Henry di Suvero: A passion for justice and life

Henry di Suvero in 1969.

For many, justice is an interest; for a smaller number, it is a commitment; for a few, it is a passion, as it was for Henry di Suvero. This is especially so for the most marginalized, including African American and Latinx individuals in the United States, aboriginal people in Australia and Indigenous people of Papua, New Guinea, where di Suvero was fired from a law school teaching job because he challenged the status quo.  He died July 3, 2020, from post-carotid artery surgery complications. He was 84 years old and living in Australia with his wife, Jinny di Suvero, who was the love of his life.

In 1955, Henry, or “Hank,” as he was then known, was elected to the ASUC executive committee.  He was instrumental in the breakout of the “silent generation” — a characterization of students cowed by Cold War anti-communism and the political climate created in the United States most notably by Sen. Joseph McCarthy.  In 1958, he was one of the founders of SLATE, a campus political party that expressed the early northern student movement and was a precursor to the Free Speech Movement.

While a student at UC Berkeley, di Suvero began what would become lifelong interests: writing essays, plays and poetry, chorus singing and acting.

From UC Berkeley, di Suvero went to Harvard Law School to learn skills to serve the emerging “civil rights,” later “freedom,” movement.  At Harvard, he focused on his studies until his older brother, sculptor Mark di Suvero, broke his back in a serious work-related accident.  Whether facing exam or term paper deadlines, Henry was a twice-weekly correspondent with Mark, and he visited Mark in New York regularly.  When Mark resumed sculpting, Henry commuted to New York City to move metal and wood beams that were part of what became Mark’s famous sculptures.

Upon completion of law school, Henry moved to New York City, where he became engaged in civil liberties and civil rights law as an attorney for the New York City chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, and later for the New Jersey chapter.  In New York, he served as executive director of the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, now named the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee.  

His work included representation of the “Fort Dix 38,” a high-profile case involving GIs protesting against the Vietnam War at a New Jersey Army stockade in 1969; the “Tombs 3,” which were detainees indicted for participating in a rebellion at the Manhattan House of Detention in a six-month trial in 1970; the “Harlem Four” murder trial; the “Schermerhorn Row Artists” in an anti-eviction struggle; and leaders in the 1970 Auburn prison revolt.  He also led a legal team that went to Chicago to protest the arrest of lawyers appearing in pre-trial proceedings of the “Chicago 8” trial.  Hank and his then-wife, the late Ramona Ripston, led and revived the New Jersey Civil Liberties Union at the start of the 1970s following Hank’s work during the 1967 Newark rebellion.

As executive director of the New Jersey Civil Liberties Union, he led the chapter to inject itself into city politics — unusual at the time for the ACLU — and publicly criticize Newark Mayor Hugh Addonizio, who was widely opposed in the Black community, for his handling of the city’s “riot” and failure to take action against police lawlessness.   

In 1972, di Suvero relocated to Los Angeles, where he joined the staff of the public service Greater Watts Justice Center, providing free criminal defense and challenging inequities in the criminal justice system.   

From 1977-1979, he was president of the National Lawyers Guild, which was the radical bar association that formed in the 1930s to provide legal assistance to social movements of that period, was red-baited into a marginal position during the height of the McCarthy era and re-emerged as an important legal organization in the 1960s and thereafter.

At the Greater Watts Justice Center, di Suvero mentored students in a clinical program at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law. That experience, combined with his dedication to community service and involvement with the Lawyers Guild, led him to conceive a kind of law school whose mission was to produce high-quality lawyers with a left political orientation, focused on defending activists and on representing underserved communities.

During the summer of 1973, he brought together an organizing committee for what would become Peoples College of Law. The school opened in the fall of 1974 in Los Angeles. Its graduates have gone on to become elected officials, labor leaders, public interest advocates and community lawyers. It continues to operate to this day.

Di Suvero left the United States in 1979, exhausted by the intense work involved in establishing a rebel law school and disillusioned with the increasingly conservative political direction of the country.

After spending time in an Indian ashram, he settled in Sydney, Australia, becoming a law school teacher and later an Australian barrister (where he was known as “The Yank at the Bar”), working in that capacity until his vigorous defense of one of his clients offended the protocols of Australian courts.  He was disciplined with a suspension from practice and thereafter retired.

His friends remember Henry for his generosity, infectious laugh, quick wit and joy in living.  

Henry di Suvero was born Feb. 16, 1936, in Shanghai, China, where his father was stationed as an Italian diplomat.  His family escaped Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s fascist government by moving to San Francisco in 1940, where Henry attended public schools before going to UC Berkeley.  He is survived by his wife, Jinny di Suvero; his sister, Maria Louisa; and his brothers, Mark and Victor.  Henry was the youngest child.

This obituary was written by several of Henry di Suvero’s close friends.