Dear Commons Community,
Jack Greenberg, a member of the legal team for the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) died yesterday from Parkinson’s Disease. Greenberg was born in Brooklyn, raised in the Bronx, attended Dewitt Clinton High School, and Columbia University. He received his law degree from Columbia School of Law. He came to prominence as a civil rights attorney because of his work with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and especially with the Brown case. As reported in his New York Times obituary:
“Jack Greenberg, a lawyer who became one of the nation’s most effective champions of the civil rights struggle, leading the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. for 23 years and using the law as a weapon in its fight for racial justice before the United States Supreme Court, died on Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 91.
Mr. Greenberg was the last surviving member of a legendary civil rights legal team assembled by Thurgood Marshall, the founding director-counsel of the legal defense fund and later the first African-American Supreme Court justice.
When Mr. Marshall hired him as an assistant counsel in 1949, Mr. Greenberg was just 24 and the civil rights movement, too, was taking wing. A son of Jewish immigrants and a product of New York City, he had developed an abiding intolerance of injustice — some of it witnessed in the Navy — that propelled him into law and into Mr. Marshall’s sights.
Mr. Greenberg joined a team that, like him, was idealistic yet pragmatic, deliberate yet unafraid. Besides Mr. Marshall there were Robert L. Carter, Constance Baker Motley, Spottswood W. Robinson III and others.
Mr. Greenberg was neither the first white nor the first Jew to work for the civil rights of blacks. But he was one of the most powerful white figures in the movement in the 1960s and ’70s, a distinction that led to friction with both blacks and Jews.
Still, Mr. Greenberg helped achieve through the courts what the political system had denied Southern blacks: voting rights, equal pay for equal work, impartial juries, equal access to medical care, equal access to schools and other benefits of citizenship broadly enjoyed by whites.
The genius of his legal team, Mr. Greenberg told The New York Times in 2014, was “the ability to be creative in matters of legal and social justice.”
At 27, he helped argue two of the five cases that led to the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared an end to the “separate but equal” system of racial segregation in the public schools.
“I was a kid,” Mr. Greenberg said in the interview. “Seven lawyers argued the cases. I was one of them. Now I’m the only one still alive.”
In all, he was involved in more than 40 civil rights cases before the Supreme Court. One was Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, in which the court, ruling in 1969, hastened the integration of schools by declaring that a standard of “all deliberate speed,” established in a second Brown case, had become an excuse for delays in Mississippi and should no longer apply anywhere.”
Mr. Greenberg was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001 by President Bill Clinton.
May he rest in peace!