From the Memoirs of Alvin Dorfman: Civil Rights Lawsuits, part 2: Long Beach Pennysaver

In the summer of 1982, upset that the Long Beach-Island Park edition of the Pennysaver was not being distributed in the predominantly Black community bounded by Reynolds Channel, Long Beach Boulevard, Park Avenue, and Park Place in Long Beach, some black clients of mine asked me if I thought a lawsuit would be appropriate. For a few weeks, I thought about it, and concluded that a legal attempt should be made to end this invidious discrimination. My clients and I met to select plaintiffs for the case. We chose a black minister of the Soul Stirring Church of God in Christ, located on Park Place; a white person living in the targeted area; and a child along with her father, who were Black residents of the targeted area. We named the Pennysaver Corporation and its two officers as defendants. In our complaint, we alleged that though the Pennysaver advertised that it went to every single home and business in Long Beach and Island Park, this was obviously not the case, and that the sole reason for the boycott of the subject community was that the residents were predominantly Black. Such a commercial boycott and blacklisting of the plaintiffs and the class they represented was, we alleged, motivated by race and was thus a violation of the New York State Constitution, the New York Human Rights Law, and a section of the Federal Civil Rights Law.

From the very start, the defendants treated our lawsuit with imperiousness and contempt, as if to ask what right “these people” had to seek out lawyers and complain to and seek redress from the courts. They seemed to think they could run my office off the case. Two officers of the Pennysaver Corporation, possibly sent by their lawyers, went to the home of the church minister and interrogated him for almost thirty minutes, asking him how he had come to my offices and whether he had come to me or I to him. They must have thought that if I had solicited this case, I would somehow be in trouble. I hadn’t solicited the case, but even if I had, it seemed to me that the law made solicitation of a civil rights case absolutely kosher, and that the bar was not interested in taking action to prevent it. Moreover, I was not charging my clients anything for bringing this lawsuit; it was just another labor of love, an opportunity to fight for what seemed to me only right. In any case, barging into a plaintiff’s home without the consent of their lawyers is completely unacceptable. These successful businessmen surely had lawyers, only a phone call away, who knew this quite well. Had my clients been white, I am sure that this visit to the plaintiffs in an attempt to intimidate me would never have taken place.

Before answering the complaint, the defendants chose to file a motion to dismiss, claiming that the exclusion of the Black area in Long Beach was not racially motivated but was based purely upon business reasons. They asserted this with generalities, never really explaining their non-racial economic reasons for the boycott. We strenuously opposed their motion and, instead, asked for summary judgment on behalf of the plaintiffs. Both their motion to dismiss and ours for summary judgment were denied, and Judge Vincent R. Balletta of the Nassau County Supreme Court wrote that the complaint was sufficient on its face to set forth a cause of action alleging a violation of the plaintiffs’ human rights under the Human Rights Law of New York State. It took a certain amount of guts for the judge to write this decision, and I applaud him for it.

The defendants appealed to the NYS Appellate Division, consisting of four judges, one of whom, Judge Thompson, was Black. In those years, Black judges were a rarity, and there was a good chance they had been chosen because of their willingness to “tow the line.” Judge Thompson fulfilled those expectations and then some: He was our “Clarence Thomas” and his views could have been expressed by any white rightwing, racist judge. He referred to the defendants’ arguments as unchallenged and “thoroughly convincing,” and was not even bothered by the white Pennysaver officers’ unannounced visits to the Reverend’s home. Judge Thompson reminded me of a Black judge in federal court who, having suffered from segregation and discrimination during the Second World War, looked me straight in the eye and essentially said words to this effect: “Young man, if I was willing to accept the racism heaped upon me and my fellow Black soldiers in World War II, then what are these people complaining about in this bug-bite case?”

Luckily the three white judges saw the racism in the case and wouldn’t let it go by the boards. Judge Balletta’s decision was affirmed, and everything else then fell into place. Discovery was to go forward and hearings were to be completed in preparation for a trial, but the defendants wanted to settle, if for no other reason than to avoid the continued negative publicity. I always had it in the back of my mind that the courts might decide that the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights prevented a lawsuit like ours, and we could have lost the trial for any other number of reasons, so we decided to accept the settlement offer: The Pennysaver would pay $10,000 in attorneys’ fees and within thirty days would begin to distribute the Pennysaver throughout the entire City of Long Beach, including the Black community. The attorneys’ fees didn’t begin to cover the hundreds of hours I and an associate had put in on this case, but I felt more than compensated by the joy of having successfully processed a case representing a tiny step in the direction of racial equality.  It might sound corny, but whenever I represented people for human rights or anti-war positions, I would become elated with a successful result.

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From the Memoirs of Alvin Dorfman: Civil Rights Lawsuits, part 1

As I became involved with the civil rights movement, then the peace movement and the left in general, my name was spread around, and I found that Black people and later Latinos would employ my legal services even if they were not sympathetic to my political views. I suspect that they felt that if I was daring or courageous enough to hold such views, I could be depended upon to give devoted and zealous service. I tried to keep away from formal left activities, even though that was where my mind and heart were.

I did become an active member of a local group called the Freeport Community Relations Council, which was a liberal organization seeking the end of segregation and racism. It had many prominent members, including George Jackson, a Hofstra University history professor, David Kadane, the attorney for Long Island Lighting Company, and Sheldon Ackley, a leader of the Ethical Culture Society. Freeport historically had a small black population cooped up in a poor section of the Village around Merrick Road near the Meadowbrook Parkway. The Freeport Village government and the community at large had done their best to prevent this black community from increasing in size. In contrast, the Freeport Community Relations Council sought to make Freeport a truly welcoming town for all people.

A Black family by the name of Crum was denied an apartment in Freeport, and there was no doubt in my mind that this denial was due to racism. A complaint was filed with the NY State human rights body, and this became my first civil rights case. The landlord was represented by a rightwing attorney connected with the Conservative Party. (He ran on the Republican and Conservative lines opposing Allard K. Lowenstein in the 1968 Congressional Race in what was then the Fifth Congressional District.) Hearings were conducted and positions were vigorously presented in the Crum case. Members of the Freeport Community Relations Council attended in force, and I worked hard in preparing and trying the case. Discrimination was found and the Crums got their apartment. I couldn’t have been happier.

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Replacing Guns With Prescription Pads Is Not the Answer

Defunding the Police: Replacing Guns With Prescription Pads Is Not the Answer

Study Finds SSRIs Associated with Increased Risk for Violent Crime

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U.S. Jews and the Balkan Situation

an article by Alvin Dorfman and Heather Cottin

First published in Jewish Currents – April, 1996

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In the news….

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May 17, 2020 · 10:31 pm

From the Memoirs of Alvin Dorfman – Part 8: Malverne School Busing (3)

In addition to the usual papers submitted in any lawsuit, I prepared a brief entitled “Media and Organizational Response” in which we argued that important members and constituencies of the community were supportive of the black community in this lawsuit, including all of the local clergy, the New York and Long Island daily newspapers, the local radio stations, the teachers’ unions, and the American Jewish Congress. An amicus brief from the American Jewish Congress would, we hoped, call attention to the fact that the head of the Board of Regents (in effect the immediate superior of the Commissioner of Education) was a prominent member of the AJC.

It was very difficult to figure out the school district’s position. On the one hand they were opposed to our application but, on the other hand, they made the same arguments we did, calling upon the Commissioner to support our request for the funding of intra-district busing as an “ordinary contingent expense.” Obviously the district was trying to appease its constituents while at the same time conceding that our arguments were correct.

The attorney for the school district was the former lawyer for the Commissioner of Education and had worked for the Education Commission for a number of years, having only left that office a few weeks before. His representation of the school district in this matter therefore seemed a clear conflict of interest. The attorney for the N.A.A.C.P., after consulting with me, requested his recusal but I don’t believe any action was taken on that request. But, in general, relations with the N.A.A.C.P. were not so amicable. The March 1978 issue of their Rockville Centre/Lakeview branch published a lead article asserting that they were pursuing legal action against the Malverne School District and that certain concerned citizens (my clients) were also pursuing legal action. In this article the N.A.A.C.P. claimed that they had tried to get along “amiably” with my clients but that we had never contacted their attorney or responded to any communications from their organization so that, because of our “aggravating” behavior, they had decided to go it alone. Not a word of this was true but the branch president of the N.A.A.C.P. refused to make a move to disavow this article without the consent of the Chairperson, and she was uncooperative.

A few months after the initial papers were filed, members of the community and I attended a hearing in Albany before the Commissioner. As we set off by bus, the ten or so clergy—white, black, Jew, and Gentile—who stood by the bus, prayed for the success of our effort. I was so moved I almost cried. I must say that in all the human rights struggles I have participated, I have never witnessed such camaraderie and love.
In Albany we met with our local State Senator, asking for his support of our application. He took me off to the side and said words to the effect, “Alvin, you know I can’t do such a thing; it’s very controversial.” And when the Commissioner granted our application, ordering the school district to pay for busing all students living more than eight tenths of a mile from school, (calling it “an ordinary contingent expense”), He introduced legislation calling for the State to pick up the “transportation tab” for the integration of the school district, thereby making himself the hero of the white community. Obviously, he had no shame. If he had proposed this legislation in the first place the whole proceeding and controversy could have been avoided.

The community held a victory celebration and about four hundred people attended a wonderful dinner at the Freeport Yacht Club. My wife shared in my happiness, having also sacrificed for the cause, since I had put in hundreds and hundreds of hours on the case. Very few lawsuits that I handled seemed to work out so perfectly and to bring as much joy as this one. Representing the Lakeview Community was a two-way street. I believe I gave them zealous representation and, in turn, I had the wonderful feeling of having done an effective and devoted job.

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From the Memoirs of Alvin Dorfman – Part 7: Malverne School Busing (2)

I discovered that the New York State Chairperson of the N.A.A.C.P. was concerned that I might be taking some of the “glory” away from her organization so I called her to try to allay her fears. However, it didn’t take long for me to realize that her motives were not the same as mine; she was only concerned with how it would “look” if the Civil Liberties Union rather than the N.A.A.C.P. brought the action. I told her this wouldn’t be a problem, that I would be willing to handle the case in the name of the N.A.A.C.P. and the Civil Liberties Union. This didn’t seem to make things better and she told me she would think about my proposal. I told her that I was planning to file my papers the following Monday.

She had her lawyers work fast and they filed papers on the Friday before my scheduled filing. She was hoping to get the publicity out of this case at the expense of the Civil Liberties Union but, despite her best efforts, it didn’t work out that way. The N.A.A.C.P. papers were abysmal. They misstated the facts of the case and sought relief that made no sense. The attorney for the N.A.A.C.P. was quite bright but he wasn’t given adequate time to put together a decent set of papers. Had the NYS Commissioner of Education taken these papers seriously, they would have undermined the position of the black residents of the Malverne School District. But, as it turned out, the papers were so bad that the Commissioner decided to disregard the submission from the N.A.A.C.P. entirely. As a practical matter, their lawyer became completely dependent upon me to “lead the charge.”

Our initiating petition set forth the history of the school district and the racism of the white community in discontinuing the busing for the Lakeview students which, we argued, was part of the larger agreed-upon plan for racial integration. We claimed the black students suffered great hardships, having, for example, to cross wide avenues on their way to school, to walk across the Long Island Railroad tracks, and to walk in all kinds of inclement weather. The kids often arrived at school half frozen or wet and sometimes had to miss school altogether. At times they were dependent on getting to school by a private bus which wasn’t a bus at all but only a van in which up to twenty kids were crammed. Moreover, neither of the two elementary schools served lunch and there was no time for the black students to go back and forth to their homes for lunch. As a result, we claimed, by placing this intolerable burden of integration exclusively on the black community it was acting in an unacceptable, immoral, unlawful, and unconstitutional manner and was denying the black children the best of educational opportunities and the opportunity to develop to their full potential. In essence, their actions constituted a denial of equal educational opportunities.

It took a long time to figure out what relief we were actually going to ask for. Clearly, we would ask that the district be required to fund busing just the way the State did from 1967 to 1971. We called on the Commissioner of Education to find that the requested transportation constituted an “ordinary contingent expense” within the meaning of Section 202.3 of the Education law which would, in effect, require the district to provide the busing at the expense of the taxpayers of the district. We also decided to “scare the pants off” the larger white community.

If the Commissioner did not think he could force the local taxpayers to pay for the reinstitution of the original busing plan, we requested that the original Princeton Plan (as recommended by the Commissioner in 1963) to be reinstituted, i.e. that the Lakeview School be reopened and that the kids in the entire school district therefore attend all three schools. There was no doubt in our minds that this was the last thing in the world that the larger white community wanted. Alternately, we suggested they remedy the situation by reopening the Lakeview School and closing one of the two other schools so that the white kids would be “bussed into” the black neighborhood. We were sure the white community wouldn’t like that either.

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From the Memoirs of Alvin Dorfman – Part 6: Malverne School Busing (1)

I became deeply involved in the Malverne School Busing Case after receiving a telephone call from the Executive Director of the Nassau Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union. A group of residents of the Malverne School District (officially known as the Union Free School District #12 of the Town of Hempstead) had been to her office to complain about the lack of school busing for the essentially black community of Lakeview which was part of the Malverne School District. Though she had advised them that the law was far from clear and that there was a good chance they would lose any legal proceeding they brought, they were still willing to take their chances. She called me because I had some familiarity with the matter since, at the request of the American Jewish Congress, I had previously prepared an amicus brief on behalf of a number of local clergy who had supported the original concept of integrating the Malverne School District. In addition, I was the head of the Long Island Coordinating Committee for Civil Rights and, in that capacity, had worked in the Malverne District with local people supporting integration and with an organization called UCAN (United Committee for Action Now).

The legal history of the school district and the underlying facts in the case were quite complex. The Malverne School District consisted of three elementary schools, one in northern Lynbrook, one in the Village of Malverne itself, and one in the unincorporated area of Lakeview, the only area of the three which was not lily white but, in fact, almost entirely black. In 1963 NYS Education Commissioner James Allen had ordered the District to institute the “Princeton Plan” which divided the three schools into different grade levels in order to force integration. But because the parents from north Lynbrook and the Village of Malverne did not want their children to attend the Lakeview school (in the black neighborhood), they took the matter all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The court, however, upheld Allen’s order.

As a result, in 1967 a compromise was reached which closed the Lakeview school but provided busing to all students who lived six tenths of a mile or more away from school. The black community agreed to this compromise, agreeing to suffer the exclusive burden of racial integration as a magnanimous act of social and civic responsibility to avoid the continuing tumult, essentially in order to “keep the peace.” But despite the fact that the intra-district busing was an essential ingredient of this amended integration plan, in 1971 the State of New York withdrew assistance for transportation in the district; the district taxpayers followed by rejecting any payment for the busing even though the cost to the individual taxpayer would have amounted to no more than about thirteen dollars per year. In response the federal government proposed abandoning the three-school plan and paying for the building of a large elementary school, to be provided free of charge but in a referendum the local residents voted this down. The local community went on to vote down budgets or resolutions calling for the resumption of district-supported transportation another nine times.

In now pursuing a lawsuit against the Malverne School District, we would have to argue that the intra-district busing had been part of an integration agreement and order and, as a result, the busing was required, whether the community liked it or not. I met with the group and we decided to give the case our best shot even though victory was not at all certain. I was to be a cooperating attorney with the Nassau Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union and it goes without saying that this was a pro bono case. The group bringing the suit consisted of about twenty residents (if I remember correctly, seventeen were black and three were white) with whom I would meet every ten days or so. These clients were absolutely unusual. They got along without any arguments, seemed to like each other (and even me!), and everybody pitched in to help.

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From the Memoirs of Alvin Dorfman – Part 5: Baldwin School Board vs. Maurice McNeill

In late July of 1967 I received a telephone call from Denison Ray, an attorney practicing Civil Rights Law in Mississippi, asking for my help in one of his cases. He was head of the Jackson Mississippi office of The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law but he was also a resident of Baldwin, Long Island. He had been retained by Maurice McNeill, an African-American school teacher in Baldwin, who was being accused of molesting a female student. He was being charged with conduct unbecoming a teacher and with immoral character. Though Ray had been retained by McNeill, his work in Mississippi prevented him from preparing the case for an imminent administrative hearing so he was asking me to do the preparatory work and to conduct at least part of the hearing on behalf of McNeill. Ray was doing the work pro bono and imagined I would have to do so as well. He said he knew McNeill and had confidence in his innocence.

I met with Maurice McNeill in my office and we went over the matter. He was 35 years old, had taught biology in Baldwin High School since 1959 with absolutely positive recommendations and references. He and his wife, who taught English in the Uniondale School District, had both originally come from North Carolina. They had a son and daughter who were attending the Baldwin Schools. Mr. McNeill had been accused of molesting a female student in his biology class, by touching her on the legs, knees, and breasts, and by embracing and kissing her. Susan, about 16 years of age, was a fairly good-looking, not particularly developed, bleach blond with a good academic background. Before getting a C+ from Mr. McNeill, she had never received less than a B. On August 9, 1967, the School Board issued charges against McNeill: immoral character and conduct unbecoming of a teacher.

The statement of charges was signed by the Superintendant of the Baldwin schools. He seemed to fit a phrase I’d once heard, as having a “silver fork up his ass.” He appeared to be a rigid guy who would always do what was expected of him and never anything controversial in his life. Ironically, soon after this whole McNeill matter, he left his wife and ran off with one of the subordinate clerical women working for him. It just goes to show you can never be sure about anybody.

Today the statutes on the procedures for disciplining a tenured teacher are set forth in great detail but at the time no procedures were in place at all. Who was to be the prosecutor? How was he to be selected? If the district used its general counsel as its prosecutor, could he continue giving so-called “neutral” advice to the board? Who was to judge the case? There was no end to the questions. And, keep in mind, this was not a criminal prosecution but only an administrative process to see whether any disciplinary action was appropriate.

The Baldwin School Board attorney played the role of prosecutor even before the charges were drawn up and he was absolutely partisan. In typical racist fashion, he told McNeill that if he resigned quietly, they would give him letters of recommendation and help him get another job. It was even suggested that Mr. McNeill get a job in the predominantly black Amityville School District where he might feel “more comfortable.” When McNeill had contacted the lawyer who had represented him when he had bought his house, that lawyer also recommended he resign and go to a predominantly black school district.

I tried to learn as much about the School Board as I could. One of the members of the board’s husband worked for CBS and she was most concerned that there be as little adverse publicity as possible so she went out of her way to try to prevent CBS and other media from covering the story. The Vice President of the School Board was generally viewed as a right-wing extremist so we worried that in a case with a white complainant and a black respondent he would automatically believe in the guilt of the black person. As it turned out, in fact, he wound up being the only one on the Board who voted for the guilt of my client. Another member of the Board was a psychology professor from Brooklyn College, Dr. Hamburg, who, though born and raised Jewish, was a member of the Ethical Culture Society. He played a most interesting role in eventually disposing of this matter.  I was in constant touch with Denny Ray, who, contrary to what others had said about how difficult he was to work with, I found brilliant and very thorough, albeit highly competitive. He was very devoted to this client and I believe Mr. McNeill made a good judgment in retaining him; I’d like to think Ray made an equally good judgment in making me his co-counsel.

McNeill took this case to heart. He was losing a lot of weight but despite his almost uncontrolled anxiety he stood up for his defense and was just a wonderful client to represent. One of the most beautiful aspects of this case was the response of the student body which rallied en masse in support of their teacher. They saw him as a caring, helpful, devoted teacher and with the students’ support, the parents and the faculty followed. More than a hundred statements were taken from community members, students, faculty, and others, attesting to their positive experiences with Mr. McNeill and their feeling that there was no way he could be guilty of these charges. But on the other side was a small minority out for blood. These people, John Birch types, teamed up with the local newspaper, The South Shore Reporter, and they even went after my wife. Now, there’s no one less threatening than Chelly. She has her firm points of view but, far from intimidating, she is always pleasant and understanding. At the time she wore a pair of glasses with white frames and these Birch-type bastards referred to her as “the witch with white glasses.” Their hostility toward her made about as much sense as their hostility toward McNeill because he was black.

Our investigation revealed that the complainant was obsessed with McNeill. Although she testified that she had no adverse feelings towards him before this incident, we had witnesses who said she had hated him, that when he had once touched her shoulder (before the incident at issue here), she had been revulsed by him. McNeill had a reputation for touching many people’s shoulders; he was a “touchy, feely” sort of guy and no one thought the worse of it or had ever told him not to do so. It was just the way he was. Many students gave us statements about the complainant’s reputation or what they knew about her. They said she was a “hood” and hung around with “the hoods.” They said she was “loose” and “easy.” There was even talk about her having sex in the balcony of the Grand Avenue movie theater in Baldwin. On the other hand, we felt she had been a good student. However, we felt that because of her racist feelings and the racist environment, she had concocted the “cock and bull” story of the alleged molestation.

There was so much intense interest in this case that the hearing had to be moved from a lecture room to the Baldwin High School auditorium. It was in our client’s interest to have his hearing as open as possible and, in fact, it became the thing to do to attend the McNeill hearing. People would ask me to help them get in, sometimes asking me to claim they were on the McNeill defense staff. I felt like I was in charge of ticket distribution for the best play on Broadway. In conducting the hearing, the Board didn’t really know what it was doing and some of the advice it received seemed simply goofy. They had selected a lawyer by the name of Lowe to be the “impartial” advisor to the Board as well as a prosecutor. He was head of the Republican Party of Baldwin and although he specialized in criminal law, I believe he seldom tried a case. Most of the local judges were Republican and this didn’t hurt him in his practice. We were very lucky he was selected as the prosecutor because I don’t think he did much preparation and basically tried to “wing it.” Ultimately, this wound up being his big mistake. Susan retained her own lawyer, a long-time lawyer in Nassau County with his office on Sunrise Highway in Lynbrook. Though I had seen him around the courtrooms occasionally, I knew very little about him. I don’t think he was even a criminal lawyer.

Under the civil standard of a preponderance of the evidence, the burden was on the prosecutor to prove the complainant’s case; this is distinct from the burden in a criminal case where the case must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, there was a much lesser burden of proof for the administrative prosecution. Moreover, if McNeill was acquitted in this procedure, he could still be subject to criminal prosecution. I found it odd, both personally and professionally, that an untutored board was proceeding against my client in a matter that one would expect to be handled in the criminal courts. If McNeill did what the complainant claimed, then it should have been prosecuted as a sexual offense in the Nassau County District Court. What could the attorney for the School Board have been thinking when he didn’t steer the complainant in that direction? Or did he in fact do that and then find that the District Attorney wouldn’t take the case? If it had been referred to the DA, that would have gotten the Board off the hook and whatever publicity there was wouldn’t have involved the School Board. None of these questions were ever answered nor would they be resolved.

At the time this case was being processed, the movie “To Sir With Love” was in the theaters. Sidney Poitier played a black schoolteacher in England and the film was about his relationship with his students and how they felt about him, including sexually. The complainant said she never saw the film but one of her closest friends, Stephanie, said they saw the movie together. My client was a very attractive man and we began to believe that the complainant was having sexual feelings about McNeill, feelings McNeill was unaware of. Imagine being attracted to someone and at the same time hating him because of a bad grade and because of the color of his skin.

One particular witness in this case proved pivotal. Glenn, a fellow student at Baldwin High School, testified for the prosecution. He stated that on the day in question he saw Susan on the school grounds crying and when he’d asked her why she was crying, she had recounted the tale about McNeill essentially molesting her in the school. Glenn claimed he walked Susan home and had every reason to believe she was telling the truth. If her attorney had done his homework, he would have been reticent to use this witness. It seems to me that one of the first questions to ask a potential witness is whether he gave anyone a statement, written or otherwise. But he seemed to be just going through the motions and obviously didn’t know that Glenn had given me a statement, a statement contradicting what he had just testified to.

I asked Glenn if he remembered me, and he said yes. I asked him if he had been told that I was Mr. McNeill’s lawyer, and he said yes. I asked him if in his statement to me he had intended to deceive me or whether he was telling the truth, and he said he told the truth. As my questioning and his testimony made clear, in that statement he had said that Susan had only told him that McNeill grabbed her and that she pushed him away and walked out. He said he walked Susan to the corner by which time she had stopped crying and that she had never added or said anything more about what McNeill had allegedly done to her. He also had said that Susan worried a lot about her grades and that he knew McNeill to be a good guy and couldn’t believe he would do any of the things he was being charged with. He had also directly said, “I don’t believe Susan’s story. I believe that Mr. McNeill is incapable of doing what she says.”

In his testimony, he said that Susan was never his girlfriend. However in his statement that he gave us, he said that she been his girlfriend in this past. This statement proved to be a bombshell, showing that Glenn had been lying on the witness stand in order to help Susan. The prosecution’s witnesses were gradually falling apart. When Glenn’s testimony was over, there was silence in the auditorium. Then Glenn looked at me angrily and put the forearm of his left arm in the middle of his right arm and bent his right arm upwards. We all know that means, “fuck you.” Inwardly laughing, I made believe I was aghast and told the Board that this was just awful. As if that wasn’t enough, the attorney for the complainant, who was sitting in the auditorium, got up and screamed, “fuck you, Dorfman.” For a minute I thought I was in an insane asylum.

Finally, after a few hearings, it was our turn to put on our case, if we wished to put on a case. Keep in mind that we had in excess of a hundred witnesses champing at the bit to testify, including a psychiatrist who had examined my client and given us a statement saying that he believed Mr. McNeill incapable of doing what he was charged with. In addition, we had retained the services of a prominent lie detector specialist who had found that in denying the charges my client had been telling the truth. The Board had been told that we had witnesses that were going to say all sorts of terrible things about the character and sexual activities of the complainant. So many witnesses were willing to testify about the “loose” behavior of the complainant that I began feeling bad about it. Even if all this was true about her, it was nobody’s business. However, she had opened this Pandora’s box by bringing these false charges against Mr. McNeill.

We put on a number of witnesses and things were going well; if I were the prosecutor I would have been shell-shocked. His case was going down the tubes and we were only beginning. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Professor Hamburg (from the Board) came over to me and said, quietly, “ginig,” “enough” in Yiddish. The implication was that we had already won our case and it was unnecessary to destroy the claimant, a young person with her whole life to live.

I went over to my client and told him what Hamburg had said. Mr. McNeill asked me what he should do and I said that there really was no clear answer; it was his choice. If we stopped then and there, we would probably win, but one could never be sure. I didn’t know much about Hamburg and didn’t know if we could take him at face value. Was he speaking only for himself or, acting in good faith, was he speaking for a majority of the School Board? McNeill weighed all the factors: proceed and “destroy” the complainant or have some degree of pity, stop right then and there, and take our chances? Denny Ray agreed that it was a decision only the client could make. Mr. McNeill decided to call a halt to the procedure.

Luckily, his “call” was a good one. On the charge of conduct unbecoming a teacher, the Board voting unanimously to acquit. On the charge of immoral character, the Board’s vote was four to one to acquit. The only dissent came from the Vice President of the Board who seemed to identify with the small group of John Birchers rallying for the prosecution only because the complainant was white and the respondent was black. I can’t tell you how joyous everybody was; the atmosphere was festive. Covered by the world media, the case was reported in the German Der Spiegel and the Jerusalem Post. It was on the front page in The Ladies Home Journal and on television all over the country. It had been an ongoing saga in the Long Island Press, Newsday, and The New York Times. The teacher’s union and the National Education Association affiliate even competed in taking some of the credit for the strong defense of this falsely-accused teacher: although we were handling this matter pro bono, they insisted on paying us. I don’t remember the details but I think I took just enough money to cover my disbursements, a paltry sum. I would be surprised if I was paid more than $250 in this matter.

Interestingly, when I had first approached the leaders of black organizations for their support at the beginning of this case, they had hesitated. Mr. McNeill led a very “white” life: his kids went to white schools (Baldwin was essentially a lily-white community at the time); he liked to play golf and tennis; he owned a modest vacation house. Black leaders didn’t want to identify with a black person who they felt acted too “white.” I argued that his way of life was his business and not theirs and that the issue was bigger than him. He was another example of a black man singled out for wrongful and vicious treatment because of his race. Because of my arguments and because of my standing within the civil rights community, the movement did come to his defense and proved quite helpful.

Though Mr. McNeill went back to teaching at Baldwin High School, he felt he couldn’t stay there for the rest of his career because he couldn’t forget what had happened to him. He went on to become a principal in the Amityville School District and then in Roosevelt High School. He went back to school and got his doctorate in education; I believe his last job was as a superintendent of schools in Queens, New York.

I considered the McNeills dear friends and, although we didn’t keep in regular contact, I knew that they would be there for me if I ever needed them and vice versa. Maurice has since died but I will never forget the McNeill case and the community support expressed at the time. Neighbors were constantly bringing prepared meals to the McNeill home so they could concentrate on the proceedings. When people are kind to each other, everyone benefits. Years later when I was going through difficult times, memories of such experiences as that with the McNeills gave me a lot of strength and feelings of fulfillment.

Denny Ray worked with the Civil Rights movement for quite some time but we did not keep in contact. He eventually came back to New York and I believe was with some law services type of firm that did pro bono legal work for indigent persons in civil matters. He must have made a good name for himself because the New York State Bar Association gives out an annual award in his memory. He was a fine person as well as a fine attorney. My client was well-served by him as I hope he was well-served by me.

When my kids attended the schools in the Baldwin School District the teachers would whisper that they were the children of one of the lawyers for Maurice McNeill. And when one of my daughters refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance, she was not forced to do so, perhaps because they knew that, given who her father was, they would be looking for trouble. In any event, I think my involvement with the McNeill case made my kids feel special. All the kids in the Baldwin schools at the time knew about the case, as did the teachers. The administration, of course, will never forget.

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From the Memoirs of Alvin Dorfman – Part 4: Mississippi Summer 1964; continued

The next speaker was Rev. Williams and he gave the pitch, a fire and brimstone speech. It was quite effective and the money seemed to be pouring in. I was the next speaker, introduced as a Jewish lawyer from New York. The fact that I was Jewish seemed to mean a lot to the congregation, perhaps because of our connection to the Old Testament. In any event, if nothing else, Jesus was Jewish. Though, as an aside, I must recall that I once told my office manager that Jesus was Jewish and she glared at me, said that he was not and I shouldn’t kid around about that. In any event, I delivered a more legalistic talk and, though I don’t remember what I actually said, it was well-received and I enjoyed every second of it.

Dr. King was a lovely human being, a brilliant orator and a really nice guy, what we in Brooklyn call a “mensch.” I had met him even before I went down to Florida because he had come out to Long Island to speak at one of the civil rights movement meetings I attended. When I was in St. Augustine I was very cognizant of the possibility of violence. I only felt safe within the black community and I slept in a black person’s house instead of renting a room in a hotel or motel. I also wouldn’t drive an automobile because I didn’t want to give the local police any opportunity to charge me falsely or arrest me. In contrast, Dr. King walked around without any security that I was aware of. I told him I thought that he was taking too many chances but he said he felt otherwise, that hopefully God was protecting him.

I always felt that danger was near at hand. I recall a college kid from southern California who was a civil rights volunteer in St. Augustine. He was a tall, blonde, good-looking kid who had an attachment to a black undergraduate and they would walk around holding hands. If some of the local whites had seen the couple, there’s no telling what they would have done so I went over to the two and told them they were courting danger and urged them not to display their affection in public. They realized I was right and, for whatever it was worth, they stopped holding hands.

Dr. Hayling left town just before Dr. King arrived. Although he was the head of the local chapter of the SCLC, Dr. Hayling did not believe in non-violence. He felt that if violence was perpetrated against someone, that person had the right to respond in kind. Dr. Hayling was a very unusual person. During his undergraduate days at the University of Michigan he had been a football player and he continued at Michigan for dental school before returning to St. Augustine. Unlike most black people, who belonged to traditional churches like Baptist, Methodist, A.M.E. Zion, and so on, he belonged to the Unitarian Congregation Church in Jacksonville, a liberal, non-dogmatic church.

I particularly recall one incident Dr. Hayling recounted. He was driving his car north on US-1 when he saw a burning cross which he assumed meant that a Klan meeting was taking place. He stopped his car to watch. Moments later a white couple came by and the man pulled Dr. Hayling’s car door open and put a knife to his throat. Amazingly, this man was one of Dr. Hayling’s patients, as was his wife. She was demanding that her husband cut Dr. Hayling’s throat but her husband seemed scared to do it. She kept yelling, “Cut his throat” and eventually he did exactly that. It sounds almost unbelievable: here are two white patients of a black dentist who had had every opportunity to choose a white dentist, but had chosen this black dentist—and they almost killed him.

Dr. Hayling went to a local hospital for his lacerated throat. He was admitted and survived without any aftereffects except for a disfiguring scar. In the hospital Dr. Hayling was confined to a “black only” ward and, so that the whole incident wouldn’t be a total failure, he retained the LCDC lawyers to bring a lawsuit requiring that hospital to accommodate its black patients on a non-discriminatory basis. The lawsuit was successful and the hospital was forced to change its racist policies.

In order to practice in the Northern District of Florida, which included St. Augustine, I had to be sworn in by the Chief Judge of the Federal Court, which was located in Jacksonville. After he swore me in, the judge looked at the local lawyers in the court and admonished them with words to the effect that it was a shame that they needed lawyers from out of state to do the work that they, the local lawyers, should be doing, that is, enforcing the applicable laws and the Constitution of the United States. Those cowardly local lawyers looked embarrassed.

The Chief Judge, Brian Simpson, had been, I was told, just another local lawyer but as he aged he came to realize that racism was mean-spirited and downright wrong and, despite his background and the fact that he was a neighbor to all these local people who lived and swore by racism, he turned his back on his past and became a strong proponent of civil rights. He not only rendered decisions in favor of the applications made by the civil rights lawyers, he even helped those lawyers do their jobs. For instance, I was in the hall one day and he stopped and told me that the lawyers who had just completed their two-week assignments there and had won their civil rights case, had failed to submit the order necessary to enforce the decision of the court. I told the judge that the problem was that I (presumably like the lawyers who preceded me) was having trouble getting a competent secretary who could prepare the appropriate order. The judge then provided us with the use of his own secretary and the order was prepared forthwith.

As I said, there were one thousand criminal cases pending in the local state court in St. Augustine. We had most of them “removed” to the Federal District Court in Jacksonville so that they could be assigned to Judge Simpson. We found this removal proceeding in a statute that had been written following the Civil War but had almost never been used before. This worked out as a great tool because really there was no chance to get a fair shake in the St. Augustine court where the presiding judge made no attempt to hide his prejudice and his antipathy towards us. So one of our main jobs was to bring more removal proceedings so that no criminal civil rights case would be left in that court.

Over the years I wondered whatever happened to those one thousand or so criminal cases that were removed to Federal Court and were supposed to be resolved in that court either through trial or through some agreed-upon settlement or plea bargain. The last time I saw those cases they were sitting in several big boxes on the floor of Judge Simpson’s chambers. I suspect he never took a look at them and over the years they simply died of old age. It is not supposed to work that way but it was a very sensible outcome. A few years ago I read of the death of Judge Simpson. Because of his commitment to human rights he was socially ostracized in his community; other members of his country club would have nothing to do with him. I hope he felt confident that he was doing the right thing; he was extraordinarily courageous.

The brother-in-law of the St. Augustine judge was a bail bondsman. Since the judge didn’t release any of the defendants without bail, that bondsman was making a fortune and I’m sure that’s what the judge had in mind. I couldn’t do anything that approached the practice of law in his court because, unlike Judge Simpson, this local judge was not going to give civil rights lawyers permission to practice before him. But I could go to the local court to file papers. One day when I was doing that he accused me of practicing law without a license. I told him that I was only acting in the capacity of a clerk and he backed down. I am sure if he could have pinned it on me and the other civil rights attorneys, he would have declared that we were practicing law in Florida without a license and have tried to jail us. It would have looked terrible if we were held in contempt or put in jail because of the negative media coverage this would have generated.

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