W. Haywood Burns: 1940-1996

Met Council mourns the death of W. Haywood Burns, who died in South Africa on April 2. Haywood was a remarkable human being who was loved by tens of thousands of people whose paths crossed his. A radical lawyer, he worked effectively in such mainstream establishment arenas as the American Bar Association, while playing a leading role in the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Conference of Black Lawyers, and the National Lawyers Guild. As founder of City College’s Urban Legal Studies program, then dean of CUNY Law School, Haywood helped guide thousands of mainly working-class and minority students to careers as public-interest lawyers. The Queens-based school — which Haywood helped win accreditation for — is noted for its commitment to public-interest law.

An internationally recognized authority on constitutional law, Haywood was an articulate opponent of Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. His passionate commitment to human rights led him to engage in struggles against racism and economic and social injustice, both in this country and around the world. He was general counsel for Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, represented black radical Angela Davis, and helped draft South Africa’s interim constitution.

It is some small consolation for those of us who are diminished by the loss of this gentle giant, to know that his final journey took him to a free South Africa, a country that has seen more positive social and economic change than our own. As related at his funeral at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, Haywood had called his wife on the night before the tragic automobile accident that took his life and told her that hearing President Nelson Mandela give a speech at a session of South Africa’s multiracial and democratically elected parliament was “the proudest and happiest day of my life.”