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Book Review: The Butler's Child


Sadly, presciently, civil rights attorney Lewis Steel wrote the following words in his autobiography, The Butler’s Child, which came out last year: “The hard truth today is that in all the years since Brown and notwithstanding all the other state and federal laws written to promote equal rights that have been passed since the Civil War, racism remains a grave problem in the United States.” That’s Brown, as in Brown v. Board of Education, the unanimous 1954 landmark Supreme Court case that ruled segregated public schools were unconstitutional. Steel would likely not be surprised, therefore, by the “NBC News / Wall Street Journal” poll out this past September which found that over 70 percent of Americans “think race relations in the United States are poor.” And, one might argue, in the wake of Charlottesville, getting worse.

Although he quotes his long-time mentor and dear friend, the late Robert Carter, once general counsel for the NAACP – “Never let the possibility of defeat deter you” – Steel has known defeat. And fear, even terror. And deep disappointment. An Op-Ed piece he wrote in October 1968 for The New York Times Magazine, “Nine Men In Black Who Think White,” got him let go from the NAACP, because it was seen as too incendiary. But Steel would eventually be back with Bob Carter, and digging in even more passionately, taking on criminal as well as civil cases, especially those that turned on incarceration of innocent Blacks.  

Steel’s narrative, written in a simple, but compelling style with writer, publisher and media consultant Beau Friedlander, is hardly unique, but what sets the memoir apart is Steel’s personal soul searching, described with unusual candor and believable humility. The son of Park Avenue and Hamptons privilege – his grandfather was Albert Warner, of Warner Brothers wealth and fame – Steel is forever anxious about how he’s perceived because of his family. Ironically, however, it was that very privileged life that exposed him, he says, “to the social reality of racism.” The Jewish-born lawyer still lives well with his beloved wife of over 50 years, Kitty Muldoon. But he was always bothered – and still is – by a particular “disconnect” between the way he lived, especially when he was growing up, and the way most Blacks in America live. –Which gets to the title of the book – “The Butler’s Child” – and the cover photo: an image of young Lewis next to an older black man, William Rutherford. Bill was the family butler and in many ways for Lewis a loving substitute parent, and herein lies the theme of the memoir: the relationship with Bill helped him, Steel says, “understand how many whites could be blind to their own prejudice, seeing themselves instead as being fair.” He knows why, but could not prevent the time, Bill would stop calling him Lewis and start calling him Mr. Lewis. And then disappear from his life.  

The Butler’s Child is important because it punctures myths: namely, that the South alone preserves the legacy of racism. In fact, the chapters on Bob Carter’s Northern Campaigns in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Springfield, are tellingly disturbing, as are Steel’s critical remarks on moderate Republican Nelson Rockefeller. Still feeling guilt about Bill Rutherford, Steel is no limousine liberal or apologist for “overheated bomb throwing radicals.” At 80, he’s appreciative of another Bob Carter quotation which he makes the final words of the book: “By all means enjoy your life.” Steel does. He likes the way he lives but is also proud of what he has done. And, despite still unresolved inner conflict and apparent increasing racial polarization, is determined to continue the good fight.