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The Color of Law

Ernie Goodman, Detroit, and the Struggle for Labor and Civil Rights

Dave Riddle, David Elsila, and Steve Babson

Award Winner

American History, Biography, By WSU Faculty, Detroit, Legal History, Michigan, Race and Ethnicity

Published: October 2010
ISBN: 9780814334966
Pages: 592 Size: 6 x 9
Illustrations: 31 b&w illus.
Published: October 2010
ISBN: 9780814336380
Pages: 592 Size: EPUB
Illustrations: 31 b&w illus.
Book Images

The lessons in The Color of Law are many and valuable; the book is a virtual 'who's who' of Detroit's labor and civil rights communities across the twentieth century.

— Robert Samuel Smith

In a working life that spanned half a century, Ernie Goodman was one of the nation’s preeminent defense attorneys for workers and the militant poor. His remarkable career put him at the center of the struggle for social justice in the twentieth century, from the sit-down strikes of the 1930s to the Red Scare of the 1950s to the freedom struggles, anti-war demonstrations, and ghetto rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s. The Color of Law: Ernie Goodman, Detroit, and the Struggle for Labor and Civil Rights traces Goodman’s journey through these tumultuous events and highlights the many moments when changing perceptions of social justice clashed with legal precedent.

Authors Steve Babson, Dave Riddle, and David Elsila tell Goodman’s life story, beginning with his formative years as the son of immigrant parents in Detroit’s Jewish ghetto, to his early ambitions as a corporate lawyer, and his conversion to socialism and labor law during the Great Depression. From Detroit to Mississippi, Goodman saw police and other officials giving the "color of law" to actions that stifled freedom of speech and nullified the rights of workers and minorities. The authors highlight Goodman’s landmark cases in defense of labor and civil rights and examine the complex relationships he developed along the way with individuals like Supreme Court Justice and former Michigan governor Frank Murphy, UAW president Walter Reuther, Detroit mayor Coleman Young, and congressman George Crockett. Drawing from a rich collection of letters, oral histories, court records, and press accounts, the authors re-create the compelling story of Goodman’s life. The Color of Law demonstrates that the abuse of power is non-partisan and that individuals who oppose injustice can change the course of events.

Steve Babson is author of Working Detroit: The Making of a Union Town (Wayne State University Press, 1986), Building the Union: Skilled Workers and Anglo-Gaelic Immigrants in the Rise of the UAW, and The Unfinished Struggle: Turning Points in American Labor, 1877–Present. He is also the editor of Lean Work: Empowerment and Exploitation in the Global Auto Industry (Wayne State University Press, 1995) and Confronting Change: Auto Labor and Lean Production in North America.Dave Riddle is a former truck driver and Teamster member who has lived in Detroit for nearly forty years. His work as a historian has focused on the politics of race and class in Detroit’s blue-collar suburbs. David Elsila worked in the labor movement for thirty years as a labor journalist, including twenty-two years as editor of Solidarity, the national publication of the UAW. He has been an instructor of journalism at Wayne State University and has served on the boards of the Metro Detroit ACLU, Southeast Michigan Jobs with Justice, and the Cranbrook Peace Foundation. He is co-author of Working Detroit: The Making of a Union Town (Wayne State University Press, 1986), with Steve Babson, Ron Alpern, and John Revitte.

This is a riveting story of law at its best, serving the vulnerable, challenging the powerful, and demanding a commitment to our deepest ideals. Ernie Goodman devoted a dynamic career to holding law to its promises, and reforming law where it failed to reflect our best selves. He is a model for all who seek to change the world for the better."

– David Cole, professor at Georgetown University Law Center and author of No Equal Justice and Enemy Aliens

The authors of this compelling biography had access to a trove of Ernie Goodmans own writings and observations, and are able at nearly every turn to incorporate his own words and reflections into the narrative. . . . In telling the story of Ernie Goodman, co-authors Steve Babson, Dave Riddle, and David Elsila also give us a powerful narrative of the evolution of a progressive strain within American law in the 20th century.

– Angela D. Dillard, Against the Current

The Color of Law is a masterful chronicle of a lawyer's selfless engagement in the causes of social justice and racial equality. The reader cannot help but find parallels between those earlier eras of social tumult and our nation's current climate."

– Gary Maveal, Michigan Bar Journal

The lessons in The Color of Law are many and valuable; the book is a virtual 'who's who' of Detroit's labor and civil rights communities across the twentieth century. Locally, nationally, and to some degree internationally the authors chronicle Goodman and his colleagues' resilience and their unrelenting efforts in the shifting legal and political climates from the 1930s through the 1970s, as they waged these battles from their law offices in Detroit.

– Robert Samuel Smith, Michigan Historical Review, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Fall 2011)

Imagine Clarence Darrow immersed in progressive movements for social change, and you might have some sense of the remarkable, indomitable Ernie Goodman. This wonderful, inspiring, and compelling book is not only his story, it's the chronicle of the most important struggles of the twentieth century-from the first auto worker sit-down strikes, to the Red Scare, the fight against Jim Crow, opposition to the Vietnam War, and the Attica prison rebellion. Ernie understood better than most lawyers that progressive social change comes from popular struggle and that a lawyer's job was to protect those in struggle. The Color of Law holds key lessons for today. Ernie was unbowed until his death at age ninety and so must we be."

– Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights<br /><br />

There are few lawyers in America who have put everything on the line to advance the cause of civil rights, civil liberties, workers' rights, and peace; Ernie Goodman was one of them. He was the lawyer's lawyer always ready to defend the poor and downtrodden. The Color of Law is an engrossing account of one man's fearless endeavors to make the courts and the law serve equally and justly the rights of all citizens."

– Arthur L. Johnson, former director of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, former deputy director of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, and author of Race and Remembrance: A Memoir (Wayne State University Press, 2008)

It is rare for historians of the left to give readers such an intimate sense of activism-not only for big battles but also the long, hard slogs; not only the triumphs of an engaged life but also its strains and sacrifices. Babson, Riddle, and Elsila have an extraordinary-and extraordinarily important-story to tell."

– Kevin Boyle, Humanities Distinguished Professor at the Ohio State University

The Color of Law spares no detail in its intimate portrayal of a real-life hero of the courtroom, and is a worthy addition to college and public library biography shelves."

– The Midwest Book Review

Color of Law goes beyond Goodman's life and, instead, uses his life as a microcosm for a changing America during the 20th century. The book is an extensive examination into Detroit, the life of Goodman and the struggle for civil rights nationally. It is a long but very important read. It is one of many books researched in the Walter Reuther Library that tells readers how far we have come, and yet, how much farther we have to go."

– The South End

  • 2010 Metro Times 2010 Best-of Pick! - Result: Best-of pick
  • 2011 State History Award - Result: Winner in the category of Publications: Books: University & Commercial
  • 2011 Independent Publisher Book Award - Freedom Fighter Award