Unfinished Business

By Bob Zellner
Lewis M. Steel Ellen Weissberg Gould

“The Butler’s Child”
Lewis M. Steel
Thomas Dunne Books, $27.99

Today’s headlines mirror the tension contained in every line of “The Butler’s Child.” Lewis M. Steel describes a life well lived, with one eye on a privileged upbringing as a Warner Brothers heir and the other on his chosen career as a revolutionary civil rights lawyer. Like the iconic justice scales of his profession teetering between punishment and mercy, Mr. Steel’s description of the Hamptons, Hollywood, and high living on Central Park West contrasts sharply with the terror he faced trying to sleep on a motel floor in Baton Rouge, La., in 1967. On the floor, he reasoned, a white New York N.A.A.C.P. lawyer could avoid bullets that might be fired through his motel window by nightriders. 

The timeliness of “The Butler’s Child” has just been demonstrated by the death of a black man in Baton Rouge at the hands of two ill-trained young white police officers. Fifty years ago Mr. Steel thought of the Deep South as a dangerous and racist place. Today, however, it has become clear that racism and trigger-happy cops are national phenomena. Alton Sterling’s murder in Louisiana, at the southern end of the Mississippi River, quickly followed by Philando Castile’s murder at the other end, prompted even Minnesota’s governor to admit that Mr. Castile would not have been shot during a traffic stop if he were white.

Lewis Steel’s celebrity-sprinkled early life also clashed, he felt, with his sense of impending doom and mass death bearing down, like Greek tragedy, on inmates during the Attica uprising, where he was on the negotiating team trying to achieve a peaceful end to the prison takeover. 

Therein lies the rub. Mr. Steel likes the white privilege coming from money and power but at the same time suffers pangs of conscience that black people, and poor people in general, are not treated equally. Lawyers, officials, and celebrities on the negotiating team at Attica, for example, were whisked to safety from the prison yard shortly before police massacred both inmates and their hostages. “I could step out of the struggle into the comfort of a bourgeois life,” he writes, “as I did almost every night.” 

He was also grateful that he did not have to worry about bills, that “having Bessie Warner as a grandmother smoothed the way.” While opposing the status quo, he ruefully admits, he found himself “unwilling to burn the house down to try to create a new world.”

It is remarkable that the author worked for 50 years not only as a civil rights lawyer but as a radical one. Crusading legal guns — most of them, like Mr. Steel, were members of the National Lawyers Guild — took their cue from Walden Pond’s Henry David Thoreau, who famously said, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Our current crop of young human rights lawyers will appreciate Mr. Steel’s hair-raising stories of working alongside legendary courtroom stars like William Kunstler, Arthur Kinoy, and two who died recently, Don Jelinek and Michael Ratner. 

Reviewers have examined the difficulty Mr. Steel had breaking out of the wealth-and-power bubble. Maybe he was hard-wired to be sympathetic to people of color and all powerless folk. That he even tried to break out of his bubble of privilege was due primarily to his relationship with his childhood mentor and surrogate parent, Bill Rutherford, the butler for Grandma Bessie and Major Warner. Interaction with Mr. Rutherford, the African-American servant, and his wife, Lorraina, in some ways mirrors the experience we Southern children had with our black friends and caretakers.

My own situation of breaking with white privilege might afford some insight into Mr. Steel’s struggle — with some differences. My father grew up in Birmingham, Ala., a member of the K.K.K., as were his father and brothers. When Dad left the Klan to work with Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Joseph Lowery in Alabama, his father disowned him and his blood brothers never spoke to him again. So with a little help from my father, one might say, I journeyed from the K.K.K. to M.L.K.

With lots of help from the loving Rutherfords, Mr. Steel managed to prick his bubble of wealth and learn to give back. His life of service was certainly in part an effort to make amends for the way his family treated “the servants.” After a certain age, close relationships change to more closely resemble master and servant rather than friend, buddy, mentor, or parent figure. Throughout this compelling nonfiction narrative of an exciting life, Mr. Steel compulsively returns to his troubled relationship with Bill Rutherford. 

Because of his sense of unfinished business with Mr. Rutherford, Mr. Steel was grateful for the relationship he and his Irish-Catholic wife built with the great legal mind Robert Carter and colleagues in the N.A.A.C.P. Mr. Carter will forever be known for his groundbreaking legal work with Thurgood Marshall and the team that achieved the Brown decision ending legal school segregation. After never quite managing to have equality with his sometime father figure, Bill Rutherford, Mr. Steel was relieved that he could approximate it with Mr. Carter. His acceptance reassured Mr. Steel that he could have a brotherly bond with a black man. Mr. Carter helped Mr. Steel understand that faithfulness was a requirement given that African-Americans know that a white person could return to the good life, leaving people of color to face a lifelong struggle. 

I understand the strong bond forged in struggle between Mr. Carter, the Southern black man, and Mr. Steel, the Jewish white man from New York. I, like Robert Carter, born in the Florida Panhandle, came to understand that hate is an acid that corrodes the container in which it is carried. Jay, Fla., where I was born, has even fewer people than the 218 in Caryville, where Mr. Steel’s friend Mr. Carter was born. We call that part of Florida “L.A.,” or Lower Alabama, where black Southerners of a certain age have found it in their hearts to forgive white folks who join the freedom fight.

Lewis Steel, the legal scholar, knows that racial oppression and racism have become indelibly stained into all aspects of American life and law since the original moral compromise of enslaved blacks being only three-fifths of a person became part of our founding principles and documents. His life narrative revolves around his efforts to erase that stain, and he is still trying. He knows that our founding mothers and fathers should not have tolerated for a moment that children of enslaved mothers would be eternally enslaved, much less having it enshrined in the United States Constitution.

Throughout his story, Mr. Steel lapses in and out of despair, doubting that the law will ever be a useful tool in undoing racism. The murders of two black men by white police officers in recent days have now been followed by the brutal massacre of police officers in Dallas. Oh, when will we ever learn that freedom is a constant struggle? Race war, seemingly fomented by a resurgent nationalist populism in this country and around the white Western world, is not the answer. 

Don Jelinek, who worked with Mr. Steel representing the Attica inmates, has just died at 82. He picked his own epitaph, telling his wife he hoped his obituary would simply say, “He had people who he loved and who loved him . . . and he was part of SNCC.” 

Lewis Michael Steel has loved and lived an equally good life, and I believe he has learned a lesson that Ella J. Baker taught to all N.A.A.C.P., SNCC, and movement folks, that brotherhood and sisterhood is not so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend.


Bob Zellner is the author of “The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Struggle.” He lives in East Hampton.

Lewis M. Steel spent summers in Bridgehampton growing up and now lives in the Bay Point section of Sag Harbor.