Ernie Goodman, Fighter for Justice

Against the Current, No. 72, January/February 1998

Elissa Karg

AT 90 YEARS old, attorney Ernest Goodman died an untimely death. He was a vibrant man who went to his office every day until a recent illness. He died on March 26, 1997.

Known for winning an acquittal in one of the main trials stemming from the 1972 Attica Prison rebellion, Goodman made a profound contribution to the cause of social justice. In the 1930’s he represented sitdown strikers at the Ford Motor Company. Last year he was arrested for sitting down in front of the Detroit Free Press building in support of the newspaper workers’ strike.

Goodman used the law to champion workers’ rights and to fight racism. But he began his career quite differently.

The adored son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Goodman moved to Detroit from upstate Michigan when he was five years old. His parents struggled with a small dry goods store. As a young man Goodman aspired to the middle class. Legend has it that he started law school to get a chance to play tennis on the school team.

He began his legal career as a bill collector during the Depression, a job he came to despise. In 1935 he attended a speech by Maurice Sugar, a labor lawyer who represented the nascent United Auto Workers. It was a turning point.

When Sugar became general counsel for the UAW in 1939, Goodman was named legal director. He moved into Sugar’s offices in downtown Detroit’s Cadillac Tower, where the Goodman firm remains today.

Using the English common law concept of “unclean hands,” Sugar and Goodman forged labor law. Goodman, in a taped oral history, recalled:

So when an employer came into court to get an injunction, Sugar would file an answer that showed that the company had violated the National Labor Relations Act, had put spies in unions and hired goons . . . to show that the company had “unclean hands.” We’d read the court cases from the 1700s and 1800s just to let the judge and the workers know that this isn’t something new that was dreamed up in Moscow . . . we were only seeking rights established for them hundreds of years ago.

Sugar and Goodman were close to the Communist Party. When Walter Reuther won the presidency of the UAW, he replaced the two with lawyers closer to his political views. But Goodman did not look back.

Fighting Racism in Court

In 1947 Goodman defended Lemas Woods, an African-American soldier sentenced to death in the Philippines. Woods’ father came to Goodman with a letter from his son. Goodman recalled the spare but moving letter: “Dear Papa, I have some bad news to tell you. I shot, accidentally, my friend in my tent and killed him. They put me up for court martial and I was found guilty and I’m waiting here in prison to be hanged.”

Far away, Goodman went to work. He thought the Army’s court-martial system needed to be reformed and called the case a “classic example of what happens to a Black man in the white man’s army.” He persuaded President Truman to grant a new trial and proved that Woods had shot his friend while putting away a gun he didn’t know was loaded. Goodman became an expert in martial law and defended other soldiers.

In 1951 he and George Crockett, later a judge and a U.S. Congressperson, opened the nation’s first racially integrated law firm.During the McCarthy era, Goodman defended many radicals charged with sedition under the Smith Act, including six officials of the Michigan Communist Party. No other lawyer would touch these cases; the bar association threatened to disbar anyone who did. His son Bill recalls walking downtown with his father. “People would cross to the other side of the street so they wouldn’t have to say hello to him.”

Goodman lost the CP leaders’ trial, but the verdict was later reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Goodman had a way of endearing himself to the press. During the Smith Act case, Goodman carried a bulging briefcase out of the courtroom every day at noon. Reporters speculated about what might be in the briefcase, and one day they followed him.

The next morning the Detroit Free Press ran a front page story. The headline asked: What is Goodman packing? Inside was a photo of Ernie ice skating on a pond that would later become Hart Plaza.

Civil Rights, Panthers, Attica

During the Civil Rights Movement, Goodman and Crockett organized northern lawyers to go to the South to represent jailed civil rights activists during Mississippi Summer.

In 1970 Goodman and a team of lawyers, including his son Bill, represented fifteen members of the Black Panther Party charged with murdering a plainclothes Detroit policeman. After five grueling weeks, calling 79 witnesses, the prosecution rested. Goodman rose from the defense table and said simply, “No witnesses, Your Honor.”

The court was stunned, but Goodman’s message was dramatic: The government’s case was so weak that no defense was necessary. In his closing statement, Goodman argued that the “charge of conspiracy has always been directed at people at the bottom who seek power to change society.” After thirty hours of deliberation, the jury rendered a not guilty verdict.

In 1974 Goodman defended Bernard Stroble (known as Shango), one of the prisoners indicted in the aftermath of the Attica Rebellion. Forty prisoners had been murdered by the National Guard. Shango was accused of cutting the throats of two white prisoners, but there was scant evidence to link him with the crime. The jury acquitted after three hours.

In 1983, Goodman obtained a $3 million settlement from AAA for discrimination against its African American employees. Father William Cunningham, whose Focus Hope organization brought the lawsuit, described Goodman’s opening argument as “what Moses must have sounded like coming down from Sinai.”

Courage When it Counts

Ernest Goodman is remembered as a friend and mentor to an amazing number of people. His sons, both attorneys, say that they relied on him for legal advice and counted him as a best friend.

Bill Goodman, who has recently been named legal director of the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, spoke at a memorial service at Wayne State University (where Ernie graduated from law school and has established an endowment for law students interested in civil rights litigation, and, ironically, one of the last institutions he sued for racial discrimination).

Bill noted that his father was often bemused that his courage during the McCarthy period had come to be honored today. “But he was never fooled by it,” Bill said. “He knew and often said that it was easy to honor those whose bravery was a thing of the past. For those who fight now he held a particularly high regard.

“It was that quality of my father, to be in the moment for 90 years, to be interested and involved in the present that I consider to be his greatest legacy to me and my family.”

Ernest Goodman was a founding member of the National Lawyers’ Guild and served as its president in the 1960s. In 1991 he helped to found a Guild project, the Sugar Law Center, which is devoted to fighting for workers’ rights. His daughter-in-law, attorney Julie Hurwitz, served as the Sugar Law Center’s first Executive Director.

He had a unique ability to enjoy life. He was devoted to his wife, Freda, with whom he enjoyed his sons, grandchildren, the opera and symphony and travel.

Goodman loved the outdoors. At a service at the Birmingham Temple, Carlos Goodman spoke warmly of fishing with his grandfather in northern Michigan. He read a note that Ernie sent him:

Dear Carlos,

Neither my sons nor grandchildren have inherited my 45 years of interest in hunting deer. I appear to be an aberration in our family line, if not the entire Jewish population. In recent years I have felt increasingly under siege to amend my immoral desire to kill. Fortunately, perhaps, in the past number of years I find that I have not actually killed a deer although I have fired a number of shots. Is it possible that these insidious influences have affected my aim? Fortunately I still love fishing, and no one, inexplicably, seems to have any objection to the killing of a fish.

Characteristically, Goodman used his love of hunting to build the progressive movement. In Detroit the Buck Dinner is a beloved annual event. Some years there is venison and some years there is not, but every year the Buck Dinner raises thousands of dollars that are contributed to local progressive organizations, many of which have no hope of getting funding from more traditional sources.

Last year, just before the Buck Dinner, Ernie had been arrested in the Detroit newspaper strike. When he walked in, the entire room stood up and applauded.

At the Wayne State memorial Linda Borus, a senior investigator at the State Appellate Defender’s Office, recalled working on the Attica defense with Ernie for two years. Later Ernie became godfather to her and Shango’s son, Marcus.

Borus remembered the triumphant conclusion of the trial:

The jurors surrounded those of us on the defense team. . . and asked us what really happened in D Yard. They believed us, they believed in us, in no small measure because of Ernie. After the courtroom was cleared, we decided to have a big party at the house we were living in and all the jurors agreed to join us. After marching over to the Erie County Jail chanting “Attica means—” and hearing the prisoners respond “Fight back!” we returned to the foot of the great court house staircase to wait for Ernie. As he stepped out of the courtroom, briefcase in hand, all of us—the defense team, Attica supporters, and the jurors, broke out in applause and greeted him as if he were a reigning monarch.

While they worked on the case, Ernie would often have dinner with the young people who had come to Buffalo to work on the case. He was a great story teller, but his stories always had a point, Borus said. “He taught not by rhetoric, but by example.”

She concluded: “I can’t think of a person whose last name better describes who they are.”

ATC 72, January-February 1998

1 comment

  1. I respected, loved and honored Ernest Goodman. His entire name is packed with positiveness. He was a giant who walked the earth and made a difference.In fact the enrire Goodman firm was an audacious powerhouse.

    Ernie, with all of his success and accomplishments never lost touch with the downtrodden. I rememver on one occassion we were having an after work function, a dinner or forum. Ernie adked me for a ride. I was honored to provide such. Well, my car malfunctioned, it would not start. Ernie said, + It will start, let’s wait a few minutes
    ‘. He was right, it started. I thought, this man is rich, there were many people that he could have rode with to the event. He asked little old me. Yes, Ernie was a FANTASTIC story teller, each one with a purpose. As we drove to I think the Roostertail, he told me about the Attica case. I asked him a million questons. He answered everyone with patience asd remarkable clarity. Because of Ernie, I am a better person. He inspired me to be the best person that I can be. I will always cherish the times that this giant of a man shared with me and his generosity!

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