Lewis Steel is a descendant of the Warner Brothers. Yes, those Warner Brothers. He’s also a lifelong civil rights lawyer who once worked for the NAACP and even represented clients at the center of some of the 20th Century’s most significant civil rights struggles. His new memoir, The Butler’s Child, offers a peek inside the psyche of a man who was born to fabulous wealth but devoted himself to fighting the racial injustices of yesterday and today.
The title of the book pays homage to an African American butler by the name of Bill Rutherford, who served in the wealthy Steel family’s home. While their friendship flourished in his youth – Rutherford even dubbed his young friend with the endearing nickname “Skippy” – the racial realities of the Jim Crow era would create an insurmountable rift between the two.
At a recent book event in Washington, D.C., Steel fought back tears as he read a heartbreaking passage from his memoir. It was from a moment during his teenage years when Rutherford had started calling Steel “Mr. Lewis,” instead of Skippy. Steel had turned to the black butler’s wife to help restore their warm bond, but she said that even though Rutherford still loved him, the wealthy young white man would have to accept being kept at arm’s length. The color lines had been drawn in the sand.
It was the pain of losing this close kinship that inspired Steel’s lifetime commitment to fighting white supremacy. He fought vigorous battles at the NAACP to guarantee people’s protection under the Civil Rights Act. But when he penned a New York Times op-ed criticizing the Supreme Court for racial bias, the NAACP fired him. The organization’s entire legal staff quit their jobs in solidarity.
He would continue his work in private practice, eventually leading to his most high-profile client – Rubin “Hurricane” Carter – a professional boxer wrongly incarcerated under false accusations of triple homicide. The memoir captures the magnitude of the political and social battle to liberate the wrongfully imprisoned boxer. It was not just Carter’s freedom that was at-stake – but the freedom of all black Americans as well.Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was released in 1985, after 19 years in prison.
Steel’s memoir consistently asks the audience to question privilege. Born to wealth, he chose to use his Harvard education and social status to advance racial justice. It cannot be ignored that his background granted him certain advantages and comforts most of us could never fathom. But Steel’s commitment to equality is genuine.
Challenging historical and structural racial inequities has come to define many of today’s most visible social justice movements. The movement for black lives is easily the most visible. And yet candid accounts of how white elites grapple with their own privilege are rare.
As institutions evaluate their own commitment to ending inequality, we would all do well to heed Steel’s story of prioritizing the social good over personal gain. The Butler’s Child is an exciting read and Steel’s analysis of racial inequities in society is as important in 2016 as it was in the 1960s.
Marc Priester is a Research and Program Associate at the Institute for Policy Studies.