Greenberg: Brown helped break
by Tom Cogill
NAACP lawyer and director-counsel Jack Greenberg was only
27 when he argued before the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board
of Education 50 years ago.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s
decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case encouraged the
Civil Rights Movement and paved the way for key civil rights legislation
in the 1960s, forever weakening Southern politicians’ hold
on Congress, former NAACP lawyer and director-counsel Jack Greenberg
said in his keynote address Feb. 20 at the Law
His talk was part of a symposium honoring the landmark decision
that ordered an end to school segregation in 1954. Greenberg,
who was just shy of his 28th birthday when he argued before the
high court in Brown, worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund for
more than 30 years and headed the organization when Thurgood Marshall
left to join the Supreme Court. He discussed the strategy of the
LDF and the consequences of Brown at the U.Va. event, sponsored
by the Virginia Law Review and the Center for the Study of Race
Greenberg compared the political landscape before Brown to a frozen
sea. Southern senators controlled House and Senate committees,
and they depended on suppressing black votes to maintain power.
Brown was the “ icebreaker that broke a pathway through
that frozen sea,” he said.
Greenburg called the results of Brown “mixed” today
— there are 40 black congressmen, but black unemployment
is double that of whites; there are 10,000 black law students
across the country, but black males’ average lifespans in
Harlem are shorter than those of men in Bangladesh.
“But before 1954 the picture was unmixed,” he said.
Plaintiffs who sought justice in the five cases constituting Brown
for the most part just wanted a better education for their children,
Greenberg said. “I don’t think we ever filed a case
to make a political point,” he said.
In the build-up to Brown, LDF cases forced law schools to accept
blacks and successfully challenged “white primaries,”
which prevented African Americans from voting.
Greenberg worked with Harvard Law graduate Louis L. Redding, an
African-American lawyer who practiced in segregated Delaware,
on the case Gebhart v. Belton, which became one of the five cases
included in Brown.
Redding hated segregation, Greenberg said; he worked in Delaware,
but wouldn’t live there or visit on the weekends.
Their case revolved around a woman who had to drive her daughter
to school because no transportation was provided for blacks. “She
just wanted her child to ride the white school bus,” he
said. When Redding said he would only sue if the goal was integration,
she readily agreed.
The LDF focused its strategy on schools because government employers
had an impenetrable set of rules and a far-reaching effect could
not be expected, and similar problems would result if the strategy
focused on housing, which was mostly private. “Schools on
the other hand, were clearly state action, and covered large units.
“We hoped to have school segregation declared unconstitutional,”
he said. “I have to confess we did not think beyond that.”
Even with Brown, schools integrated slowly or not at all. African-Americans
faced challenges in trying to get into higher education into the
1960s, let alone secondary and elementary schools. “Nobody
expected immediate compliance,” he said.
The Southern whites’ backlash on many fronts — including
decisions to close schools rather than allow blacks to enter and
attempting to get integrationist lawyers disbarred — caught
the NAACP lawyers off guard. “We had not anticipated anything
like that. . . . Nor had we anticipated interminable litigation
in each case.”
Brown II, handed down by the Court in 1955, ordered schools to
desegregate with “all deliberate speed.” Greenberg
said he doubted whether the wording of the decision caused a greater
backlash from segregationists.
“The Supreme Court in Brown set a moral standard,”
he said. “This was the predicate for the Civil Rights Acts
of the 60s. I won’t say it wouldn’t have occurred
without Brown, but it wouldn’t have occurred when it did,
and possibly not until a generation later.”
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964
he mourned that the Democratic Party would lose the South. “He
was right, but it also meant the death of a political regime that
upheld racism,” Greenberg said.
Part of the relapse in recent years into segregated schools is
due to Supreme Court decisions ruling that desegregation ordinances
are no longer necessary once a school system has been desegregated
once, Greenberg said. “The No Child Left Behind” Act
allows for school transfers, but not across district lines, so
segregation can still occur between districts, but “the
most daunting problem is city-suburban integration.
“What is most important is a national will to do something
about education,” he said. Greenberg proposed an amendment
to the act that would require national or state commissions to
impress upon the public the importance of integration, an arrangement
to encourage suburban integration as a “patriotic duty,”
and the funding to do so.