Harry Wachtel, a prominent New York lawyer, began working for Martin Luther King in 1962. With King’s endorsement, Wachtel co-founded the Gandhi Society for Human Rights, which, as a tax-exempt charitable organization, effectively raised substantial funds for the civil rights movement. In subsequent years King came to rely on Wachtel’s legal advice and moral support, as Wachtel arranged meetings with prominent donors and government officials and met with King regularly.
Wachtel was born in New York City on 26 March 1917. A self-described student radical, Wachtel received his law degree from Columbia University in 1940. With the exception of his military service during World War II, Wachtel practiced continuously in New York firms throughout his career.
King was introduced to Wachtel through Clarence B. Jones, King’s trusted legal advisor. Jones had contacted Wachtel because he represented the parent company of several segregated lunch counters and Jones was interested in pursuing back-channel negotiations on desegregation. Jones found a willing and able ally in Wachtel, who immediately offered his legal services directly to King. After a series of letter exchanges in late 1961, King and Wachtel met in early 1962 when King was in town for a fundraiser for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Soon after, Wachtel wrote King: “I must confess that before our meeting I had a deep respect for your historic and selfless fight against encrusted injustice and inhumanity. The several hours spent with you stirred me and afforded me new perspectives” (Wachtel, 16 February 1962). The two immediately began collaborating on the formation of the Gandhi Society for Human Rights.
In 1963 Wachtel joined Jones in defending Ralph Abernathy and three other ministers in a libel suit stemming from an advertisement in the New York Times. Wachtel quickly became part of King’s inner circle and was jokingly referred to as the twin of King’s confidante Stanley Levison, also a Jewish lawyer from New York. In 1964 Wachtel formed a small advisory group for King that they called the Research Committee, which met regularly at Wachtel’s office and included Jones, union leader Ralph Helstein, Bayard Rustin, and others. Later that year, Wachtel joined a group accompanying King to Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
Wachtel remained King’s close advisor until his death in 1968, guiding him through matters ranging from interaction with Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover, to gaining support from religious conservatives, to taking a public stance against the Vietnam War. Wachtel’s Wall Street and legal connections gave King access to potential donors and high-level government and business contacts. Wachtel also played a key role in arranging meetings for King with Vice President Hubert Humphrey and President Lyndon B. Johnson.
After King’s assassination, Wachtel became Coretta Scott King’s personal lawyer. He also served as a trustee of SCLC and vice president and legal counsel for the King Center from 1969 to 1982. Wachtel died of Parkinson’s disease in 1997.