Attorney Jack Greenberg who served as Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund from 1961 to 1984, succeeding Thurgood Marshall, and argued 40 civil rights cases before the US Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board of Education, passed away Wednesday in his Manhattan home.
Born in Brooklyn, in 1924, Greenberg fought at Okinawa and Iwo Jima and commanded a landing craft in the invasion of Iheya Shima. He received his law degree from Columbia in 1948 and became the only white legal counselor for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (“LDF”) in 1949. He represented the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 when King was jailed in Birmingham, Ala., after leading a march there against segregationist laws. Jews played a major role in the NAACP in its early decades, including Joel Elias Spingarn (the first chairman), Arthur B. Spingarn, and founder Henry Moskowitz.
Greenberg recalled his earliest arguments before the Supreme Court: “It was like a religious experience; the first few times I was there I was full of awe. I had an almost tactile feeling. The first time I was in the Court, I wasn’t arguing. I felt as if I were in a synagogue, and reached to see whether or not I had a yarmulke on. I thought I ought to have one on.”
Greenberg argued Brown v. Board of Education as co-counsel with Thurgood Marshall; Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, which ordered the end of segregated school systems “at once”; Griggs v. Duke Power Company, which outlawed basing employment and promotion decisions on the results of tests with a discriminatory impact; and Furman v. Georgia, in which the Court effectively placed a moratorium on executions nationwide (it lasted four years), holding that the death penalty as it was then applied was a violation of the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause of the Eighth Amendment. There were 36 more.
Greenberg was a founding member of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and of Human Rights Watch.
As a sign of a changing relationship between Jews and Blacks, in 1982 the Harvard Black Law Students Association objected to Greenberg’s teaching a civil rights course jointly with black lawyer Julius L. Chambers. They called on students to boycott the course. Many prominent blacks came to Greenberg’s defense, and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin write the NY Times that “the objection that Mr. Greenberg is white is nothing more than blatant racism.”
Greenberg was also at odds with mainstream Jewish groups, over his zealous support for affirmative action. The Anti-Defamation League said was too zealous over the ability of this policy to remedy racial discrimination in the job market. They suggested he was merely pushing discrimination against whites and warned against a system based on racial quotas.