuggets of legal left history including: (1) telegram and letter correspondence with prominent black radicals such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Claudia Jones; (2) meeting minutes of the American Institute for Marxist Studies in the 1960s; (3) syllabi from courses she taught in the 1970s titled, “Racism and the Law,” “McCarthyism: Political Hysteria and Repression in the U.S.,” and “From Nuremberg to Vietnam”; and (4) a resolution from the National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression titled “Ban the Klan.”

Now, in the twenty-fifth year since her passing, Mary Metlay Kaufman’s seeds of radical advocacy have taken root at her alma matter. The nascent student chapter of NLG here at St. John’s was officially founded at the beginning of this tumultuous 2020 year. What began as unauthorized tabling at “Fall Fest” for Student Organizations my first two years finally became an official organization with the help of co-founders Jeremy Ashton ‘21 and Heidi Simpson ‘21. This Fall marks our first full semester as an organization. We have tried to hit the ground running in the wake of this year’s historic mass protests against police brutality by organizing Legal Observer trainings and building camaraderie among a growing group of anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist St. John’s students committed to fighting for the radical transformation of our legal system.

It is in awe that I learn of the ceaseless advocacy of Mary Metlay Kaufman. My sincerest hope is that the St. John’s Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild indeed join in Mary’s call to reject systemic oppression in every form and labor to reshape the world for the better.

[1] Mary Kaufman’s commencement speech at Hampshire College (Amherst, Massachusetts) in 1976.

[2] In fact, the American Bar Association (ABA) did not admit a Black member until 1950.

[3] Mary M. Kaufman, The Individual’s Duty Under the Law of Nurnberg: The Effect of Knowledge of Justiciability, 27 Guild Prac. 15 (1968).

[4] Mary Metlay Kaufman Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Mass. Accessed October 26, 2020.

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