Lewis Steel is a veteran civil rights lawyer, who has written a very thoughtful memoir, The Butler’s Childs – An Autobiography. Steel’s background as a trust fund kid, educated at Culver Military Academy and Harvard, is oddly juxtaposed with his career as a civil rights attorney, who has spent a lot of time losing cases. The premise for the book is Steel’s acute awareness that as a child and a young man he was served by an African American butler and his wife. Steel felt close to this couple, but realizes that he spent most of his time telling them about his life while learning precious little about theirs. Now he’s aware of his previous lack of awareness.
Clearly Steel likes to feel like a renegade, and yet he knows that his family’s wealth (largely thanks to a grandmother who married on of the Warner Brothers) has made it possible for him to live in some very nice real estate, educate his children at private schools and not really need to earn a living. Steel acknowledges this and occasionally blames some decisions like private schools and an even fancier apartment on his wife, but all in all his choices are made with a reasonable amount of awareness, and there seems to be a certain amount of guilt behind it.
Steel has had a long legal career, mostly as a civil rights attorney with significant criminal defense experience, and he has been kicked in the teeth by judges and prosecutors across the country. Famously, he was one of Rubin “Hurricane Carter’s” attorneys and stuck with Carter and his co-defendant through an unbelievable saga of prosecutorial malfeasance and willful judicial blindness. As an attorney, I enjoyed Steel’s legal war stories, even as the numbing sameness of courts and communities’ willingness to overlook and perpetuate discrimination continued with few checks for decades. Another whole book would be required to assess how much progress has actually been made, and Steel doesn’t really go there. This isn’t a criticism – his legal career has evolved and he is looking back. Referencing the recent police homicides that led to the Black Lives Matter movement, Steel is far from sanguine about any progress that may have been made.
Steel’s heart and advocacy were in the right place, but to hear him tell it he didn’t rein in his emotions and openly challenged judges. Steel was a character, and his war stories are highly entertaining. Nonetheless, it will always be debatable whether clients are best served in particular cases by aggressive, confrontational attorneys. The fact remains that Steel was in the trenches and he had to make on-the-spot decisions about how to try his cases and create the record he would surely need for an appeal. Of course it is also true that calling out judges for their biases must have been emotionally satisfying and cathartic for Steel. As an NAACP attorney, he was involved in many generally unsuccessful, school desegregation cases, often in the North. One has to admire his stubborn determination to see these cases through, even as he is initially terrified by the neighborhoods he frequents and his met by judicial indifference at best.
This book is well worth reading for many reasons, including the history of civil rights litigation and the circumstances that led to a privileged young man to join the civil rights movement and work for little or nothing as a civil rights attorney. Why he chose that path doesn’t seem entirely clear even to Steel, but he obviously likes his life. One theme that does come through is that Steel, who is Jewish, has faced discrimination in his own life and is one of those fortunate people who doesn’t feel the need to conform. He is remarkably confident in his beliefs and comfortable doing what he feels he needs to do. For the most part, he doesn’t seem to be looking for approval from anyone other than perhaps his wife and his colleagues in the trenches. Steel’s willingness to own up to certain occasions when his behavior was lacking gives this book some badly needed balance. It is so reassuring to have someone say, “I failed to act; I hurt someone I love; there is no excuse for it; I should have behaved differently.”
Steel doesn’t shy away from issues of privilege and race and his own failures. He is very aware that he is an economically secure white man who will cannot understand what it means to be African American. He acknowledges that it is absurd for him to live such a comfortable and secure existence, just because he was born wealthy and white. He knows that he isn’t always living the courage of his convictions — he works to integrate public schools across the country even as his children attend the best private schools and he lives in a large apartment in a predominately white neighborhood. While Steel chooses to live and raise his family as he does, his efforts to understand and examine the irony of his circumstances is intriguing. Fortunately his self-examination and arguably hypocritical lifestyle do not result in inertia. It’s almost like yoga: Steel observes his circumstances and how he is feeling at the moment, and then moves on to do what he needs to do. In Lewis Steel’s case, that means a lifetime in the legal trenches as he tries to protect and enforce the rights of clients who have borne the brunt of all manner of discrimination and injustice. In truth, someone probably had to lose all those early cases to pave the way for future progress, and Steel took on that task. His was an historic crusade.