Jack Greenberg, a towering figure in the American Civil Rights Movement who argued Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court and the longest tenured leader of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF), died Oct. 12 at his home in New York. He was 91.
Jack Greenberg, NAACP director-counsel of the Legal Defense and Educational fund, is seen at a news conference, Oct. 31, 1969, in New York. (AP Photo/Allen Green)
His wife, Deborah Cole Greenberg, told The New York Times her husband died after being treated for Parkinson’s disease for many years.
Since Greenberg first joined the LDF in 1949, as a 24-year-old Columbia Law School graduate, , he has been at the forefront of civil rights struggles in the courts.
Sherrilyn Ifill, current president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF)
Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF’s current president and director-counsel, hailed Greenberg as a key architect of modern civil rights law.
“Few understand how powerfully Jack Greenberg shaped the practice of civil rights law and the breadth of his contributions to our modern conception of equal opportunity and justice,” she said.
Greenberg was part of a legal team assembled to fight Jim Crow by the legendary Thurgood Marshall, the founding director-counsel of the LDF. At 27, Greenberg was among the team who argued the Brown cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Then, after serving as an assistant counsel from 1949 to 1961, Greenberg succeeded Marshall as director-counsel of the LDF after the latter joined the federal bench on his way to becoming the first African-American justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Greenberg would stay at LDF’s helm for 23 years. During his time at the organization, he argued 40 cases before the Supreme Court. In addition to Brown, he presented arguments in Meredith v. Fair in 1961, which resulted in James Meredith’s integration of the University of Mississippi. In 1972, he also accomplished a major feat in Furman v. Georgia in which the Supreme Court held that the death penalty violated the “cruel and unusual punishment” clause of the Eighth Amendment, leading to a moratorium on capital punishment for four years.
Following passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Greenberg ensured LDF would help frame employment discrimination litigation by filing hundreds of cases. He also represented Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 when he was jailed after an anti-segregation march. The incident resulting in his penning of “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), right, is seen at a luncheon of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York with NAACP counsel and director of the fund, Jack Greenberg, seated at left, May 15, 1969. With them is the Rev. M. Moran Weston, a member of the board of directors. (Tony Camerano/AP
“He learned quickly that change would not come overnight – that it would take many generations, more court cases, and nationwide movements to even begin realizing the dream of civil rights for all Americans,” President Barack Obama said in a tribute. He added, “But Jack’s calm temperament and intellectual approach to moral arguments perfectly suited him for the fight; he knew, after all, that history was on his side.”
In 1984, Greenberg left the LDF and became a professor of law at Columbia, retiring last year.
Greenberg was born Dec. 22, 1924, to Max Greenberg, a Polish immigrant and certified public accountant, and the former Bertha Rosenberg, who was born in Romania, according to the Times. He grew up in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
He served in the Navy during World War II at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and later obtained bachelor’s and law degrees from Columbia.
In 2001, he was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by President Bill Clinton.
A memorial service in Greenberg’s honor will be held on Dec. 5 at St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University in New York.