On A.L. Wirin – One of Our Legends: Lawyer fought for rights of all, by Paul Weeks
Note: The following column by Paul Weeks was published several months before veteran newsman Weeks passed away at age 86. It is only one man’s view of legendary ACLU attorney A.L. Wirin, but it is compelling.
Lawyer fought for all rights
By Paul Weeks
May 01, 2007
‘The rights of all persons are wrapped in the same constitutional bundle as those of the most hated member of the community.”
That’s what A.L. Wirin said, and that’s what he practiced in serving as chief counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California for four decades.
It was more than a half-century ago when my phone rang in the city room of the old Los Angeles Mirror. A Superior Court judge had read a piece I had written about American Indians’ use of peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, in religious rites. Would I come over and talk to him about it?
A young Navajo had been arrested for possession of peyote and was facing a possible jail sentence. The judge was troubled. I knew a lawyer who would represent the man for free: A.L. Wirin.
Al agreed because he always championed the Constitution, including freedom of religion, which he held as sacred as reporters hold freedom of the press.
Ironically, if the young man had pleaded guilty, the judge might have let him go home with only a scar on his record as a criminal. Instead, he was held in jail for three weeks while the judge heard Wirin’s defense.
It was so convincing that the judge wrote a 30-page opinion that the accused’s religion exempted him from the law. California then amended its drug law to accommodate the religious rights of American Indians.
Al and I crossed paths in the nation’s capitol when he was defending Linus Pauling, the scientist and peace activist, against zealots who accused him of communist connections. Pauling was the only man to win the Nobel Prize in two different fields – first, for chemistry, and second, for peace.
Ed Cray, who worked for the ACLU in Wirin’s time, told me that Sirhan Sirhan, charged in 1968 with the assassination of Robert Kennedy, sought an ACLU lawyer to defend him. When the anti-Semitic Sirhan found that Wirin was a Jew, neither wanted any further relations. Wirin, following the ethic that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, recommended Grant Cooper to defend Sirhan.
Wirin even defended a notorious fascist demagogue, the Rev. Gerald L.K. Smith, who had been refused the right to speak before a Glendale High School audience. Al won Smith’s right to speak – and then joined the picket line protesting Smith’s views.
Wirin was the son of Jewish immigrants who had fled Russia during the pogroms. He always signed himself “A.L. Wirin,” never revealing the names that went with the initials.
But I found out. Al’s parents had named him Abraham Lincoln Wirin, in honor of the Great Emancipator.
When I called the ACLU in Los Angeles to learn when he had died, the young media relations person, only three weeks on the job, had never heard of Wirin. He died of a stroke in Hollywood in 1978 at the age of 77.
He must never be forgotten.