The late Irving Feiner would have made a hell of a lawyer. After he spoke to my First Amendment class twenty years ago, a few students suggested he’d also have been a better professor than I. Professor Ralph Stein of Pace Law School told a newspaper that, after Feiner lectured to his class, “he had trouble leaving the class because the students kept talking to him. They would ask him to autograph their casebooks.”
But Feiner is the name of a landmark case rather than of a distinguished civil-liberties lawyer. That’s a shame—one that can be laid at the feet of the United States Supreme Court, which in 1951 affirmed Feiner’s state-court conviction for disorderly conduct. Feiner was expelled from Syracuse University, and his multiple admissions to law school were rescinded. He spent the rest of his life as a dealer in tropical fish—and as a civil-rights advocate and political activist (he helped form the Working Families Party, among other things). He died in 2009 in Valhalla, New York.
Feiner’s life changed on March 8, 1949, when he mounted a wooden box at a busy Syracuse street corner to invite passersby to a meeting in support of the Trenton Six—six African American defendants who had been convicted in 1948 by an all-white jury of the murder of a shopkeeper. (Eventually, four of the six went free after appeal; two were convicted.) The rally had been scheduled for a public-school auditorium that night; at the last minute, the mayor had canceled the event, requiring a quick change of venue to a nearby hotel. Feiner was trying to get the word out. Accounts differ about what he said: The police later claimed he urged African American listeners to “rise in arms,” while Feiner recalled saying that blacks and whites should protest “arm in arm.”