[Marxism] Leon Letwin (1929-2015)

Joseph Catron jncatron at gmail.com
Tue Jul 14 13:30:51 MDT 2015

An expert on evidence, civil procedure and constitutional law, Leon
Letwin was on the faculty of UCLA Law School for more than fifty
years. A lifelong social justice activist, he pioneered law school
affirmative action programs, was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam
War, and was at the forefront of defending the rights of political
protesters, criminal defendants, high school students, and many

Family Background

Leon Letwin was born on December 29, 1929 to Bessie (née Rosenthal)
(1898-1987) and Lazar Letwin (née Litvak) (1892-1957), who came from
the Jewish shtetl (town) of Mogilev-Podolski in the Ukraine. They had
participated in the Russian Revolution of October 1917, and narrowly
escaped an anti-Semitic pogrom during the ensuing civil war by fleeing
across the frozen Dniester River into Romania. Arriving in Milwaukee
in 1921, they joined the fledgling Communist Party, and later opened
Letwin’s Grocery, a small neighborhood store.

Leon and his older brother, William (1922-2013), were raised during
the Depression in a predominantly African American neighborhood on
Milwaukee’s West Side. Their parents imbued them with values of
compassion and social justice, amidst such events as the Scottsboro
Boys case, the rise of the Nazis, the Spanish Civil War, the Japanese
invasion of China, and formation of the Congress of Industrial
Organizations (CIO).

Early Activism

Letwin became a political activist in his own right during the Second
World War, and in 1945, at age fifteen, became a leader of American
Youth for Democracy (AYD), successor to the Young Communist League, at
the University of Chicago.

He organized support for the Allis-Chalmers strike in Milwaukee (1946)
and Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party presidential campaign (1948),
and protested universal military training (1948-1949) and the Broyles
Commission investigation of “seditious activities” at the University
of Chicago (1949).

As Letwin later recalled, McCarthy-era attacks on civil liberties
convinced him to become an attorney: “I went to law school in 1950
because I thought as a lawyer, I would be able to do politically
useful things like defend causes under attack that needed defense
during a period which seemed to be repressive.”

At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Letwin was on law review,
which published his article on Communist registration under the
Internal Security (McCarran) Act of 1950. He joined the National
Lawyers Guild, formed in 1937 as an alternative to the conservative
and racially exclusionary American Bar Association, and remained a
member for the next sixty-five years. In 1952, he graduated second in
his law school class.

He also became a leader of the Labor Youth League (LYL), which had
succeeded the AYD. In 1952, he married fellow LYL leader Alita Zurav
(born 1932). Their activities included protest against the Korean War
(1950-1953), execution of accused atom-spies Julius and Ethel
Rosenberg (1953), Sen. Joe McCarthy (1954), and lynching of Emmett
Till (1955).

Their first child, Michael, was born on May 1, 1956, one day after
Letwin spoke at a May Day rally in Union Square. Two more sons
followed, Daniel (1958) and David (1960).

In 1957, the Letwins left the LYL, then reeling under the dual impact
of McCarthyism and exposure of Stalin’s crimes. But they refused to
disown their friends, fellow activists, or social justice principles.
As Letwin wrote to Harvard Law School faculty in 1963, responding to
inquiries into his political views:

“I have not replaced my past dogmas with a new set of dogmas of the
opposite political tint. While some of my goals have changed, and
certainly my ideas as to how to achieve them, I have not lost my
concern for objectives such as racial equality, civil liberties,
peace, and the desirability of public ownership and responsibility in
many areas of our economic life.”

In 1958, Letwin joined the firm of prominent Milwaukee labor and civil
liberties attorney Michael Essin. He also served as a pro bono public
defender, and advocated the need for full-time paid indigent criminal
defense. “It will be said these programs are costly,” he wrote in a
letter to the Milwaukee Journal in 1960. “The only thing we can’t
afford is to have a man’s guilt or innocence determined by his
financial capacity.”

But he soon tired of private practice. “I was beginning to evaluate
every personal injury that walked in with glee,” he later recalled,
“so I figured it was time to go somewhere else.” As a result, he chose
a career in legal education.


Government records show that Letwin had been tracked by the FBI since
1943 at age thirteen (for subscribing to the Sunday Worker). In the
early 1950s, the Letwins were placed on the Bureau’s “Security Index,”
a list of political radicals marked for illegal future mass detention;
they remained under FBI, CIA, and/or Army Intelligence surveillance
through at least the mid-1970s.

The 1975 U.S. Senate Church Committee hearings revealed that FBI
Director J. Edgar Hoover had ordered the notorious Counterintelligence
Program (COINTELPRO), as part of its wider assault on social justice
movements, to covertly pressure universities not to hire him.

Despite COINTELPRO, Letwin received post-graduate appointments in
1962-1964 at Harvard Law School and then a teaching position in 1964
at UCLA Law School, where he ultimately received tenure.

But the witch-hunt was not yet over. In 1965, the California State
Senate Un-American Activities subcommittee falsely implied that he and
UC Berkeley Prof. Leon Wofsy — the Letwins’ longtime friend and
political mentor — were behind the 1964 Free Speech Movement.

Law School Years

Letwin lost little time bringing the issues of the day to academic
life. In 1966, he joined the faculty of Harvard Law’s summer program
for African American college students. Upon his return, he
successfully pioneered the UCLA Law affirmative action program, the
first of its kind at a public law school. In 1968, he became director
of the Council on Legal Education (CLEO) at UCLA.

The goal, he explained, was “to move more aggressively to open the
door to higher education for minority groups.” And move aggressively
he did. In October 1967, he joined calls on university officials to
confront discrimination in off-campus student housing.

Responding to the April 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King
Jr., he and colleague Herbert Morris wrote: “The death of Rev. King is
a horribly painful reminder of where we have failed. . . . What can we
do, for example, to open more widely the doors of the University to
Negro, Mexican American and other non-white, non-middle class students
at every level, undergraduate and graduate? What can be done to insure
that our faculty and administration has a composition more in keeping
with the diverse make-up of our society?”

When Chicano/a students walked out in June 1968 to protest their
underrepresentation in the program, Letwin voiced his support: “I
think that the walkout demonstrates the strength of feelings on the
part of both the blacks and the Chicanos. And they have a right to be

In November 1968, he called for California law schools to increase
minority student enrollment to twenty-five percent, and to reduce
reliance on standardized tests that had a discriminatory impact. On
December 3, 1969, as chairman of the Academic Senate’s Equal
Opportunity Program (EOP), he warned: “There is a terrible state of
affairs here. We have a white middle class faculty.” He staunchly
defended affirmative action against the backlash that began in the
late 1970s.

He also advocated inclusion of women at the Law School, and was an
ardent feminist in all areas of his life.

Broader Activism

For Letwin, affirmative action was but one aspect of the era’s broader
social movements.

In November 1965, he was a faculty cosponsor of the first UCLA
teach-in against the Vietnam War. The Letwin family frequently
participated in political protest, including the June 23, 1967 antiwar
demonstration where thousands of protesters were attacked by the LAPD
during President Lyndon B. Johnson’s appearance at the Century Plaza
Hotel, a watershed event that foreshadowed the police riot a year
later at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

In 1968, he and other Law School professors successfully defended
students disciplined for protesting on-campus recruitment by the Dow
Chemical Co., which produced napalm for the U.S. Air Force. On May 16,
1969, the Committee of Concerned Faculty was formed at Letwin’s home
to defend UCLA students protesting the use of lethal violence by the
police and National Guard a day earlier at People’s Park in Berkeley.

Commenting on the diversion of funds from social programs to first
moon landing in July 1969, Letwin argued that the space program,
“illustrates a perverse hierarchy of values. We’re going to the moon
for all the wrong reasons. We’re spending vast sums on the wrong thing
in pursuit of the wrong goals.”

In fall 1969, Letwin played a leading role in the Academic Senate’s
defense of Angela Davis, a fellow COINTELPRO target and prominent
African American radical activist, whose UCLA teaching appointment was
under attack from Gov. Ronald Reagan and the UC Regents.

Law Practice

This work was accompanied by establishment of a law practice with
Letwin’s close friend and colleague, Richard Wasserstrom, who
represented members of the Black Panther Party against government

In 1970, Letwin & Wasserstrom took up the case of Prof. William Allen,
who was summarily fired by Gov. Reagan for participating in student
antiwar protests at UC Santa Barbara. In May 1972, they defended UCLA
student Harry Alexander, who was badly beaten and arrested by police
during antiwar protests.

Letwin & Wasserstrom frequently defended the next generation of
Letwins. From 1971-1976, they were counsel to the Red Tide, a radical
underground high school newspaper, in which the three Letwin sons were
involved. In 1973, they represented Letwin’s teenage son, Michael, and
others arrested by the FBI under the “Rap Brown Act” for transporting
food and medicine to the American Indian Movement occupation at
Wounded Knee.

Letwin & Wasserstrom’s victories in the California Supreme Court
includedPitchess v. Superior Court, 11 Cal.3d 531 (1974) (expanding
criminal defendants’ right to discovery of prior misconduct by police
officers), and Bright v. Los Angeles Unified Sch. Dist., 18 Cal.3d 450
(1976) (striking down prior censorship of unofficial high school
student publications). In later years, they handled death penalty

Teaching and Scholarship

Letwin’s political concerns were reflected in his legal scholarship,
which examined such issues as affirmative action, representation of
indigent criminal defendants, preliminary hearings in Los Angeles,
free speech rights of high school students, evidence of “unchaste
character” in rape cases; and impeachment of criminal defendants with
their prior convictions.

Letwin produced two textbooks, Assignments in Trial Practice (Little,
Brown: 1964), and Evidence Law: Commentary, Problems and Cases
(Matthew Bender: 1986). His entry on evidentiary privilege appeared in
the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution (Macmillan: 1986).

He believed that legal education should encourage students to think
critically about moral, political, and social values, even to the
point of challenging their professors’ beliefs — including his own:

“I cheerfully concede that some of my suggested answers may be ‘wrong’
or at the very least debatable,” he wrote. “In that case, I use
student doubts about my analysis as an occasion for classroom
discussion. . . . I attempt to focus on the political and social
choices implicit in many doctrines of relevancy, resting as they do on
powerful but often unarticulated premises about the way the world is
or ought to be.”

Among students and colleagues alike, Letwin was widely admired for his
combination of enthusiasm, intellectual rigor, wit and humanity.
Students elected him UCLA Law School Professor of the Year in 1975,
and he received the Law School’s prestigious Rutter Award for
Excellence in Teaching in 1983.

>From 1998-2002, he was UCLA Coordinator for implementation of the
Native-American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires
federally funded institutions to return cultural items to indigenous

Later Years

Colleague Richard Wasserstrom once remarked, “Leon Letwin is one of
the few people around who actually acts out of those principles he
supports, and he does so with remarkable consistency.”

Letwin remained true to those principles for the rest of his life,
speaking out against nuclear weapons, Israel’s 1982 invasion of
Lebanon, U.S. intervention in Central America, the University of
California’s investments in apartheid South Africa, right-wing attacks
on the California Supreme Court, the Gulf War, the “International War
on Terror,” and denial of Palestinian rights.

In 2011, he visited the Manhattan encampment of Occupy Wall Street,
and in 2012 made his final appearance at a May Day rally at New York
City’s Union Square, more than half a century after speaking there in

Appreciated for his personal warmth, humor, and wisdom, Letwin is
survived by Alita, his wife of 63 years; his sons, Michael, Daniel,
and David Letwin; their partners, Ellen Dichner, Eva Letwin, and
Kristin Horton; and his grandchildren, Brian Letwin, Chau Nguyen,
Andrew Letwin, Nicholas Letwin, and Timothy Letwin.


"Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, mod sceal þe mare, þe ure
mægen lytlað."

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