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Henry Schwarzschild

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Title: Henry Schwarzschild  
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Subject: Wiesbaden, Schwarzschild, Reductio ad Hitlerum, National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
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Henry Schwarzschild

Henry Schwarzschild (November 2, 1925 – June 1, 1996) was an activist for civil rights and human rights. He was a fighter for the American Civil Rights Movement and later on became involved in the fight against capital punishment. He founded the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP),[1] Lawyer's Constitutional Defense Committee, and headed up the American Civil Liberties Union's Capital Punishment Project.

Early life

Schwarzschild was born in Wiesbaden, Germany. He was married to Kathleen Jett, and the couple had two daughters, Miriam and Hannah. Henry moved to the United States at the age of 13 in 1939[1] with his parents, right before World War II. They moved to New York when they arrived in the United States. After serving in the Army during World War II as a member of the Counterintelligence Corps from 1944–1946, he went to the City College of New York where he received a bachelor’s degree and then did graduate work in political theory at Columbia.[1] After serving in the Army it is said that he had the “appearance of a durable veteran from ancient wars, penetrating eyes intolerant of bombast and passivity, facial lines that mobilize easily to express by turns infectious good humor, remembered pain, resignation, impatience.”[2] In the 1950s, he worked as an executive of the International Rescue Committee, the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, and the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.[1]

Work With Civil Rights

In 1960 Henry and his wife Kathleen were in Lexington, Kentucky when he overheard people talking about a lunch-counter sit in on the campus of Berea College. He decided to join in the sit in and ended up being the only white person involved. This was the beginning of his fight for civil rights.[2] Soon after he began his fight for African-American’s civil rights, he was arrested on June 21, 1961 in Jackson, Mississippi for his participation in the Freedom rides.[3] Once he was released Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote on his imprisonment forms, “Your courageous willingness to go to jail for freedom has brought us closer to our nation’s bright tomorrow.”[1] From that point on he and Martin Luther King, Jr. attended many events together, with both of them speaking and making movements towards civil rights. In 1961 Schwarzschild embarked on his own speaking tour across America to try to recruit people to their cause.[2] He went on to make many public statements on civil liberties, capital punishment, racial justice, and many others.[1]

In 1964 he created the Lawyers Constitutional Defense Committee which was composed of civil rights lawyers. In the first year he convinced 300 lawyers to take their vacation time and go down to the South to help with the cause of civil rights for African Americans.[2]

Work With Capital Punishment

In 1972 he was appointed to head up the ACLU’s project on capital punishment which was named the Capital Punishment Project.[1] From 1972 until 1990 he worked as the leader of this project and fought to get legislation passed to help with the opposition to the death penalty.[2] For the first five years he ran this project completely on his own.[4] After those five years they finally began to get funding and more volunteers into the program. The ACLU is the American Civil Liberties Union and they work to “extend rights to segments of our population that have traditionally been denied their rights, including people of color, women, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgendered people, prisoners, and people with disabilities.”[5] The ACLU had groups who spoke up for those who were anti-death penalty through the Capital Punishment Project especially. Through his power in the ACLU he was able to organize and establish a structure called the National Coalition for Universal and Unconditional Amnesty to help pressure President Ford to pardon those who had left the United States to avoid military conscription.[4]

In 1976, while also working with the Capital Punishment Project and with the other groups he was a part of, he created the NCADP which stands for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Henry founded this organization in response to the Supreme Court decision Gregg v. Georgia which permitted executions to resume in the United States. Schwarzschild organized it in New York and then transferred its headquarters to Washington, D.C. where he could do more with the legislation process. The NCADP consists of several dozen state and national affiliates, mainstream Protestants, and other groups along with these.[6] The opposition to the death penalty was obviously present before the creation of this group but that bond is what solidified the different members of this group. They attempted to create change in the death penalty topic by creating public policy campaigns, serving as an information contact for people who want to know more about the death penalty and a site to keep up with the updates on new conquests in the death penalty area. They did this through trying to influence state by state changes in their constitutions that ban the death penalty individually in each state one by one.[6]

Opposition to Israel

Following the Israeli siege of Beirut in the summer of 1982, he wrote a public letter of resignation from the editorial advisory board of the journal Sh'ma, which was then published by Nation Magazine.

I will not avoid an unambiguous response to the Israeli army’s turning West Beirut into another Warsaw Ghetto. I now conclude and avow that the price of a Jewish state is, to me, Jewishly unacceptable and that the existence of this (or any similar) Jewish ethnic religious nation state is a Jewish, i.e. a human and moral, disaster and violates every remaining value for which Judaism and Jews might exist in history.The lethal military triumphalism and corrosive racism that inheres in the State and in its supporters (both there and here) are profoundly abhorrent to me. So is the message that now goes forth to the nations of the world that the Jewish people claim the right to impose a holocaust on others in order to preserve the State. I now renounce the State of Israel, disavow any political connection or emotional obligation to it, and declare myself its enemy....

The letter has been popular with left-wing Jews ever since. In 2003 it was included in Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, edited by Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon.[7]

In 2003 the right-wing American newspaper The Jewish Press created an annual ‘Henry Schwarzschild Award' for "a person in the public spotlight who, by his or her statements, displays contempt for the Jewish people, disregard for historical truth, a desire to sup at the table of Israel’s enemies, or who otherwise plays into the hands of the enemies of Jews and Israel".[8]

Retirement and Beliefs

After retiring from the ACLU in 1990 he began to help with problems in the Middle East between Israel, Palestine, and other third-world countries. He fought for the religious and political rights of these groups.[2]

Schwarzschild has been opposed to the death penalty all of his life and has stated that “he is an advocate not for murderers but against the death penalty.” (Word and the Law) He wanted to clear up the controversy in society about him supporting murderers by not wanting the death penalty. He believed they still deserved to suffer, but not through death. Throughout the years he fought for the support of national political figures and for the most part he found none. Many lawyers and political figures supported the death penalty because their constituents and clients supported it. The one thing that Henry made clear was that he “could not live in a period of major moral, social events and be a bystander.”[2]


On June 1, 1996 Schwarzschild died in the White Plains Hospital in White Plains. He was 70 years old. His daughter said the cause was cancer.[1]


His legacy is continued through a few different methods. In Berea, Kentucky at Berea College there is a collection in their library for Henry Schwarzschild. In 2000 the Lincoln Center of Henry Schwarzschild was added to the holdings in special collections. His important collections of “printed works, government publications, and other contemporary pieces” were added by his wife, Kathleen.[9] Another way his legacy remains is through the annual Henry Schwarzschild Memorial Lecture which began in 1999.[10] It is sponsored by the NYCLU and the Hogarth Center for Social Action at Manhattan College and the lecturers focus on critical issues of “human rights and human dignity.”[10] Schwarzschild also contributed a few times to The New York Review of Books with letters titled “Help for Ben Chaney” (March 1971), “HUAC” (September 1966), and the article, “An Exchange on Racism” (December 7, 1967). Many people see his life as an example of how to fight for rights and use his example to take a stand for what they believe.[10] His most recent legacy was his denouncement of the use of legal injections in executions. (NYSDA Defender News)



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