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Passion for Justice Moves Leibowitz, Criminal Lawyer, to Defend Negroes

April 23, 1933
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

With illustrations by the author

Until he undertook the defense of the Scottsboro case, Samuel S. Leibowitz thought of himself as the “defender of unpopular causes.” The walls of his outer office are adorned with a strange frieze of photographs, all uniformly framed. Each photograph shows the sturdy-shouldered Mr. Leibowitz, with his high oval head, prominent in some scene of court or jail. The other people in the photographs are usually murderers, or, rather, people accused of murder. Some look defective, some appear crafty, some merely stupid. Many of the photographs, taken just after a verdict, show faces drained of all emotion but quivering relief, and bewildered gratitude, staring into the victoriously laughing face of Mr. Leibowitz. He has a great joy of victory.

Under each photograph is a name and a date. “Gondolfo Kidnapping, acquitted Nov. 15, 1931; Vincent Coll, acquitted Dec. 28, 1931; ‘Gigolo’ Murder trial, acquitted Nov. 11, 1931; Vivian Gordon Murder, acquitted June 30, 1931; Becker Murder, acquitted March 12, 1930; Four Gun Sweeney, saved from chair, March 11, 1931. . . .”

He boasts a record of eighty-five victories out of eighty-five trials. And all those were victories on the unpopular side. The conviction of one of the Scottsboro boys he does not yet acknowledge as defeat. Does that indicate a hard-boiled, fighting lawyer, using every means in his power to save depraved and vicious murderers from punishment? Then how could that same lawyer suddenly reveal himself as one of the nation’s greatest spokesmen for justice against prejudice, calling out, by his thrilling and unafraid clarification of the racial issues in the Scottsboro case, the admiration of rabbis, ministers, statesmen, educators?


Leibowitz is fascinated by people. He defends people in life, rather than criminals in court. Through these eighty-five cases his ethics has remained intact, been strengthened. He came to the Scottsboro case with a huge reputation as a “smart criminal lawyer.” He showed himself capable of throwing aside the legalities, to reveal the great social issues in the case.

Leibowitz can talk out straight and brave. He is a dominant, positive personality, proudly race-conscious, utterly certain of himself. In his office, he talks in sentences formed as if for court oratory, finding it difficult to drop that public attitude which is so much a part of his work. He stands, walks about his office with the slightly accented gestures of an actor who always feels that there are eyes upon him. Only occasionally, as in a telephone conversation, does he switch from this public personality to another, slightly more natural. That is the heavily bantering personality of the man among men. The “Hello Jim, how’s the old boy!” type of thing booms forcedly out of him: “Come on over, let me gaze upon your handsome face. I haven’t seen it for a whole day.” What is he like when he is himself?

“I’m going to make a great confession to you,” he announces. “I pick out Yiddish melodies with one finger on the piano.” And a friend in the office adds, “He plays the accordion!”

But as he is being sketched, he draws on his court-room personality. And it is fitting, for the statements that he makes are given added force by this formal manner of talking, even as he sits with his legs crossed behind his office desk.


Has his participation in this case meant anything to him as a person? He speaks: “It has given me a vista of fourteen million people of whom the greater proportion are fettered in the chains of bondage. I shall remain active in this cause as long as there is a breath of life in me. It is not the cause of the Negro alone, it is the cause of my own people!” More intimately, he says, “What a glorious opportunity it was for the lot to fall to a Jew to strike a blow for the emancipation of the colored race! There is a bond of sympathy with those fourteen million people that words can’t describe adequately. After all, everybody knows I’m a Jew. And to those black people, for a Jew to go to the front for them is something great! Believe me, I’ll do all in my power to reflect credit on my people in the fight we’re waging.”

In his opinion, the Scottsboro case has at last awakened the Negro masses. “Only yesterday, the Negro in the streets of Decatur was a cowering, beaten individual. Today, joy is out on his face, and his eyes are glaring.”

He cannot predict when the Scottsboro case will end. It may not end until the whole question of bigotry and racial prejudice in the South has been grappled with. Mr. Leibowitz was not surprised when the assistant prosecutor, Wade Wright, burst forth with a court-room tirade against the “Jews from New York” who were “trying to buy Alabama justice.” It was merely an explosion from the top of a bubbling tea-kettle,” Leibowitz says. “Just a little shooting off of steam. We have nothing to fear from naive bigots like that. It is the polished bigot who is dangerous, the fellow that sneaks up behind, with a dagger. Hitler is of the Wade Wright type, it is true, but he has had plenty of polished bigots to help him.”


Mr. Leibowitz does not believe that wide-spread open anti-Semitism would be possible in the United States. “The snake of anti-Semitism cannot live in the spotlight of public opinion.” He believes the Jew must be openly, assertively Jewish. “You’ll notice my name is not Lee or Leroy, it’s Leibowitz. And there have been plenty of times when it would have been easier for me if it was Lee or Leroy. Listen, there was one Jewish firm here, when I was a young law clerk, to which I applied for a position; I had all the qualifications but the head of the firm took me aside and whispered in my ear that it might be a good policy to change my name to Lee, as some of their clients—you understand. So I promptly told him to go to hell.”

“Of course I am conscious of being a Jew—and foreign-born at that.” He was brought from Roumania, at the age of four. “I read and write Yiddish, I am strictly orthodox; sure I had a seder when I got home from the trial. I read Sholom Aleichem and the plays of Jacob Gordon, and I like to go to Jewish musical comedies. I like light music, gypsy music—I don’t care for heavy Wagnerian opera; I leave that to my wife; she’s a graduate of the Damrosch conservatory, an accomplished musician. Perhaps that’s the pagan in me, liking gypsy music.”

His children are being brought up in the Jewish tradition. Robert and Lawrence, twins, are nearing barmitzvah, and are both graduates of the Midwood Jewish Center of Brooklyn. Margery, 7, is to start Hebrew school in the fall. They may not be orthodox when they grow up; the forms of religion, he feels, are not so important any more as the preservation of the traditions, the folk-lore, the culture of the people.


And, “every decent Jew is a Zionist at heart. True, his heart beats for the flag under which he lives, but still by tradition and through inheritance it beats in consonance with

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