By guest blogger Corey Mitchell
Jack Greenberg, a civil rights attorneys who helped litigate the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, died this week at age 91.
A member of Thurgood Marshall’s inner circle at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Greenberg worked on a number of high-profile civil rights cases, including Brown v. Board, which abolished “separate but equal” racially segregated public schools in 1954.
Greenberg—who was in his 20s when he helped argue cases that reached the U.S. Supreme Court under the umbrella of Brown v. Board—was the last living lawyer involved in the case.
Greenberg’s most significant contribution came in Delaware with Gebhart v. Belton, where he argued that black children in the state had the right to attend the all-white schools in their neighborhoods. The judge in the case ruled that the black schools were offering far less to children than the white schools —a violation of the “separate but equal” doctrine enshrined in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 decision Plessy v. Ferguson. But the decision focused on two high schools and did not apply broadly throughout Delaware.
The U.S. Supreme Court combined that case with similar ones from the District of Columbia, Kansas, South Carolina, and Virginia into a single case which eventually became Brown v. Board of Education.
Marshall, the lead litigator, of course, went on to become the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice. When Marshall left NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1961 to serve as a federal appeals judge, he hand-picked Greenberg, who was Jewish, as director of the Legal Defense Fund.
Greenberg did not see himself as an improbable choice to lead a national campaign legal against race-based segregation and discrimination.
“The question of race never really entered into it. It was a matter of human liberty. It was the principles that were involved,” Greenberg said in Richard Kluger’s “Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality.”
Greenberg went on lead the Legal Defense Fund for 23 years. Later in his career there, he argued Alexander v. Holmes County (Miss.) Board of Education, which came before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969 to combat efforts to stall school integration in the south. In a case that came before the Court a full 15 years after Brown v. Board, the justices mandated that segregated school systems desegregate immediately.
After Greenberg’s retirement from the Legal Defense Fund, he served as an administrator and law professor at Columbia University—his alma matter.
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.