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Michael Ratner, 1943-2016, American hero

Michael Ratner "come out of the '60s" with a burning fire to fight for social justice. Some of his biggest wins didn't come until the 21st Century, though.

When I wrote a short e-book about Bernie Sanders -- both his life and his out-of-left-field (literally!) presidential campaign -- last year, I noted that part of my fascination with his story is that he came from the tradition of 1960s activism and was someone who didn't give up, drop out...or sell out. That takes a unique personality, for sure...but Bernie wasn't the only one.

Consider Michael Ratner, whose lifelong struggle for social justice was also born from that tumultuous period in American history:

Mr. Ratner, who majored in medieval English at Brandeis University in the 1960s, was radicalized by the teachings of the New Left philosopher Herbert Marcuse and the preachings of a classmate, Angela Davis. He moved further to the left as a law student at Columbia University when he witnessed police brutality after students seized campus buildings in 1968. He defied legal odds and even occasional death threats to defend lost causes, gambling that even a verdict against his clients could galvanize public opinion in his favor.

"He was part of a generation of lawyers that was absolutely bold and that understood the political aspects of law," his former wife, Margaret Ratner Kunstler, a civil rights lawyer, said this week, "and that was not afraid of bringing a lawsuit that was going to lose if it was going to support the community."

Ratner, who eventually became the head of the Center for Constitutional Rights, reminds me a bit of his generational cohort Sanders, in that he kept going and going and won some of his greatest victories in the 21st Century, near what would prove to be the final years of his life. In his hometown of New York, he successfully fought to end the stop-and-frisk policies that unconstitutionally targeted blacks and Latinos. In the bigger arena, he challenged America's right to hold prisoners at Guantanamo Bay indefinitely without trial, and won his battle before the U.S. Supreme Court.

His words from 2002 about the United States and the so-called "war on terror" were particularly prescient:

 "A permanent war abroad means permanent anger against the United States by those countries and people that will be devastated by U.S. military actions. Hate will increase, not lessen; and the terrible consequences of that hate will be used, in turn, as justification for more restrictions on civil liberties in the United States."

Michael Ratner died today, from cancer, at age 72. At a moment when civil liberties are still precarious, he will be deeply missed on the national scene. But he did leave us not just with a powerful legacy but a lesson: Never stop fighting.