Fighting for the underdog: The Lovings’ lawyer
AT 80 years of age, Philip Hirschkop still has the bulk and the presence of a prize fighter — a build that Pulitzer Prizewinning author Norman Mailer, who Hirschkop defended for demonstrating against the Vietnam war, once called a “powerful short body” that “put double weight in the back of every remark.”
There is no doubt that Hirschkop relishes the good fight. In a legal career spanning more than 50 years, he has battled to end miscegenation laws, to give women equal access to universities, to stop discrimination against people of colour and pregnant women, to end the war in Vietnam by protecting the rights of those who protested against the war, and to ensure that animals ranging from whales to orangutans are treated humanely.
He has represented celebrities including the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, child care expert Dr Benjamin Spock, and peace activist Abbie Hoffman.
But the Virginia lawyer is perhaps best known for winning a unanimous Supreme Court decision in the Loving vs Virginia case, a story behind the film Loving. This weekend Ruth Negga may win a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in the film.
In Loving vs Virginia, Hirschkop, along with his cocounsel, argued on behalf of Mildred and Richard Loving, who were awakened in the middle of the night on July 11, 1958 and arrested in their home simply for being in an inter-racial marriage. The couple were charged, convicted and forced to leave the state of Virginia for at least 25 years. They went to live in Washington, DC — unable to be near their parents or to raise their children in the countryside where they had grown up.
After Hirschkop’s arguments, in 1967, the Supreme Court overturned Virginia’s inter-racial marriage laws as unconstitutional. In 2015, the Loving case was cited repeatedly in the Supreme Court’s decision that legalised same-sex marriage. Though the film is not entirely accurate according to Hirschkop, he believes it has a valuable purpose, and he tells me that the day the decision was announced was “one of the best days” of his legal career.
Hirschkop has often represented “the marginalised and despised” in order to protect those groups’ constitutional rights. His tactics have been controversial, they have provoked, and they have rubbed up some people the wrong way. Hirschkop has been cursed at, has been forced to show a judge his attorney bar card before being allowed to speak, and has been held in contempt and threatened with jail more than a few times.
When I asked him what draws him to the cause of the underdog over and over again Hirschkop says simply: “My Jewish heritage.” A native New Yorker raised in an Orthodox family, Hirschkop attributes his toughness to being born in Brooklyn, where he was the youngest of three boys. His father was born in Poland and moved to London at the age of one. He joined the British Merchant Marine and jumped ship in Boston Harbour, making him as Hirschkop points out “an illegal alien who our current President would likely want to boot out.”
Hirschkop’s father, who went on to work as a waiter in a Jewish deli in Brooklyn, and his mother were “principled” and “kind” people who never went to college, but who sent all three sons to college. For a safer environment, his parents decided to relocate the family from New York City to rural Hightstown, New Jersey, where he attended a high school
with 67 students in his graduating class. His interest in civil rights began here, he says, adding, “I had known a great deal of discrimination in a small town.”
In Hightstown, he befriended many of the African American migrant workers who passed through to live and work in the potato fields for a short time, often in terrible conditions, who sometimes shopped in his father’s store. Hirschkop says that the conditions he observed the workers living in, including bunking in chicken coops, deepened his interest in fighting racial discrimination.
Even then, “I was always mouthing off,” laughs Hirschkop. “I was a bit of a cut-up, and I had a lot of difficulty with authority, which I have had my whole life — whether it was a judge or a teacher.” Hirschkop, who was in trouble so often that he had his own desk in the principal’s anteroom, was not recommended to any colleges by the school and so, at the age of 18, he joined the army, later volunteering to be a Green Beret in the 77th Special Forces Group — Airborne, where he served as a paratrooper. After the army, Hirschkop was admitted to Columbia University, receiving degrees in both liberal arts and mechanical engineering.
He was well on his way to becoming a patent attorney, when he discovered that he, “didn’t like engineering. It bored me.” His journey from patent attorney to civil-rights lawyer was a short one: in the summer of 1963, while still in law school, he was invited to a party attended by a group of African American civil-rights lawyers who were assembled by President Kennedy. There he met civil-rights lawyer Dean Robb who invited him to Danville, Virginia to defend demonstrators. He met another civil-rights legend, William Kunstler, on the plane down, and Kunstler would go on to be Hirschkop’s “leading light” as they battled civil rights abuses against people of colour across the South.
On that trip to Danville, Hirschkop witnessed the aftermath of “one of the worst beatings of black people ever seen in the south. Danville made me a civil-rights lawyer.” Almost 50 people went to the hospital that day after being beaten by police with water hoses and night sticks for protesting against Jim Crow segregation laws.
“Contrary to people who have a cause and then go looking, I never went looking for a cause,” says Hirschkop. But even before he graduated from Georgetown Law School, which he attended at night so that he could work in the US Patent Office during the day, he had begun his civil rights career.
After Danville, Hirschkop travelled to Mississippi to work with a team of lawyers fighting for voting rights, and to help investigate the infamous “Mississippi Burning” murders of three civil rights workers in 1964. Mississippi was a very dangerous place to be in the South in the 1960s both for black people, and for the civilrights workers who came to their defence. Hirschkop says: “They had a meeting of the leadership council of all the legal groups who were down there to help out, and of the 10 white lawyers, nine of us were Jewish. It’s part of who we are, and whatever causes that, I treasure it.”
Though he was raised in an Orthodox family, Hirschkop says some of his Jewish rituals slipped away during his years in the Army, while attending law school at Georgetown, and while working in the deep south. Though he is not particularly religious, he says he is “fiercely proud of my Jewish heritage, and extremely pro-Israel.” Hirschkop also remembers his father’s years as a tailor for the British army and says he “loves London”.
Today, Philip Hirschkop’s legal worries centre on “animal rights, as well as incursions on free speech and voting rights. Without a free voting electorate, you do not have a democracy.” He cites recent efforts to require identification before voting as a means to damage voting rights, and also worries: “Is this President going to get us into a war?”
Despite his numerous accomplishments, Hirschkop has never dreamed of writing a book or promoting himself on talk shows or the news, as many other highprofile lawyers have done. “I can do more for people writing a brief than writing a book or promoting myself,” he says. And he sees many opportunities for lawyers to make a difference in the current political administration.
“I have been a maverick and an outcast,” Hirschkop says. But there is no doubt that he has stayed true to the passion that drives him: “I like formative law,” he says. “Changing the law to current standards and current needs.”
He saw one of the worst beatings of black people
Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in Loving.
Below: Philip Hirschkop at 80 (below)