Brown Attorney Recalls His ‘Most Meaningful Case’

By Nathaniel Popper

Published May 21, 2004, issue of May 21, 2004.
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It was a half-century ago, at the tender age of 28, that Jack Greenberg appeared in front of the Supreme Court for the very first time to argue that, no, separate schools for blacks were not equal.

This week, Greenberg recalled how he stood before Chief Justice Earl Warren that day. He had little idea of the revolution that the case, known as Brown vs. Board of Education, would cause. Greenberg and the rest of his NAACP legal team were confident of victory — the court already had struck down a number of other discriminatory laws. But it was only during the fierce public backlash to the Court’s unanimous decision that Greenberg says the monumental proportions of the case became apparent.

“We thought it was important — that it would be the beginning of some gradual, very slight changes,” Greenberg told the Forward. “But nobody anticipated the massive resistance, which, like some sort of immune reaction, gave rise to the Civil Rights movement.”

Greenberg, now 79, is one of two lawyers in the case still alive to look back on the decision from its 50th anniversary. The recent commemorations, along with his full-time job as a law professor at Columbia, have left him with a tightly packed schedule these days. He found time to speak with the Forward late at night, after a gala event in Washington, D.C., hosted by Howard University, which awarded him an honorary degree earlier this year.

It is inevitable that Brown has come to occupy a seminal moment in Greenberg’s life: “Given that it was the most important case of the century,” he dryly observed, “by mathematical computation, it would have to be the most meaningful case I had worked on.”

Greenberg’s reputation is based on much more than his work in December 1953, when Brown was argued. In his capacity as deputy director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, he already had served as lead counsel on a 1952 case in Delaware, where the legality of school segregation was struck down for the first time in American jurisprudence. When that case was appealed by Delaware’s attorney general, the cross-appeal by the NAACP legal team became one of five cases bundled together — along with Oliver Brown’s suit against the Topeka Board of Education — and presented to the Supreme Court.

Seven years after Brown, Greenberg took over as director of the NAACP legal fund from its larger-than-life director, Thurgood Marshall, who had been named to the Supreme Court. The dramatic story of the Jewish lawyer who led the black community’s legal struggles is currently being adapted for the big screen by the writers of “The West Wing,” New Line Cinemas announced last month.

Looking back after all the years and the honors he has accrued, Greenberg said he still remembers clearly the first time he walked into the grand halls of the Supreme Court.

“I suddenly had a feeling that I was going into a synagogue and failed to have a yarmulke on — that my head was bare,” Greenberg said. “It seemed such a holy place.”

Greenberg grew up in the Bronx, attending a Reform temple when he was forced to do so. As long as his grandfather was alive, Greenberg’s immigrant parents conformed to a certain sense of religious tradition. Greenberg attended Talmud Torah – the Hebrew school of the day — but never had much success staying enrolled.

While they did not maintain a particularly observant household, his family always was bubbling with Jewishly tinged political discussion. Greenberg said the labor Zionist politics of the dinner table were a decisive factor in his decision to take a course in civil rights at Columbia law school with the famed Walter Gellhorn.

Thurgood Marshall hired Greenberg just months after he graduated from law school, on the recommendation of Gellhorn. During his early days at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as it was called then, Greenberg was aware of his own skin color, but “after a couple weeks, that consciousness evaporated.” Aside from a few angry letters from NAACP members during later legal battles, Greenberg’s race almost was never again an issue that he noticed.

Greenberg’s easy fit at the NAACP was partially a result of the progressive politics of his parents, but he was hesitant to ascribe any similar credit to his religious education. He says he faced off against too many Jewish lawyers defending segregation in Alabama and Mississippi to see Judaism as a natural source for social justice.

With some Jewish lawyers, though, Greenberg cooperated closely, particularly when Jewish and black organizations were working together during the 1950s, pioneering the use of law as a weapon against discrimination. The Commission on Law and Social Action of the American Jewish Congress led that movement from within the Jewish community, providing witnesses and drafting friend-of-the-court briefs for many of the cases on which Greenberg worked.

That early cooperation between Jewish and black organizations took a turn for the worse, as Greenberg sees it, in 1974, when a Jewish student, Marco DeFunis, challenged the legality of affirmative action policies at the University of Washington’s law school.

Greenberg said that the support given to DeFunis by groups like the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League “created a lot of ill will, and did not achieve anything.”

While the main Jewish organizations largely have returned to their earlier support for affirmative action, Greenberg says the Jewish groups never have fully recovered in the eyes of the black community. But Greenberg’s disappointment with the lagging commitment to equality in America extends far beyond the Jewish community.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric about supporting the positions of the civil rights establishment today,” Greenberg said, “but the country is not committed in any operative sense.”

Some legal scholars blame the de-facto segregation that still exists in America on the language of a second Supreme Court ruling from 1955, frequently called Brown II, which called for schools to be desegregated “with all deliberate speed” rather than immediately. Greenberg, though, said that this criticism does not recognize the historical setting in which the judges were operating.

At the time, Greenberg said, few of the states that were resisting desegregation would have acted more promptly if the court had demanded it, and a call for immediate segregation might have caused a destructively violent backlash.

Rather than being engaged in any of this scholarly debate, though, Greenberg has continued his work on the front lines of racial inequality. He has devoted much of his time in recent years to advising desegregation efforts in South Africa and Eastern Europe, where schools are trying to integrate blacks and Romani children, respectively.

In the midst of all his endless jet setting, Greenberg occasionally makes time to admire the document that started it all.

“I go over it time and time again,” Greenberg said, referring to Chief Justice Warren’s historic decision, “and I think he did a splendid job.”

NEWSDESK

Israeli Slams Germany

The chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Sallai Meridor, criticized the German government for “enticing” Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union. “The Government of Israel must take serious steps to counter Germany,” said Meridor, who heads the quasi-governmental agency responsible for facilitating immigration to Israel.

More Jews from the former Soviet Union immigrated to Germany than to Israel for the second year in a row, according to Jewish Agency statistics. Last year, Germany took in 19,000 refugees; Israel attracted 12,000 — a one-year drop of close to 7,000.

Germany has offered special refugee status to any Jew from the former Soviet Union since 1991, citing Germany’s historical responsibility to the Jews.

There have long been grumblings in Israel about the attractive social welfare packages offered to Jewish refugees by the German government, but Meridor’s comments appear to be the first public statement of criticism directed at the Germans.

In July, an Israeli official told the Forward that “nobody here wants to be the first to attack Germany for treating Jews well.”

Berg Nabbed Over Israel

The Israeli stamp on Nicholas Berg’s passport and his last name elicited suspicions from the Iraqi police, and word spread about his Jewish origins in the prison where he was detained in Mosul in late March and early April, according to an e-mail he sent to his family and made public last week.

“Word had spread, due to the presence of certain items among my stuff, that I was Israeli,” Berg wrote, later noting that his passport contained an Israeli stamp. “So I felt a bit like Arlo Guthrie walking into a jail full of mother rapers and father stabbers as an accused litterbug.”

Berg, a native of Philadelphia who was beheaded last week by militants allegedly linked to terror master Abu Musab Zarqawi, had passed through Israel before going to Iraq to seek business opportunities.

While neither he nor his captors mentioned his Jewish origins on the now infamous video of his murder, posted on the Internet last week, his Jewish name and the Israeli stamp had prompted the Iraqi police to arrest him on suspicion that he was spying, according to a Chilean freelance journalist and an American businessman who said Berg had recounted to them the circumstances of his arrest in Mosul, news reports said.

Berg’s parents have accused the U.S. authorities of ordering the Iraqi police to detain their son. U.S. officials deny that he was in their custody but acknowledged that the FBI visited Berg three times in jail, most likely because he already had caught the FBI’s attention in 2002.

At the time, Berg was interrogated because his e-mail password had been found in possession of an acquaintance of Zacharias Moussaoui, the accused Al Qaeda operative. Berg’s father said someone had asked Berg at the University of Oklahoma in 1999 whether he could use his laptop and that his son’s e-mail password was later found in possession of a Moussaoui associate.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said the FBI had cleared Berg, but his family has charged that the U.S.-ordered detention had caused him to miss a flight out of the country. He was kidnapped four days after his release from prison.

Bush Taps Rosen

President Bush appointed Jack Rosen to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. The council oversees the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Rosen, outgoing president of the American Jewish Congress, was a longtime Democrat, but last year he contributed to the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. Bush appointed nine members to the council last month.

Son Burns Rabbi’s Home

The son of a Chabad rabbi in San Francisco was arrested for setting his father’s home and shul ablaze. Avi Langer, 33, allegedly stole a Torah from the Chabad House of San Francisco, run by his father, Yosef Langer, before setting the place on fire, the Associated Press reported. Police said there were no injuries in the May 12 blaze, though the fire caused roughly $200,000 in damage and displaced the Langer family from their home. Yosef Langer told authorities his son has a history of mental illness, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Senator Blames Jews

Senator Ernest Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, is standing by his claim that President Bush went to war in Iraq to defend Israel and please American Jews.

In a column earlier this month that appeared in the Columbia State newspaper, Hollings wrote that Israeli officials had known there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. “With Iraq no threat, why invade a sovereign country? The answer: President Bush’s policy to secure Israel,” Hollings wrote.

Hollings also wrote that Bush “came to office with one thought — re-election. Bush felt tax cuts would hold his crowd together, and spreading democracy in the Mideast to secure Israel would take the Jewish vote from the Democrats.”

Hollings named three Jews as particularly responsible for Bush’s Iraq policy — former chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, Richard Perle; Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer.

Hollings drew criticism from Abraham Foxman, president of The Anti-Defamation League, who argued that the senator’s comments were “reminiscent of age-old, antisemitic canards about a Jewish conspiracy to control and manipulate government.”






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