Today, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (“LDF”) deeply mourns the loss of civil rights icon and our second Director-Counsel Jack Greenberg, who was the last living attorney who argued the Brown v. Board of Education case in the United States Supreme Court. Greenberg died this morning at his home in New York.
Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF’s current President and Director-Counsel, lauded Jack Greenberg as a visionary leader who was a key architect of modern civil rights law. “Few understand how powerfully Jack Greenberg shaped the practice of civil rights law and the breadth of his contributions to our modern conception of equal opportunity and justice” she said. Ifill added that when Jack’s wife Deborah, herself a brilliant civil rights lawyer and former LDF attorney, noted that “Jack lived a good life,” Ifill rejoined that “many of us have had a good life, in part because of him.”
For decades Jack was at the forefront of civil rights legal challenges in the federal courts. He argued in the Brown case, he represented Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the other voting rights marchers in Selma in 1965. In response to the employment discrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Greenberg decided that LDF would shape employment discrimination law by filing a thousand cases within a year of the law’s implementation–he filed 850, leaving an indelible mark on employment discrimination doctrine.
Jack Greenberg first joined LDF in 1949 as a 24-year-old Columbia Law School graduate. At the time, LDF’s first and legendary Director-Counsel Thurgood Marshall was looking for an assistant to help challenge Jim Crow laws. Just a few years after joining LDF, 27-year-old Jack became the youngest member of the team of lawyers that brought the Brown school desegregation cases to the Supreme Court. He served as an assistant counsel under Marshall from 1949 to 1961. When Marshall joined the federal bench, Jack succeeded him and served as LDF’s second Director-Counsel for 23 years until 1984, making him the longest tenured leader of LDF.
A fierce advocate, Jack argued forty cases before the Supreme Court while at LDF, including Meredith v. Fair in 1961, which resulted in James Meredith’s integration of the University of Mississippi. He also argued Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education (1969), which mandated segregated school systems to desegregate “at once.” In 1971, he litigated the landmark Griggs v. Duke Power Company, which prohibited relying on employment and promotion decisions on the results of tests with discriminatory impact. On the heels of Griggs, he scored a major victory in 1972 in Furman v. Georgia in which the Supreme Court held that the death penalty violated the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause of the Eighth Amendment, resulting in the suspension of the death penalty throughout the country for four years.
Outside of the Supreme Court, Jack also fought hard and effectively in courts around the country. In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. called on Jack and LDF to handle all demonstration cases in which the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition was involved. He oversaw cases ranging from the elimination of racial restrictions on the use of public parks; to discrimination in health care; to busing as a means to integrate public schools.
And Jack’s work did not end with the courtroom. In 1969, he established LDF’s Washington, DC office to expand the organization’s work into the critical realm of federal policy.
After leaving an indelible mark on both LDF and the nation’s civil rights landscape, Jack retired from LDF in 1984 and began teaching at his alma mater, Columbia University, where he had received his undergraduate and law school education. He was an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School from 1970-84; a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School in 1971; and a visiting lecturer at Harvard Law School in 1983, in addition to other positions. He served as Columbia College’s Dean from,1989-93.
In 2001, Jack was awarded a Presidential Citizens Medal. President Clinton noted, “In the courtroom and the classroom, Jack Greenberg has been a crusader for freedom and equality for more than half a century.” Five years earlier, the American Bar Association awarded him the Thurgood Marshall Award for his outstanding contributions to civil and human rights. He is a recipient of LDF’s highest honor, the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award.
Jack Greenberg wrote Crusaders in the Courts: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution, a memoir and the definitive biography of LDF’s history. In the book, he reflects on his self-described “moderate iconoclasm” as a Jew born and raised in the Bronx fighting for civil rights. He outlines the legal strategies employed by LDF to achieve landmark victories and offers a vivid portrait of his predecessor and mentor Thurgood Marshall. Jack, who grew up in the Bronx, also describes the role that Jews played in the civil rights movement.
Jack saw a strong resemblance between anti-Semitism and black oppression in the United States. Raised in a family committed to fairness and justice, Jack became part of the black world of the Civil Rights Movement—sleeping in segregated hotels, eating in segregated restaurants and working tirelessly alongside other civil rights advocates in pursuit of justice.
Jack’s myriad other publications include Race Relations and American Law (1959); “Litigation for Social Change,” (1973); Cases and Materials on Judicial Process and Social Change (1976); Dean Cuisine: The Liberated Man’s Guide to Fine Cooking (with Vorenberg, 1991); Crusaders in the Courts; Legal Battles of the Civil Rights Movement (2004); Brown v. Board of Education; Witness to A Landmark Decision (2004) and articles on civil rights, capital punishment, and other subjects.
Greenberg is also regarded as a father of civil rights legal organizations. He is a founding member of Human Rights Watch and Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, and helped support and shape the formation of the Asian American Legal Defense Fund and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund (now LatinoJustice). He participated in human rights missions to the Soviet Union, Poland, South Africa, the Philippines, Korea, Nepal, and elsewhere. In recent years, Greenberg was engaged in supporting the efforts of Roma in Europe, who saw comparisons between their struggle and the civil rights legal struggles of African Americans.
Jack Greenberg was born on December 22, 1924 in New York City. He is survived by his loving wife Deborah, five children, and five grandchildren. LDF will miss Jack’s advice and counsel which he generously shared until the end.