Guilt is a powerful human emotion, and white guilt is what Lewis Steel places at the heart of his autobiographical recounting of his storied career as a civil rights lawyer. Born into a white world of wealth and fame in 1937, Steel has devoted himself to a professional life of civil rights law where his clients often were the victims of the racist, elitist society that delivered to him a privileged personal life. The tension created by this contrast drives Steel’s autobiography and makes for compelling reading for those interested in the intersection between civil rights work and white privilege.
The reader is immediately confronted with the contradictory nature of Steel’s story. For starters, there is the book’s provocative title, “The Butler’s Child,” with a dust cover photo depicting a smiling white boy in a T-shirt and, sitting slightly behind him, a well-dressed African-American man. That man is William Rutherford, whom Steel introduces as “our family butler” and whom he credits with influencing his thinking about race and privilege. The book then opens with the revelation that Steel is the scion of one of the three brothers who formed Warner Bros. Studios, a happenstance of birth that led not only to Steel growing up with a butler but also to an adult life of exclusive comfort. With this introduction, Steel promises a psychological exploration as much as a tour through a lifetime of civil rights work, and he delivers on that promise, though with some results he may not have intended.
Steel begins the account of his work with the 1971 inmate rebellion at New York’s Attica prison, where he served as a negotiator and observer before authorities stormed the prison. In subsequent chapters, he recounts important discrimination cases he brought, politically charged controversies in which he was involved, and racially charged criminal cases he took on, most notably the one involving Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and John Artis, the latter whom Steel represented. Ten years of heroic effort by Steel and his colleague Dick Bellman culminated in November 1985, when federal judge H. Lee Sarokin in Newark ordered Carter and Artis released. (Steel’s and my career crossed paths here, as I was in the courtroom as the law clerk for the Third Circuit judge who heard, and rejected, prosecutors’ emergency appeal of Judge Sarokin’s order.) For anyone interested in the Hurricane Carter case or in the strategies and challenges of battling racial prejudice in the criminal justice system, these chapters alone make Steel’s book a worthy read.
But the heart and soul of Steel’s civil rights career was the five years he spent between 1963 and 1968 at the NAACP as a volunteer and then staff attorney under the tutelage of the legendary Robert L. Carter. After relating an insider’s account of how Thurgood Marshall betrayed Carter in appointing a white Jack Greenberg as general counsel to the larger and more influential NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Steel provides a fascinating account of the NAACP’s hard-fought campaign, led by Carter, against Northern segregation that Carter viewed as being every bit as insidious and damaging as its Southern cousin.
Steel’s time at the NAACP came to an abrupt end in October 1968, the day after the New York Times Magazine published a lengthy essay titled, “Nine Men In Black Who Think White.” Written by Steel, who was identified as “associate counsel to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,” the piece was a caustic assault on the Supreme Court on which Marshall sat: “A re-evaluation of the role of the U.S. Supreme Court discloses that it has struck down only the symbols of racism while condoning or overlooking the ingrained practices which have meant the survival of white supremacy in the United States, North and South.” Surprisingly, Steel professes no understanding as to why the NAACP might have been stunned by a relatively junior staffer publishing such an attack piece without the leadership even knowing of it. And I wish he had explored the machinations behind Carter’s considerable contributions to the essay, including whether they were connected to Marshall’s betrayal.
Interesting as Steel’s career has been, “The Butler’s Child” is much more than a retelling of the accomplishments and frustrations of a civil rights lawyer. It seeks to confront the paradox of Steel’s career, a paradox grounded in the fact that while pursuing that career Steel has lived a life of extraordinary privilege.
That part of Steel’s story starts with William Rutherford, the butler, whom Steel saw as a companion during his childhood but who became more distant as Steel grew into a young adult. The paradox does not end there, as Steel candidly lays out a series of adult decisions that highlight his contradictory existence: his purchase of an apartment in an all-white Central Park West co-op that relegated black staff to the service elevator (he pushed for an end to the practice after he moved in); his acquiescence, for the sake of appeasing his moneyed grandmother Warner, in his mother’s demand that his wife remove a beloved cross from the Steel’s apartment wall; he and his wife’s decision to send their children to an elite Manhattan private school at the very time he was battling educational elitism; and even his 2004 participation in the 50th reunion of the all-white Indiana military academy he had attended starting at age 13. Throughout Steel’s recounting of these and other episodes, some will feel his pain. Others will wonder about the boundaries of his convictions.
None of this detracts from Steel’s career. And as “The Butler’s Child” lays out, that career has been full of important controversies, interesting people, and, as with so much of life, confounding contradictions.