King, Carol Weiss (1895–1952)

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King, Carol Weiss (1895–1952)

American lawyer and civil libertarian. Born on August 24, 1895, in New York City; died on January 22, 1952, in New York City; one of four children of Samuel Weiss (a lawyer) and Carrie (Stix) Weiss; graduated from the Horace Mann School, New York City, 1912; graduated from Barnard College, 1916; New York University Law School, J.D., 1920; married Gordon Congdon King (a writer), in 1917 (died 1930); children: one son, Jonathan.

Devoting her career to those usually victimized by the law, attorney Carol Weiss King specialized in cases involving immigration legislation and was frequently pitted against officials of the U.S. Immigration Service. King, who had been inspired by a frightening glimpse of fascism in Germany during the 1930s, was further impelled to preserve human rights in America at all costs.

Born into a wealthy and cultured family in 1895, King was one of four children of Samuel Weiss, who started one of the first corporate law firms in New York, and Carrie Stix Weiss , the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Carol attended the Horace Mann School in New York City and graduated from Barnard College in 1916, after which she took a job as a research fellow for the American Association for Labor Legislation. Coming to believe she could better serve the labor movement as a lawyer, she entered New York University Law School in 1917, the same year she married Gordon King, a writer. (The marriage would endure until Gordon's death in 1930 and produce one son, Jonathan.) After receiving her law degree in 1920 and being admitted to the bar, King could not find a job in a labor law firm, so she rented an office from Hale, Nelles, and Shorr, one of the more liberal law firms in the city. It was there that she gained experience in civil liberty and deportation cases involving immigration law. In 1925, she became a head partner in a successor firm, Shorr, Brodsky, and King.

King eschewed the courtroom, working mainly behind the scenes, researching and preparing briefs. When her partner Joseph Brodsky helped organize the International Labor Defense, King became a member, serving on its legal advisory committee. In that capacity, she worked on numerous cases, notably the defense of nine black youths arrested in Alabama (the "Scottsboro Boys") who were accused of raping two white women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price . For that case, she prepared an argument for the Supreme Court which objected to the exclusion of blacks from juries trying black defendants, and advocated that indigents had the right to receive counsel provided by the state.

King's best-known client was Harry Bridges, the radical president of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, who was twice arrested and tried for deportation on the basis of his membership in the Communist Party. On appeal after the second trial, the Supreme Court reversed the deportation order. She also represented Communist Party leader William Schneiderman against the government, which sought to revoke his citizenship. When the case reached the Supreme Court, King enlisted lawyer Wendell Willkie, who eventually won the case in 1943.

King's frequent defense of Communists led some to brand her a Communist sympathizer, particularly during the Cold War hysteria of the 1950s. A Saturday Evening Post article (February 17, 1951) referred to her as "Communism's dearest friend," an epithet she chose to ignore. King never answered questions concerning her political affiliations, believing that in a free country they were entirely inappropriate.

In addition to her professional work, King was active in a number of civil libertarian organizations. She helped found the National Lawyers Guild (1936) and was a member of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. In 1932, she founded the International Juridical Association Bulletin, which tracked developments in constitutional theory and the practice of labor, civil rights, immigration, and landlord-tenant law. King edited the monthly journal—called "by far the best legal publication in this country" by the dean of a leading law school—until 1942, when it merged with the Lawyers Guild Review. In 1949, King entered politics, making an unsuccessful bid for municipal judge on the American Labor Party ticket.

Following her political defeat, she returned to defend a fresh clientele of aliens and activists being arrested by the Immigration Service for deportation. Her job became more difficult as judges began to deny bail to aliens charged only with deportation. In January 1952, shortly after making her first and only appearance before the Supreme Court, arguing a deportation case which she lost, Carol King died of cancer.


McHenry, Robert. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.

suggested reading:

Ginger, Ann Fagan. Carol Weiss King: Human Rights Lawyer, 1895–1952. Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1993.


The Carol King Collection, containing correspondence, briefs, transcripts, legal documents, and periodicals, is housed at the Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute, in Berkeley, California.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts