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Throwback Thursday: Radical Lawyer

William Kunstler’s March 1970 speech keynoted a most turbulent semester.

William Kunstler in the University Gym. At left in left-hand photo with Chicago Seven defendant John Froines; in photo right delivering a power salute to a crowd estimated at 7,000. (Photos courtesy of University Archives

ALBANY, N.Y. (March 2, 2017) — He was among the most famous leftwing icons of the late ’60s and early ’70s. And his appearance at UAlbany on March 5, 1970, helped ignite the most violent spring in the history of the institution.

William Moses Kunstler (1919 – 1995) was an American radical lawyer known for expertly defending politically unpopular clients. He burst on the national scene with his 1969–1970 defense of the Chicago Seven — seven defendants charged by the federal government with conspiracy to incite the riots that marred the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

His work on the often tumultuous trial prompted The New York Times to label him "the country's most controversial and, perhaps, its best-known lawyer.” His subsequent clients included the Catonsville Nine, Black Panther Party, Weather Underground, Attica Prison rioters and American Indian Movement.

A riotous situation might have occurred around Kunstler’s appearance had not some students deferred to the thousands wishing to see and hear both the lawyer and one of his Chicago Seven defendants, John Froines. The event had been originally scheduled for the Campus Center ballroom, but student organizers warned the administration that only the University Gym would be able to handle the passionate crowds.

Kuntsler at UAlbany

Part of the crowd in the gym to hear Kunstler. 

Intermural basketball, however, had already been scheduled for the gym that evening. The problem was defused when the intramural students agreed to postpone their games and allow the Kunstler event to proceed. The University rejected petitions by veterans groups and 29 New York State Assemblymen to have the speech canceled or to not be held in University Gym.

The event went off, packing the gym with approximately 7,000 people, mostly students. Kunstler and Froines spoke of the Chicago Seven trial, and the lawyer also devoted time to blasting U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, and proclaiming that protests against the government and establishment were only beginning. “Are we dangerous?” he asked at one point. “I hope the hell we are.”

The campus got a sense of that it in coming months. One week later, some students smashed windows in the Administration Building over a tenure decision. On March 19, 15 students were among 29 arrested for blocking the entrance to Albany’s military induction center.

On May 6, two days after the National Guard killed four student antiwar protesters at Kent State University, many UAlbany students marched peacefully with others to the Capitol to protest the war and race relations. But that night Molotov cocktails were thrown at the Administration Building, the Colonial Quad Flag Room suffered extensive damage, and a student strike that halted most undergraduate courses began.

Faculty eventually met with students and provided alternate ways for those who’d missed classes and tests to receive credits. Commencement went off largely without incident. As the Vietnam War wound down, no UAlbany semester ever again witnessed the combustible atmosphere that existed in the one in which William Kunstler came to town.

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