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Anthony Lewis: A Voice of Courage and Clarity

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  March 25, 2013 02:53 PM

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The world lost a voice of courage and clarity when Anthony Lewis died this morning. He was our nation's pre-eminent expert and explainer of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. By telling human stories of personal courage and the law, Tony Lewis inspired me and countless other journalists, lawyers, and ordinary people to embrace what it means — and what it takes — to be a free human being.

I first met Tony when I was a young reporter at The New York Times, and he remained a mentor and teacher when I later became a civil liberties lawyer at the ACLU. He taught me to love the law, to strive for clear prose, and to realize that courage is essential to a free society.

Shaped by his early reporting experiences covering government loyalty programs during the McCarthy period, the civil rights movement, and the U.S. Supreme Court, Tony combined a reporter's knack for story-telling with first-hand knowledge of human suffering in the face of injustice. He used narrative writing to teach Americans the fundamental concepts that keep our nation safe and free: freedom of speech and the press, due process and the right to counsel, and equal rights under the law.

He knew more about the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights than any lawyer, and wrote about them with more eloquence than any other writer. His books became required reading for generations of Americans, particularly his 1964 book, Gideon's Trumpet. In it, Tony told the true-life story of Clarence Earl Gideon, a poor man who filed a petition on his own behalf demanding his constitutional right to a lawyer. The book chronicles Gideon's case up to the U.S. Supreme Court, resulting in Gideon's exoneration and a victory for the right to counsel in criminal cases. On this 50th anniversary of the Gideon decision, the importance of that ruling — which Tony taught us in Gideon's Trumpet — continues to inform and inspire today's efforts to extend the right to counsel to civil and immigration cases.

Another of Tony's books, Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment, told the story of freedom of the press and the civil rights movement. Capturing human drama, fear, and courage of the time, it told the story of how segregationists tried to silence press coverage of the struggle for freedom in the South. In Lewis' retelling, both the free press and the civil rights movement were saved by a courageous Supreme Court.

Courageous judges were a theme in Tony's writing, and in his life, as evidenced by his marriage to Margaret Marshall, a long-time anti-apartheid activist who later became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. In his final book, Freedom for the Thought We Hate, Tony concludes with what can only be read as an ode to Justice Marshall, who in 2004 authored the historic Goodridge decision extending the freedom to marry to same-sex couples in Massachusetts:

"The courage required in a free society is not alone of those who believe in change, but of journalists and other shapers of opinion. And, not least, of judges," he wrote. "Many of the great advances in the quality — the decency — of American society were initiated by judges: on racial justice, on respect for the equal humanity of women and homosexuals, on freedom of speech itself. Every one of such steps exposed judges to bitter words and, sometimes, physical danger. 'We are very quiet there,' Holmes said of the Supreme Court, 'but it is the quiet of a storm center.'"

Tony Lewis' call for courageous jurists has never felt more essential than now, this week, as the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to take up two historic equal marriage cases. I can't help but imagine how helpful it would be to hear Tony's perspective on the cases and the Court, and I am bereft that he is gone.

Fortunately, his words live on in the extraordinary body of writing he bequeathed to us and to future generations. Perhaps the wisdom of Anthony Lewis will inspire today's Supreme Court justices, as it does so many of us, to demonstrate the courage that the world needs if we are to realize freedom and justice for all.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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