[A photograph of a young Jack Greenberg, found on the Smithsonian’s educational website http://americanhistory.si.edu/brown/history/5-decision/challengers.html]
Where to start with Jack Greenberg? Greenberg served as the second Director-Counsel — after none other than Thurgood Marshall — of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) from 1961 to 1984. The NAACP LDF was founded in 1940 with the mission of “achiev[ing] racial justice, equality, and an inclusive society” under the leadership of Thurgood Marshall.
Greenberg was born to a Jewish family in the Bensonhurst neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York in 1924. At the age of twenty-four in 1949, he joined LDF, initially because Marshall needed an assistant well-versed in American law to help him fight the legal, state-sanctioned system of Jim Crow in the United States. At the age of twenty-seven, Greenberg became the youngest lawyer who brought one of the most important civil rights cases of the twentieth century — Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, 1954 (commonly referred to as Brown v Board) — before the Supreme Court of the United States. In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. approached Greenberg as Director-Counsel of LDF to take on cases involving the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition (SCLC). Part of his legal representation of Dr. King included representing him in Birmingham, Alabama, winning him the right to march from Selma to Montgomery. Greenberg continued to fight for the rights of Black Americans for decades, being integral to “landmark legal cases” in relation to employment, education, housing, and voter registration during the 1960s and 1970s. Some of these cases include Meredith v Fair, 1961 (the integration of the University of Mississippi) and Griggs v Duke Power Company, 1971 (employment discrimination). Greenberg retired from LDF in 1984, later serving as dean of Columbia College.
Greenberg’s activism is, however, important to contextualize within broader histories of racialized oppression in the United States and the solidarity between non-Black Jewish Americans and Black Americans.* As noted in the freely accessible LDF @ 70 document published by the NAACP LDF, “Greenberg saw a resemblance between anti-Semitism and black oppression in the United States. Raised in a family committed to fairness and justice, Greenberg became part of the black world of the Civil Rights Movement.” Greenberg’s work in the Civil Rights Movement is representative of the important coalitions that have historically existed between two (often overlapping) groups of marginalized and oppressed peoples in the United States: Jewish Americans and Black Americans. The solidarities formed are much longer, and much older, than can properly be explained here, but it is nonetheless important to recognize them as interlocking histories of injustice and resistance.
By highlighting Greenberg today, we do not intend on decentering the Black Americans that fought valiantly during the Civil Rights Movement (and continue to fight today in the Black Lives Matter Movement, for example). We wish to instead highlight people like Greenberg who were not Black but dedicated their lives to the fight for the rights of Black Americans. The experiences of Greenberg’s own community in relation to anti-Semitism in part spurred him to fight for the civil rights of Black Americans, and he should continue to be a shining example for those of us who wish to stand in solidarity with Black folks who are struggling against systematic oppression today.
* It is important to make this distinction, as often times Black Jews are completely erased from histories of anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism, and the fight against these injustices, in the United States. This erasure of Black Jews from modern American history is not something that we at Historical Hotties Blog want to perpetuate, and therefore feel it necessary to address.
Greenberg, Jack. Crusaders in the Courts: How a Dedicated Band of Lawyers Fought for the Civil Rights Revolution. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
LDF. “History.” Accessed January 21, 2016. http://www.naacpldf.org/history.
LDF. LDF @ 70 Defend, Educate, Empower: 70 Years Fulfilling the Promise of Equality. 2010. http://www.naacpldf.org/files/publications/ldf@70_0.pdf.