ALICE EMBREE | HISTORY | ‘Defending Dissidents: The Austin Law Commune’

They came to the aid of an ever-growing community of dissidents who needed to be defended in courts of law.

From left: Austin Law Commune partner Jim Simons (with radical filmmaker Dave Zeiger), and partners  Cam Cunningham, Brady Coleman, and Bobby Nelson. Photos on left and right by Alan Pogue / The Rag Blog.

By Alice Embree | The Rag Blog | November 29, 2022

AUSTIN — In the midst of the national upheaval ignited by the civil rights and antiwar movements, Austin attorneys created a law practice devoted to the needs of the movement.  They defended movement leaders who were harassed on the streets or in their offices; they defended demonstrators when they were arrested, draft resisters facing charges,-and GIs at courts martial.  They came to the aid of an ever-growing community of dissidents who needed to be defended in courts of law.  They worked to create a statewide network with other like-minded attorneys, and they created a unique, collectively-run, model for practicing law.

Jim Simons operated as a sole practitioner taking on movement legal work in 1968.  He represented draft resister Enrique Madrid.  He represented 42 defendants arrested in May 1968 at Don Weedon’s Conoco station in Austin, as they protested a racist assault by the owner.  He also represented Austin SNCC organizer Larry Jackson, a founder of the Community United Front.  And he spent many hours giving legal advice and defending antiwar GIs and Oleo Strut staff in Killeen, Texas, home of the massive army base Fort Hood.  Jim Simons built the foundation for the Austin Law Commune with his movement practice as a sole practitioner.

On October 1, 1969, the Austin Law Commune was born.  First located in a small office on West 24th Street, they moved to an office at West 15th and then, in 1973, to an office on West 12th.  According to Time magazine, it was the third such commune in the country.  The Austin Law Commune closed shop in 1977.

People’s History in Texas, a small nonprofit created in 1975, filmed oral histories with four attorneys and a legal worker.
While some of this story has appeared in The Rag Blog in posts authored by Jim Simons, it is People’s History in Texas (PHIT), a small nonprofit created in 1975, that filmed oral histories with four attorneys and a legal worker.  PHIT relied on student interns to bring this story to life in the 27-minute documentary, Defending Dissidents: The Austin Law Commune.  Younger activists and progressive attorneys born after the Austin Law Commune disbanded will now be able to view this movement history as a YouTube documentary.

Defending Dissidents is only a sampling of the legal work undertaken by the Austin Law Commune.  Under 30 minutes in length, it can be shown at a meeting or in a classroom.  Only four attorneys were interviewed.  A fifth partner, John Howard who died in 1988, assisted with the Wounded Knee defense as noted by Jim Simons in the video.

Defending Dissidents is not meant to be comprehensive.  It is a partial look at the diverse legal work undertaken by these attorneys.  Not in the video is the story of representing Roky Erickson of the 13th Floor Elevators in a legal action that resulted in Erickson’s release from Rusk State Hospital in 1972.  PHIT hopes to capture that story in a subsequent podcast.  More information on the Austin Law Commune and references to books, articles and online posts about their legal work, can be found online.

It is the story of the 1971 hex placed on the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library.
A five-minute companion video is also posted on the PHIT website under “Movement Folk Tales.”    It is the story of the 1971 hex placed on the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library at the time of its inauguration.  Seven women were arrested then.  This video includes Vernell Pratt singing the song she wrote about getting arrested and a Cam Cunningham cameo describing his interaction with municipal judge Ronnie Earle at the witches’ trial.

Defending Dissidents represents an official coming out for the collaborative alliance between NJP and People’s History in Texas (PHIT).  During the first reunion of The Rag, Austin’s iconic underground newspaper in 2005, PHIT stalwarts, Glenn Scott, Richard Croxdale, Melissa Hield, and Jim Cullers, several of whom were former Ragstaffers, had the presence of mind and technical savvy to set up and gather oral histories.  Those were edited into a three-part Rag movie that has lived on the PHIT website for many years.

In 2010, I alerted my friends at PHIT that a reunion was being organized for participants in the Stand-Ins, the successful 1960 effort to integrate theaters on the “Drag” near the University of Texas.  Again, they took initiative and set up a site to collect oral histories at the event and began work on a documentary.  The Stand-Ins, completed in 2013, captures the innovative demonstrations that made Austin theater chains end their Jim Crow practices of denying tickets to Blacks.

NJP worked with PHIT to publish a book, Talkin’ Union.
In 2019, NJP worked with PHIT to publish a book, Talkin’ Union, based on previous work they had completed in the 70s to document the pecanshellers’ and garment workers’ strikes led by Texas women.

Prior to the NJP publication of Exploring Space City!: Houston’s Historic Underground Newspaper, PHIT collaborated with intern support when it was needed.  With that help, we were able to compile a comprehensive database of articles, graphics, photos, and ads.  This laid the foundation for editing the book that was published in 2021.

Those of us working with New Journalism Project hope that 2023 will be a banner year for further collaboration that allows us to collect history, document it, and then make it available in multiple formats from Rag Blog posts, to Rag Radio shows, to podcasts and more videos.  Maybe a TikTok debut is on the horizon.

[Alice Embree is an Austin writer and activist who serves on the board of directors of the New Journalism Project, is associate editor of The Rag Blog, and was a founder of The Rag, Austin’s legendary underground paper, in 1966. Alice’s memoir, Voice Lessons, was published by the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History and distributed by the University of Texas Press.]

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7 Responses to ALICE EMBREE | HISTORY | ‘Defending Dissidents: The Austin Law Commune’

  1. Mariann Wizard says:

    This is very cool, and I look forward to seeing the documentary! People’s History in Texas has been on the job for a long time, preserving the moments that have defined the ongoing struggle for peace and justice in Texas.
    I also want to give a shout-out to Doran Williams, wherever he may be, who preceded even Jim Simons in defending Austin activists. Doran defended George Vizard in three court cases between 1965 and 1967, and did a pretty amazing job against a stacked deck every time.
    The Congress Avenue 13, arrested for different acts of civil disobedience during the 1970 Kent State/Cambodia March where we couldn’t get a parade permit, had a non-movement lawyer represent us on our misdemeanor charges. Jim, Cam, and rest of the radical law collective were up to their necks in defending folks against more serious charges on several fronts. I wish I could remember that old boy’s name; he got s kick out of our plan to put polished apples on Ronnie Eagle’s desk when we went to trial, but we never had our day in court and damned if I ever knew why — it all just kind of disappeared and was forgotten.
    Thanks to my comrades at NJP and friends of PHIT for making sure the important bits get preserved!

    • Alice Embree says:

      I think Doran Williams is still in Elgin. He was involved with our defense on disciplinary charges in 1967 at UT, in law school at the time. Thanks for adding to the story as you always do.

  2. Alice Embree says:

    Showed Defending Dissidents at the Austin Lawyers Guild meeting. Two takeaways: This is inspirational history for younger attorneys, largely unknown to them. And these younger attorneys are inspirational and doing great work today.

  3. Martin Murray says:

    This is great to see our movement lawyers honored. They were incredibly dedicated. What must not be overlooked are the countless other movement people who provided support for all the legal efforts. The Law Commune originated in a mass movement and that mass movement sustained it, both emotionally and in countless other ways.

    Also not to be forgotten are other lawyers and legal workers not in the Law Commune that also did defense work.
    I remember all of the lawyers in the Law Commune and their pictures bring back so many memories.

  4. They were very active in defending VVAW Texas, John Kniffin, Bill Patterson and myself Wayne Beverly. Kept us out of jail several times. Some of the group was in New Mexico when I needed help getting the fbi off my back and screwing up jobs, and child welfare for myself and my young son. I was a single father. Great people and good folks to have a good time with.

    Thanks for this much needed project.


  5. Jim Simons says:

    Why is John Howard not mentioned at all? He was a law clerk for Austin Commune lawyers Simons & Cunningham and later became a partner, and so did Bobby Nelson, both in 1972. John was very good as second chair in jury trial to obtain release of Roky Erickson and in federal trial representing a defendant in Wounded Knee trial in Lincoln Nebraska and others. Both cases won at trial. Both were major cases in Movement history. ( He was sole counsel to Vernell Pratt before a Grand Jury in Austin. He remained an important member until group was dissolved in 1977.

  6. Mariann Wizard-Vasquez says:

    Good additions to the story, Jim! You guys had a lot of volunteers at different times, too; I recall Vernell being one and loving it. Martin Wiginton was an important contributor, too.
    I strongly recall y’all’s work on behalf of Lee Otis Johnson, and the welcome home party for him at y’all’s office, tho I don’t remember where that was at the time.
    Tom Autry was the lawyer who helped out the Congress Ave. 13; knew it was still in my brain somewhere.

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