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Jack Greenberg is a civil rights attorney and professor of law who was on the front lines of the struggle to eliminate racial discrimination in U.S. society. He served for 35 years as an assistant counsel and as director-counsel of the naacp legal defense and educational fund (LDF).
Greenberg was born December 22, 1924, in New York City. His parents, Bertha Rosenberg and Max Greenberg, were immigrants from Eastern Europe who stressed the importance of education for their children. Although they were not involved in Civil Rights or politics, they inculcated in their children a deep concern for disadvantaged people. This early awareness of the plight of society's less fortunate ignited Greenberg's desire to take up the civil rights cause.
Greenberg grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx, and was educated at public elementary and high schools before receiving his bachelor of arts from Columbia University in 1945. He then entered the U.S. Navy and served in the Pacific as a deck officer, participating in the invasion of Iwo Jima. After the war ended, he enrolled at Columbia Law School and earned his bachelor of laws in 1948. While in law school Greenberg enrolled in a seminar called Legal Survey, which set the direction of his future career. The course offered students the opportunity to work for civil liberties and civil rights organizations, doing legal research and writing memorandums, complaints, and briefs. While taking the course, Greenberg became acquainted with Thurgood Marshall, who at the time was the fund's director. When an LDF staff attorney resigned her position, Greenberg was recommended as a replacement. His career in civil rights, as well as his lasting friendship with Marshall, was launched.
Greenberg began his work at the LDF with only a vague idea about the types of cases he would handle. He was quickly plunged into the ugly reality of racial discrimination. His first cases required him to travel regularly to the South to defend African Americans against various racially motivated charges. On those trips, he experienced racial discrimination firsthand. The African American lawyers with whom he traveled were not allowed to stay at hotels for whites or eat at restaurants for whites. Greenberg, who is white, saw for himself the deplorable accommodations African Americans were forced to accept because of legal segregation.
Greenberg soon realized that the LDF had a definite plan underlying its apparently random selection of disparate cases. The fund's ambitious goal was nothing less than the complete repudiation of Plessy v. Ferguson 163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138, 41 L. Ed. 256, the infamous 1896 Supreme Court case that established the separate-but-equal doctrine, which legitimized segregation at all levels of society.
During the 1930s and 1940s, NAACP and LDF lawyers concentrated on desegregating higher education. Greenberg was involved in important cases that allowed the integration of professional schools in Maryland, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, North and South Carolina, and many other states. The LDF then set its sights on state-supported undergraduate schools. The first big case that Greenberg handled on his own involved the integration of the University of Delaware. The LDF's assault on segregated education culminated with the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision in brown v. board of education 349 U.S. 294, 75 S. Ct. 753, 99 L. Ed. 1083, in which Greenberg was a major participant.
Greenberg and the LDF argued on behalf of African Americans in countless cases, with Greenberg appearing before the U.S. Supreme Court more than 40 times. The fund launched a full-scale effort during the 1960s and 1970s to abolish the death penalty because of its disproportionate effect on blacks. The LDF was ultimately successful, but the victory was short-lived. By the 1980s, most states that had used capital punishment before the Supreme Court outlawed it had reinstated it under new terms considered constitutionally acceptable. During the 1960s and 1970s, Greenberg also won important cases abolishing discrimination in housing, health care, employment, and public accommodations.
In 1961, when Marshall was appointed to the federal judiciary, Greenberg was named director-counsel of the LDF, a position he held until he resigned in 1984 to become a professor at Columbia Law School. During his last ten years at the LDF, he concentrated the group's energies on preventing the reversal of laws and court rulings that had finally outlawed discrimination in all forms. In 1989, Greenberg was named dean of Columbia College, a post he held until 1993, when he returned to the faculty of the law school.
Greenberg's position as one of a small number of white lawyers involved in the LDF's struggles against racial discrimination was not a point of contention until 1982, when he was asked to co-teach a course in race and legal issues at Harvard Law School. The Black Law Students Association picketed the opening of the course, protesting the use of a white lawyer to present it. Greenberg led the course as planned, although some students boycotted. He encountered similar hostility when he was slated to teach a similar course at Stanford the following year, and so he declined the Stanford position. The protests were apparently a reflection of the feelings of younger black students and lawyers that whites had no credibility to speak about the African American struggle for equality. Greenberg was unfazed by the objections.
Greenberg is a man of many and varied interests. He has written several books, including Race Relations and American Law (1959), Judicial Process and Social Change (1977), and Crusaders in the Courts: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution (1994). He also has coauthored a cookbook, Dean Cuisine, or the Liberated Man's Guide to Fine Cooking (1990), and studies Mandarin Chinese. He was married from 1950 to 1969 to Sema Ann Tanzer, and they have four children. He lives in Manhattan with Deborah M. Cole, whom he married in 1970. They have two children.
Greenberg has received numerous awards throughout his career, including the Thurgood Marshall Award from the American Bar Association in 1996. In recognition of his 50 years of defending civil and human rights, President Bill Clinton, in January 2001, awarded
Greenberg the Presidential Citizens Medal. This award honors those individuals who have performed "exemplary deeds of service" to the United States in the areas of medicine and health, education, religion, disability advocacy, government service, the environment, civil rights, and human rights. Greenberg has served as a visiting professor at more than ten American and foreign universities and has earned a number of honorary law degrees.
Greenberg, Jack. 1994. Crusaders in the Courts: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution. New York: Basic Books.