Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

Last month I attended a memorial reading in honor of Ralph Temple, who passed away in August at the age of 78. I only knew him slightly but admired him a lot. He worked with Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, Jr. Later, during his career with the ACLU, where he served as legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C., he represented Dr. Spock, Joan Baez, and others. And after his retirement to Ashland, he remained active in civil liberties issues, tasing, jail conditions, the right to demonstrate in city parks, the rights of the homeless, and nudity. And he wrote—stories, essays, reflections, letters to the editor, even humorous pieces like a faux review of a play his grandchildren appeared in.

I bought a copy of his memoirs, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness by Akashic Books. It vanished and reappeared on Christmas and I’ve spent some time since then reading some of Temple’s essays and taking another look at the ones from the gathering at Bloomsbury Books on December 10.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness contains 34 essays by Ralph Temple. Most are short–letters to the editor really but there are some longer pieces like “St. Augustine 1964,” his recollection of the early civil rights struggles in the South. The essays trace his life from the 1930s (an English immigrant in Miami) to 2009 (facing heart surgery). Early on in his life, Temple’s mother instills a fighting spirit and sense of justice, when she instructs Ralph to punch another boy in the face for insulting his faith.

The army. Law school. And then Camelot. Temple ends up an ACLU lawyer for a time, in the thick of legal history. The volume includes his letter in defense of the Skokie Nazis right to march, an essay on the right of Iranians to demonstrate, another on the right of Quakers to practice civil disobedience, and one on the indefensibility of racial profiling. There’s a cogent “Creed of a Liberal” and some legal strategy to boot.

The volume ends with reflections of illness, surgery, death, and courage. Through it all, Ralph Temple is Rawlsian, asking readers again and again how they would judge actions if they didn’t know whether they were the infringer or infringed. And in the final essay, “Whistling in the Dark,” he imagines negotiating with God for children’s lives, a perhaps for is. When his son-in-law mentions his he is brave to undergo heart surgery, Temple replies “I’m not brave. I had no choice.” He was being unduly modest.

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness will be available as an ebook. Don’t miss it. And don’t skip the long essays.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Dangerous Crooked Scoundrels was released by Oxford University Press in March of 2020.
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