Fight­ing for the un­der­dog: The Lov­ings’ lawyer

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE -

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)


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