With the recent passing of Charles Wittenstein at age 85, we have lost a venerable civil rights attorney who helped shape the New South and the city of Atlanta. He spent his entire career fighting discrimination of all kindsdiscrimination against African-Americans, Jews and others who were downtroddenand his crusade in unmasking the Ku Klux Klan led to the near-demise of that hate group.
A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Charles graduated from Columbia University and Columbia Law School with honors. But in those days it was nearly impossible for a Jewish law graduate to obtain a job with many major law firms in New York. So Charles instead cast his lot with not-for-profit civil rights organizations, first with the American Jewish Committee and then with the Anti-Defamation League, for which he served as Southern Region Counsel for 20 years, until he retired in 1994.
I first met Charles when I joined the ADL a few years out of law school. Charles invited me to work with him on a civil rights case involving religious discrimination by the Lake Lanier Island Authority. We filed briefs in the old Fifth Circuit and were invited to participate in the oral arguments in New Orleans as amicus. Charles gave me the honor of doing the oral argument, and when I stood up to argue, Judge Elbert Tuttle looked down at me and said: "Mr. Schwartz, if we tell you that you have won this case, would you sit down now?"
I started to say something about our case, when Charles leaned over and gave a tug to my suit coat. I sat down and we did win. I'll never forget that tug and learned an important lesson that day: Shut up when you have won!
In the early 1970s Charles served as executive director of the Atlanta City Charter Commission (under its chairman, Emmet Bondurant, who serves on ADL's Southeast Region Board today). The city of Atlanta had not had a charter in more than 100 years, and Charles' work helped frame a new environment in Atlanta that resulted in the election of Atlanta's first African-American mayor, Maynard Jackson.
Morris Abram, an Atlanta attorney and ADL supporter who advised Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the "One-Man, One Vote" case in the Supreme Court challenging Georgia's county unit system, came up with the idea that if the KKK could be unmasked, it would wither away. The ADL worked tirelessly to introduce Klan Anti-Mask Laws in many states, counties and cities throughout the nation. It has been said that the Klan membership dropped from 500,000 to about 5,000 after the passage of these laws.
Charles spearheaded this effort throughout the South. Then in 1990, a Klansman named Shade Miller wore a white robe, a hood and a mask to the Gwinnett County Courthouse and was promptly arrested. When the attorney general of Georgia was served with Miller's suit, he called the ADL and said, "You wrote the law; now you can defend it."
Charles asked me to work with him on the briefs to the Georgia Supreme Court. We had an uphill battle as several courts in other states had ruled the anti-mask laws unconstitutional against a free-speech argument. But Charles thought of a way to defend the Georgia law.
We argued that the way the Georgia statute was written and applied, it would only prohibit a mask in a "threatening or intimidating" situation. Thus, we argued at oral argument, one could wear a mask at Halloween or in a parade, but it would be illegal to do so in the middle of the night in front of a black family's home. On this narrow basis the highest court in Georgia upheld the law. Miller v. State, 260 Ga. 669 (1991).
Perhaps one of the most exciting projects I have ever had the honor of working on I shared with Charles. When new evidence was uncovered regarding the innocence of Leo M. Frank, the Jewish businessman who was lynched by an angry mob in Cobb County in 1915, Charles asked me to serve as lead counsel for the ADL and other organizations to seek a posthumous pardon for Frank. Charles had a plaque on his desk with his favorite biblical quote: "Justice, justice you shall pursue." Those were the words with which Charles insisted we begin our brief to the Georgia Pardons and Paroles Board. Five years later, when the board finally granted Frank a posthumous pardon, and with national and international press acclaim, no one was more exuberant than Charles.
Charles touched my life, like he did so many others, in so many ways I will never forget. He made our world a far better place. Rest in peace, my friend.
Dale Schwartz practices law in Atlanta with Dale M. Schwartz & Associates, an immigration law firm. He serves on the National Executive Committee of the ADL and was recently elected as national chairman of HIAS, a 130-year-old international refugee support and resettlement agency.