Courtesy: Family of Malcolm Burnstein

Malcolm Burnstein, a lifelong advocate for equity and justice, passed away on March 6 after a massive stroke, at home with his friends and family. He was 89 years old.

During the tumultuous years of the 1950s and ’60s, Mal was a central figure as a civil rights advocate and attorney, and throughout his life, he was a leader in the political organizing that made California the progressive bastion that it is today. To paraphrase EarthJustice, he was there when progress needed a good lawyer.

His contributions began in the 1950s, working on fair housing with groups like CORE, the NAACP, the Ad Hoc Committee to End Discrimination, and with the students and others who protested the San Francisco meetings of HUAC and the demagoguery of then Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

During the 1960s Mal was active in the National Lawyers Guild, and the lead attorney for the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley. He was one of the trial counsel for the Oakland 7, who were charged with felony conspiracy in connection with anti-draft demonstrations at the Oakland Induction Center and who were acquitted. He also won an acquittal for Dan Siegel, one of the leaders of the People’s Park demonstrations in Berkeley in 1969.

In addition to being a lawyer, Mal was a lifelong political strategist and organizer. His electoral work grew out of the local peace movement which emphasized “Think Globally; Act Locally.”  Mal led the effort to have the California Democratic Party oppose the war in Vietnam and was among the central organizers of the Scheer for Congress campaign in 1966, the first Congressional campaign that opposed the war in Vietnam and led to the establishment of progressive politics in Berkeley.  He worked closely with the local Community for New Politics, electing Ron Dellums to Congress in 1967, progressives to the Berkeley City Council, and forging alliances between the peace movement and the Black Panther Party. Many years later, in the 2000s, he led the creation of the Progressive Caucus of the California Democratic Party, and was the campaign treasurer and advisor for Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

Mal was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1933.  He fell in love with California and the Bay Area when he came to attend law school at Boalt Hall (now Berkeley Law) in 1955.  After law school, he studied international law for a year at the Sorbonne in Paris and then spent another year working at the UN Library in Geneva with Frank Newman, who went on to become a justice on the California Supreme Court. 

In addition to his political and professional life, Mal’s family brought him much happiness. He is survived by his wife, Catherine Trimbur, daughters Carina Urbach and Rebecca Husband, sons-in-law, David Urbach and Thomas Meyer, grandchildren Skye Urbach, Willow Husband-Meyer, Gage Urbach, and Henry Husband-Meyer, as well as numerous other loving family members and friends.

Mal was truly a warrior for good — and throughout his long, interesting and useful life, he mixed his passion for peace and justice with a deep love of family, friends, art, theater, travel, music, hiking with his dogs in Tilden Park and coaching his daughter’s softball team in elementary and middle school. Truly a man for all seasons, he said, “I was very fortunate in that I was born at a time when I could be involved in some things which, to me, were designed to improve the world.”

A memorial is planned for later this spring. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions can be given to the ACLU of Northern California or the Barbara Lee for Senate campaign.