Jack Greenberg, the Lawyer Who Used Law as a Weapon To Desegregate America’s Schools by the Forward

Jack Greenberg, the Lawyer Who Used Law as a Weapon To Desegregate America’s Schools

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Jack Greenberg, who died on October 12 at age 91, was more than just a fearless civil rights attorney who famously argued Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court; he was also an admirer of Franz Kafka who applied his writings to historical experience of racial prejudice in America. The 1954 case, determining that state-segregated schools were unconstitutional, propelled Greenberg into the job of director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund from 1961 to 1984, succeeding Thurgood Marshall.

In 1995, Greenberg told an interviewer about his first argument before the Supreme Court (he would ultimately argue forty cases there):

In the handful of lawyers working on the case, Greenberg would recall in a memoir that very few were white but almost all of those who were, were Jewish. One of the latter was Louis Pollak (1922 –2012), and both had shared common experiences as aspiring young lawyers in the postwar years:

In his book “Crusaders in the Courts” Greenberg described Pollak, the son of Walter Pollak, a Jewish civil rights attorney who had defended the Scottsboro Boys, African-American teenagers falsely accused of rape in 1931:

Greenberg equally admired his colleague Thurgood Marshall for his skilled approaches in the courtroom, as he recounted later:
[Marshall] later told me that during the argument he flashed the Masonic secret distress signal to [a Supreme Court justice,] who signaled back.

Despite lawyerly legerdemain and ultimately winning the case, Greenberg was frustrated to find that racists refused to implement the Court’s decision. In 2004 he told “The Baltimore Sun”:

With painful slowness, progress was made, Greenberg continued:

Greenberg was surprised by the racist violence that ensued before the law was enforced, but he was not intimidated by it. After wartime service in the U. S. Navy fighting at Okinawa and Iwo Jima, little ruffled him. Entering the Supreme Court for the first time to argue Brown, he also reflectedon his wartime experiences:

It was in the Navy that Greenberg first observed the injustices of segregation. Before then, James Jacob Greenberg, raised by a Polish Jewish father and Romanian Jewish mother, had learned sensitivity to poverty. Even so, he later admitted, he joined neighborhood urchins in throwing stones at a Chinese man, much to his subsequent regret.

Making amends out of a profound belief in the unfairness of racial discrimination, he would also argue other landmark Supreme Court cases, including Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education (1969), which accelerated the end of segregated schools and Griggs v. Duke Power Company (1971), about employment discrimination. He also worked on Furman v. Georgia (1972) which led to a temporary moratorium on capital punishment in America.

While fighting the good fight in the law courts, he retained many other interests, including literature, which was manifested by “Franz Kafka: The Office Writings” which he coedited in 2008. This collection of professional texts written by Kafka as a lawyer with a Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute, sparked some memories for the veteran civil rights combatant. In a chapter entitled “From Kafka to Kafkaesque” in “Franz Kafka: the Office Writings,” Greenberg wrote:

Applying Kafka directly to modern American life, Greenberg points to ongoing racial discrimination: “Race comes particularly to mind when we wonder about connecting Kafka with American life today.

He cites Karl Rossmann, the protagonist of “The Man Who Disappeared” also known as “Amerika”) who when registering at an employment office in Oklahoma, gives his name as Negro. Rossmann is thenceforth referred to as “Negro, a secondary schoolboy from Europe” or “Negro Technical Worker.” Greenberg asserts: “It is likely, of course, that Kafka, personally affected by anti-Semitism and deeply interested in Zionism, readily equated the two groups.”

Greenberg adds that when the Court decreed that integration should occur with “all deliberate speed,” this too could be seen as Kafkaesque: “‘Deliberate’ can mean slow. ‘Speed’ connotes fast. A Kafka aficionado would find the impenetrable contradiction delicious. The ambiguity masked a complex maneuver to obtain a unanimous decision and the hope of fending off destructive Southern resistance. But the Kafkaesque quality was not then exhausted.”

Further protests from segregationists had occurred and not until 1969 was the approach of “deliberate speed” overturned. For Greenberg, African Americans who sought education in 1948, waited until the Brown decision in 1954, and then again waited until 1969 for it to be fully enforced, this last development was “Kafkaesque.” To evoke this feeling of suspension, when nothing occurred, even when action was being proclaimed in the civil rights dramas he had lived through, Greenberg cited Kafka’s parable “Before the Law”:

Dead at 91, Jack Greenberg Used Law as a Weapon To Desegregate America’s Schools

The Jewish Lawyer Who Desegregated America’s Schools


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Jack Greenberg, the Lawyer Who Used Law as a Weapon To Desegregate America’s Schools

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