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Remembering my father, and the struggle for civil rights in 2017

This past fall, in the days following the election, I began thinking a great deal about the social struggles in our country, and my family’s connection to them.

Courtesy of the author
The thank-you note

On a snowy afternoon in the early spring of 2003, at the age of 24, I stood in my father’s law office in downtown St. Paul and squinted to make out a framed thank-you note. The handwritten envelope was addressed upside down and lacked a street address. The note itself read:

Dear Mr. bob how are you fine I hope and here is a $1.00 bill from my heart, I wish I was able to work and pay you for the good deed you done me a great favor and I never will stop thanking you for it and this is only a pkg. cigerettes …

Although I asked him many questions before he died, I never asked him directly about the story behind that particular note, with its awkward syntax and funny envelope.

A searing sock-drawer discovery

Way before that, sometime in the early ’90s, while snooping in my father’s sock drawer as a kid of about 12, I came upon a faded copy of an obscure magazine called SAGA. It was more than 20 years old. For a while, it was a mystery to me why my father kept it there. I soon discovered that it contained an article about the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s office in Cairo, Illinois, where he had worked in the early ’70s. About my father, the article said:

Also on the Lawyers Committee is Bob Schlesinger, 24, and fresh out of Indiana law school. He is typical of the new breed of liberal, courageous lawyers … long of hair, long on guts. He says he expects to be in jail within a few months because he is not only engaged in work upon which the establishment frowns, but is also a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, despite the fact that he is a second lieutenant in the reserves. “I just won’t go,” he declares.

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As dated as that seems now, discovering it as a kid was searing. Not only was being a lawyer cool, but my dad was apparently once cool, too. And he had played some role in the civil rights and anti-war movements.

In my early teens, my dad told me about his years as a young lawyer in Cairo. He explained that Cairo, which is located on the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, is the southernmost city in Illinois. And he described Cairo of that time as a hotbed of social struggle and violence, with opposing organizations of protesters for civil rights for African-Americans and demonstrators opposed to those rights. He told me about how he brought several cases to improve prison conditions and the Lawyers’ Committee’s strategy of demanding a jury trial on every petty offense with which their minority clients had been charged.

Scrapbook shows violence, protests, colleagues

My dad had a scrapbook from his time in Cairo. It contained a newspaper article about how someone attacked the Lawyers’ Committee office by throwing a brick through the window, and then throwing a bomb into the office. The bomb contained five sticks of dynamite, but the fuse went out before it exploded. The scrapbook also contained photos of his colleagues, including other lawyers, and his friend Carol, a reporter. There were also photos of protesters from both sides and an image of my dad sitting next to an unknown man, with a look of utter determination in his eyes. You could also see from the photo that he had pretty darn long hair for a lawyer.

Courtesy of the author

Bob Schlesinger in Cairo, Illinois.

Something else stood out for me about my dad’s time in Cairo. He told me how one day he drove outside of town with one of his colleagues and watched a huge flock of migrating birds taking off from the river. It was silent except for the flapping of wings, the water on the river, and the highway in the distance. They had a moment of quiet in a time of so much turmoil.

My dad was also involved in litigation as a plaintiff himself during his time in Cairo. Just as SAGA magazine said, he had attempted to become a conscientious objector after joining the military through ROTC. At the time, in order to obtain status as a conscientious objector, a person needed to have a religious objection to killing under any circumstances. The problem was that my dad didn’t conceive of his objection as religious; for him it was philosophical. When his conscientious objector application was denied, he brought his own civil rights case against the Army in federal court in Washington, D.C. He ultimately received conscientious objector status and an honorable discharge. When his lawyer called him with the news, my father asked what happened. The lawyer reminded him of the Muhammed Ali case that had just been decided by the Supreme Court two weeks before and said he had written a letter to the judge, stating, “Schlesinger is just like Mohammed Ali except he’s not black and he’s never been heavyweight champion of the world.”

An important uncle

David Schlesinger

While my dad’s work as a civil rights lawyer occurred within the historical context of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, it also occurred within a particular, but related, personal context. My father was the namesake of his uncle, who had been killed as the U.S. Army drove into Germany in World War II. When my grandfather found out about his brother Bob’s death on March 29, 1945, from his own military post in Ashville, North Carolina, he wrote his parents a letter, observing that they had lost the person with, “the nicest personality and the most unselfish attitude of anyone in the family (except mother)” but that, “[i]t all goes to show that people should be prepared to die, if necessary, to protect the national security.”

Shortly after the end of World War II, the Army sent my great-grandparents a photo of that first Bob Schlesinger’s grave in Belgium’s Henri-Chapelle Cemetery. The grave had been marked with a cross. My great-grandfather engaged in a letter-writing campaign to have the Army replace the cross with a Star of David, something that did not happen for several years.

It was an emotionally complex thing for my father to avoid Vietnam when the man he was named after had lost his life in World War II. While my father had many of the human qualities of his uncle, the two had different views about the ethics and utility of war. At the same time, both struggled for our country in their own way, and in their own time.

By the time I discovered the SAGA magazine, my dad was practicing as a solo family lawyer. Although he was working in an arguably mundane area of law compared to civil rights, his dedication to his clients had not lessoned. And although family law was unlike civil rights litigation in that it was not tied up as directly with larger social struggles, my dad impressed upon me that a custody battle, for example, concerns a person’s children, the most important relationship in a person’s life.

Civil rights work in another form

Despite his step back from civil rights litigation, as I grew up, my father’s civil rights work continued in another form. My family was part of a reform Jewish congregation. When one of the rabbis came out of the closet as a lesbian, this news was not received entirely well. My parents and a handful of other members of the congregation resigned their membership and formed a new synagogue around the rabbi who had come out. That synagogue – Shir Tikvah in Minneapolis – is thriving to this day.

As a kid, all of this was percolating within me, and by the time I went to college, I knew I wanted to become a lawyer. Although I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, I believed that by doing so, I would be able to engage in these larger social struggles that were wrapped up with the life of my family, and of our country.

My dad came to visit me for a weekend when I was in my junior year of college in Fredericksburg, Virginia. I remember hiking with him in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and telling him that I wanted to go to law school. He felt privileged to be a lawyer himself, and was excited that I was interested in following in his footsteps.

After college I moved back to Minnesota and worked on Sen. Paul Wellstone’s 2002 re-election campaign. In the months preceding the election in November, I probably had the same determined look in my eye that my dad had back in Cairo. But then, in September, it became clear that my father was seriously ill, and that he probably had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease). A few weeks after that probable diagnosis, on Oct. 25, 2002, Wellstone’s small plane crashed in northern Minnesota, killing the senator and seven others. I knew at the time Wellstone’s plane crashed that I was likely to lose my dad as well.

The feeling of that foggy, rainy day in October stayed with me as I started law school. Though he was walking with a cane, my dad was with me when I attended admitted students events at the University of Minnesota in the late summer of 2003. During law school, I spent as much time with my dad as I could. I visited him in his office and looked, a bit bemused, at that funny thank you note. And in the fall of 2004, I walked near a lake as he buzzed along next to me in his electric wheelchair. He pointed out a particular bird, and as he struggled to enunciate the words, I remembered the story about watching the birds fly off the water in Cairo, a memory of another moment of relative peace.

My dad passed away on June 29, 2005. Less than a year later, I graduated from law school. Since then, I have been practicing employment law on behalf of employees, litigating cases under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The thank-you note from Cairo hangs now on my office wall. It is a reminder that even if the remuneration is sometimes small, I have the opportunity in my work to make tangible improvements in people’s lives.

A question answered

That note has also been a reminder to me of the mystery of unanswered questions. However, recently, something interesting happened in that regard. This past fall, in the days following the election, I began thinking a great deal about the social struggles in our country, and my family’s connection to them. The demonstrators from Ferguson, Missouri, reminded me of protesters struggling for civil rights in Cairo. And in Khizr Khan’s words about his Muslim son who died for our county, I heard an echo of my great grandfather’s letters about how the Star of David should mark the grave of his son.

I began digging into the past, trying to get a sense of where we stand now. I emailed Carol, my father’s friend from his time in Cairo, I hoping to ask about her recollections. To my surprise, she told me that she had just finished writing a memoir about that time.

In the final pages of her book, Carol recalled an elderly African-American woman – with whom Carol lived – who believed, probably inaccurately, that people were stealing from her. When the woman wrote the police about this, they took her from her home and institutionalized her against her will, ostensibly because of concerns about her mental health. Based upon legal advice from my father, Carol was able to secure the woman’s release. It was that woman who wrote my father the thank-you note that hung on his wall.

Although it has been more than 10 years since he died, in this way I have learned a little bit more about my father. However, had I asked him directly about the thank-you note, I doubt he would have told me the story. He believed that his actions in that instance were simply part and parcel with what lawyers do. Although I wish I could talk to him about how to react to the election of Donald Trump in the context of my work, I think he’d advise me to be guided by the history of the struggle for civil rights, and of the ability we all have to improve people’s lives through that struggle. He would also remind me that, while that struggle is ongoing, you can still drive out of town, watch the birds fly off the water, and hear the flapping of wings in the quiet near the river.

David Schlesinger is a partner at Nichols Kaster, PLLP, where he represents victims of illegal workplace conduct. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Marina.


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