Academic journal article The Yale Law Journal

W. Haywood Burns: To Be of Use

Academic journal article The Yale Law Journal

W. Haywood Burns: To Be of Use

Article excerpt

To Be of Use(1)

The people I love the best jump into work head first without dallying in the shallows and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight. They seem to become natives of that element, the black sleek heads of seals bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart, who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience, who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward, who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge in the task, who go into the fields to harvest and work in a row and pass the bags along, who are not parlor generals and field deserters but move in a common rhythm when the food must come in or the fire be put out. The work of the world is common as mud. Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust. But the thing worth doing well done has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident. Greek amphoras for wine or oil, Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums but you know they were made to be used. The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.

-Marge Piercy

On Tuesday, April 2, 1996, Haywood Bums was travelling to a dinner party following a day at a convention of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers in Cape Town, South Africa. Haywood was accompanied by two colleagues; a young South African friend was driving. Remarking that the driver reminded him of his son, Haywood began to speak of his family when, suddenly, their automobile was broadsided by a speeding lorry.(2) Haywood died that night. He was fifty-five years old.

A week later, an extraordinary outpouring of thousands of people gathered in Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem to say their farewells. Haywood, knowing that his life entailed greater than ordinary risk, had penned detailed instructions. At his funeral, he wanted African drumming, Native American chanting, and Scottish bagpiping to represent the strands of race and ethnicity that made him up. The crowd reflected Haywood's rare gift for bringing disparate people together. The most distinguished members of New York State's bench and bar sat side by side with lifelong militants; academic luminaries shared pews with activist teenagers.

At a time when the legal profession is ridiculed as the refuge of the greedy, the self-absorbed, the ego-driven and the corporate-minded, the life of Haywood Bums instructs us with a very different ideal. As former New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins declared, Haywood "served as a role model, not just for African-Americans, but for all Americans."(3) What is more, Haywood Burns was a role model in a multiplicity of roles. As a scholar, his early essays on the history of racism and American law, along with those of Derrick Bell, secured the foundation for critical race theory. As a teacher, Haywood inspired generations of students.(4) As a civil rights advocate, he defended black militant activists, community organizers, prisoners, and death row inmates. As

an architect of organizations, he led the National Conference of Black Lawyers and the National Lawyers Guild; he was a keystone of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and served as a director, advisor, counsel, or trustee to more than fifty organizations dedicated to social transformation of one kind or another.

Although Haywood earned some of the legal establishment's most coveted honors, he was never entirely at home in it, nor was it ever entirely comfortable with him. Recalling his early years at Harvard, Haywood whimsically described himself as a provincial at the cultural center. In fact, Haywood did remain something of an outsider, perhaps as a result of his implacable identification with the downtrodden. Yet all of these images of Haywood as outsider leave wanting something of the essential man so profoundly loved by such a wide spectrum of the community: They fail to capture his boundless enthusiasm, his delight in human variety, his unique, capacity to listen and encourage, his extraordinary charm and sweetness. …

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