Bill Goodman, a trailblazing attorney who spent his career fighting for human rights and civil liberties in Michigan and across the country, died on Friday.
He was 83.
A mentor to civil rights attorneys, Goodman was revered for his decades-long battle against racism, injustice, and constitutional abuses.
“Bill was a legal legend and a true People’s Lawyer,” Michael J. Steinberg, director of the Civil Rights Litigation Initiative at the University of Michigan Law School and former legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, wrote on Facebook, saying Goodman “litigated some of the most important civil rights cases in the country.”
“It’s simply not possible to replace someone like Bill Goodman in the progressive legal community,” Steinberg continued. “I will be forever grateful for the time he took to mentor me and countless others. I will miss him dearly.”
Goodman followed in the footsteps of his father, Ernest Goodman, a legal pioneer who opened the country’s first racially integrated law firm in Detroit in 1951 with George Crockett Jr., who later served as a Detroit Recorders Court judge and congressman. The firm took on constitutional and civil rights cases.
After his first year of law school at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, Bill Goodman interned at a small Black law firm in Virginia and helped build desegregation cases throughout the South.
“I became very engaged in what it means to be a part of history and work with real people in the struggle,” Goodman told Metro Times in 2007. “That sort of moved me a great deal.”
Goodman spent his career as a tenacious advocate of racial justice and a zealous defender of human rights. He was involved in landmark cases and represented prisoners charged in the Attica Prison riots of 1971. He fought for women’s rights to access health services in the 1980s and 1990s, and more recently, represented victims of the Flint water crisis.
Some of Goodman’s most influential work came after he moved to New York to work as the legal director at the Center for Constitutional Rights in 1998. He represented Guantanamo Bay detainees, Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, and the wrongfully convicted teens in the notorious “Central Park jogger” case. He took on the Bush administration, the New York City Police Department, and the state prison system. He also led a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the hundreds of Muslim men who were “picked up by the FBI and the Justice Department immediately after 9/11 and held under terrible conditions without any due process, some of the indefinitely,” Goodman previously told Metro Times.
When Goodman returned to Detroit in 2007, he continued to fight for human rights and racial justice. In 2011, Goodman co-founded the Sugar Law Center for Economics and Social Justice in Detroit.
“He faithfully devoted his life and work to fighting for justice,” Sugar Law said in a statement. “Bill was a warrior in the civil rights and civil liberties movement spanning decades.”
Jack Schulz, who works on cases with Sugar Law attorneys, mourned the loss of Goodman.
“The natural world lost Bill Goodman today,” Schulz wrote on Facebook on Friday. “We all lost something. I lost my biggest mentor and a good friend. I pretend to be strong and get away with it because I used to confide to Bill all my weakness and fears. I never met a lawyer in my life outside of my own transgressions before law school. He was a giant but would drop everything to just meet with me and listen. A true man of the people. I’m sure a thousand people feel this way. Maybe a thousand people have cried ten times today too. The world is lost. It’s never been about the blood you spill but the blood you share.”
In 2007, Goodman spoke about what inspired him as an attorney.
“America, this democracy, was created around the very basic idea that power should not go unchecked, and the more people can say to one another, the more information people have, the better decisions people will make,” Goodman said. “That’s the First Amendment and the Fourth Amendment.”
On Monday, a memorial service for Goodman will be held from 4-8 p.m., with religious services at 6 p.m. More information about the service is available at the Ira Kaufman Chapel website.