Ralph J. Temple, 78, top ACLU lawyer who fought for civil rights, dies

October 10, 2011

Ralph J. Temple, 78, a top lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who fought legal battles on behalf of protesters and minorities during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, died Aug. 27 at his home in Ashland, Ore.

The former D.C. resident had congestive heart failure, his son Johnny Temple said.

In 1966, Mr. Temple became legal director for the National Capital Area arm of the ACLU, which focuses on civil liberties issues arising in the Washington area. He remained in that position for 14 years, also serving as executive director during his final year with the office.

Mr. Temple was an outspoken advocate for protesters’ rights and often was in disagreement with the D.C. police department, which was responsible for keeping order during the tumultuous public demonstrations of the 1960s and ’70s.

“Everybody has variable notions of what should be done, and so did we,” said Jerry Wilson, the D.C. police chief from 1969 to 1974. “Ralph was an honorable person.”


Ralph J. Temple, 78, a top lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union who fought legal battles on behalf of protesters and minorities during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, died Aug. 27 at his home in Ashland, Ore. (Photo by Dean Spillane Walker)

After the race riots sparked by the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Mr. Temple helped bring a lawsuit alleging that law enforcement procedures had been mishandled, causing unfair arrests and delays in court.

“The administration of justice during a riot should not plant the seeds for future riots,” he and other ACLU officials wrote in a letter published at the time in The Washington Post.

After large-scale arrests during the 1971 May Day demonstrations against the Vietnam War, he and other ACLU lawyers succeeded in having thousands of arrest records expunged.

Mr. Temple also participated in the legal efforts that ended racially discriminatory practices such as the poll tax and anti-miscegenation laws.

As a young lawyer, he had worked at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund as an assistant to Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice. In 1964, Mr. Temple traveled with other lawyers to Florida to ensure compliance with the recently passed Civil Rights Act.

Ralph Jason Temple was born Oct. 18, 1932, in London. His parents came from Jewish families that had sought refuge in England from persecution in other European countries. He immigrated to Miami during World War II and became a U.S. citizen as a teenager.

During his later ACLU career, Mr. Temple risked putting himself at odds with his family, his son said, by defending the rights of American Nazis to hold public demonstrations. It was a measure of his commitment to the First Amendment.

After attending the University of Miami, he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1956. He served stateside in the Army for two years, taught at several law schools, and practiced with the Washington law firm Arnold, Fortas & Porter before joining the ACLU.

Mr. Temple was a member of Tifereth Israel Congregation in the District. While never abandoning Judaism, he explored other forms of spirituality and was a member of the Self-Realization Fellowship founded by yoga master Paramahansa Yogananda.

His first marriage, to Sally Brown Montagne, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 21 years, Ann Macrory of Ashland; two children from his first marriage, Johnny Temple of Brooklyn and Kathy Temple of Tucson; four stepchildren, Lucinda Weatherby, Maud Powell and Cecily Palzewicz, all of Ashland, and Ben Macrory of Bali, Indonesia; and eight grandchildren.

Mr. Temple served on the ACLU’s national board of directors from 1982 to 1985 and remained active in civil liberties causes after his retirement from private practice in the mid-1990s.

In an essay published in the book “It’s a Free Country: Personal Freedom in America After September 11,” he decried the practice of racial profiling. Civil liberties are endowed not by the ACLU, he wrote, but by “the Creator.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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