In celebrating MLK Day, I thought I’d use my blog to post an interview with my dad about his work with Martin Luther King, Jr.
The following article appeared in the Vermont Lawyer back in 2004
Retired Lawyer Bernie Stebel Recalls Work for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
SPRINGFIELD—During the 1950s, Bernard Stebel was working as a corporate lawyer in New York City with a firm known as Rubin Baum & Levin. He represented a lot of famous show people, but the work he recalls now with the most pride came after his firm merged with a group of lawyers headed by Harry Wachtel. Wachtel was an associate of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and he and Stebel worked together until Dr. King’s assassination in 1968 doing legal work for the civil rights leader and its Southern Christian Leadership Counsel, whose northern headquarters was at the Rubin Wachtel Baum & Levin law office.
Stebel, now retired and living in Springfield, sat down recently with Vermont Lawyer Editor Will Hunter and photographer Sam Hensel-Hunter to recall the days working with Dr. King. “People said meeting Dr. King was like meeting Moses, and it really was,” Stebel said. “You felt you were in the presence of someone so special and so great—in the way greatness should be measured—in terms of what he was trying to do for humankind.” Stebel said that he felt privileged to be doing work for Dr. King, no matter how menial it might be. The firm handled a wide range of matters for King and the SCLC, including defending the group against frequent lawsuits, reviewing contracts and legal arrangements and screening speeches to make sure they would not cause future legal problems.
Stebel, who was born in Brooklyn (on January 15, 1931, two years to the day after Dr. King was born) and grew up in New York, started college at the University of Illinois and graduated from Columbia University in 1953. By the time he started law school, he had a family, so he attended Brooklyn Law School at night, graduating in 1957 and serving as Decisions Editor and Editor-in-Chief of the Brooklyn Law Review.
Stebel said that in his mind the civil rights movement began with the refusal of Rosa Parks to move to the back of the bus in the 1950s, the event which triggered the Montgomery bus boycott and first put the national spotlight on Dr. King. “Before that, society was either silent and segregated or it thought well about civil rights but didn’t do much,” he recalled. Stebel’s own attitudes toward civil rights were shaped by his Jewish heritage and the teachings of his father, who ran a chemical business and “didn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body.”
When Stebel was a teenager. he had one of his first formative experiences with race relations. He had worked as an office boy in his father’s business before starting college. One of his final jobs was to hire a replacement and he was shocked when his father told him not to choose a Negro. “I couldn’t believe that my dad would say that,” Stebel recalled. However, his father was worried that the warehouse employees would refuse to cooperate with a black office boy. When he interviewed a very talented black applicant, however, Stebel violated his father’s instructions and offered him the job, subsequently persuading his father to hire him. The warehouse people cooperated, and Stebel said that his father went on to integrate his entire front office.
A less happy experience came during his first year of college in Illinois, when Stebel and a black friend went to an ice cream parlor together and the proprietor told the friend that he would sell him ice cream, but that he would have m eat it outside. When Stebel saw how upsetting the experience was to his friend, he wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper, which led to Stebel receiving death threats. It made me ready to get involved in the movement if it ever came along,” Stebel recalled.
Over the years he knew Dr. King, Stebel was impressed with how well King managed to keep focused on the work he was doing and avoid being distracted by the obstacles he encountered. He told a story of riding in an elevator in the firm’s Madison Avenue office building one day when a group of white society women mistook Dr. King for an elevator man because he was black. Stebel said he expected that King would have been upset, but he was amazed to learn after they reached their office that he had not. “It was a great lesson to me about proportionality,” Stebel said. “To him, that sort of thing just wasn’t important.”
During the 60s, Stebel said he began sense a sadness growing in Dr. King, which he attributed to the difficulty that King was having as he guided the civil rights movement north and took an increasingly prominent stand against the Vietnam War. “People in the north talked the talk on civil rights, but they weren’t willing to walk the walk,” Stebel said, noting that it was far harder to break down patterns of segregation in the north, where segregation was not legislated but was the result of housing patterns and the distribution of wealth. In addition, many younger blacks impatient with the slow progress being made were drawn to leaders like Malcolm X who did not share Dr. King’s firm commitment to Gandhian nonviolence. (Stebel noted though that despite his earlier rhetoric, Malcolm X was expressing views prior to his assassination which were much more like Dr. King’s.) Despite the difficulties that Dr. King had organizing in the north around economic issues, Stebel recalled proudly marching with his son in the Poor People’s Campaign, one of the last things that Dr. King organized before his assassination in 1968.
Stebel continued his legal career in New York after Dr. King’s death, but in the 1980s began spending time with his family at a vacation home in Vermont, eventually moving his residence first to Andover and now to Springfield. His own commitment to civil rights and civil liberties has never wavered.