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Joseph Forer, defender of civil rights: 1949 ca. | by Washington Area Spark
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Joseph Forer, defender of civil rights: 1949 ca.

Joseph Forer, an attorney who defended communists, African Americans and labor unions from the mid 1940s until his retirement in 1978.


Forer began his career during the 1930s at the National Labor Relations Board and the Office of Price Administration during the New Deal.


In 1946, David Rein joined Joseph Forer as private practice law partners in Washington, DC.


Historian Joan Quigley wrote:


In the late 1940s, while Congress and the executive branch trawled for evidence of disloyalty and subversion, Rein and Forer immersed themselves in difficult and disfavored causes: opposing the Mundt-Nixon Bill; defending labor unions and alleged Communists; upholding the Bill of Rights. Rein... represented Gerhard Eisler... As progressives and New Deal veterans, Forer and Rein also nurtured ties to the National Lawyers Guild, which HUAC had branded a Communist front in 1944.


Forer was chairman of the District Affairs Committee of the DC chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.


Among some of his more famous cases were his defenses of U.S. Communist Party members during their trials and appeals for convictions for conspiracy to overthrow the government and contempt of Congress.


He was the attorney for UPWA chief Abram Flaxer when he appeared before a subcommittee investigating the 1948 Washington, D.C. cafeteria strike.


In May 1949, Dr. Mary Church Terrell decided to take on the issue of desegregation head-on. She consulted Forer. Forer led the National Lawyer Guild's DC chapter in submitting an opinion in their favor.


With such advice, Dr. Terrell and colleagues Clark F. King, Essie Thompson (a member of the cafeteria union, Arthur F. Elmer, along with a white man named David Scull entered the segregated Thompson's Restaurant, next door to the offices of Forer and Rein's office on 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC, between H Street and New York Avenue.


When refused service, Terrell and the others sued.


The case District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co. reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Forer and Rein argued the case. On June 8, 1953, the court ruled that segregated eating-places in Washington, DC, were unconstitutional.


The Washington Post recounted in 1985, "Four days after the Supreme Court ruled, Mary Terrell and the three other original complainants went back to Thompson's. Joe Forer followed them in. As he recalls the moment, the manager, himself, came over and personally, even obsequiously, carried Mary Terrell's tray to the table."


He led the appeal of the Johnson brothers who were sentenced to death for the alleged rape of a white woman in the early 1960s in what some called DC’s Scottsboro case.


The appeal was ultimately heard by the U.S. Supreme Court that overturned the Giles brothers’ convictions on a 5-4 vote.


He headed the defense of Brinton Dillingham who was charged with an obscenity conviction for distribution copies of the Washington Free Press in 1969. Forer’s appeal vacated the conviction and rendered moot Maryland’s obscenity law.


In connection with the Dillingham case, he filed suit to overturn the sections of Maryland’s “Ober Law,” passed in the 1950s in order to jail communists. The suit effectively gutted Maryland’s version of the Smith Act.


In 1975, he represented the pressmen’s union during its strike against he Washington Post.


--Partially excerpted from Wikipedia


For a deep dive into the 1948 cafeteria workers strike, see


For more information on Mary Church Terrell, see


For more information on the Giles brothers, see


For more information of the Free Press, see


The photographer is unknown. The original source is unknown. The image was obtained via an Internet sale.

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Taken circa 1949