Keep moving forward on the path toward justice

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 11/14/2016, 4:16 a.m. | Updated on 11/14/2016, 4:17 a.m.
“You know, it was pretty staggering. It put an end to essentially something that the Civil War was unable to ...

Children’s Defense Fund

“You know, it was pretty staggering. It put an end to essentially something that the Civil War was unable to end.” – Legal Defense Fund attorney Jack Greenberg, describing his reaction after the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education

I was heartbroken by the recent death of Jack Greenberg, one of the last great legal links to Brown v. Board of Education and my first boss out of law school. What a privilege to work in a legal powerhouse with him, Constance Baker Motley, Derrick Bell, James Nabrit III and many other gifted and committed civil rights attorneys.

As the son of European Jewish immigrants growing up in Brooklyn and the Bronx, Greenberg learned to hate prejudice and injustice. In 1949, at age 24, he became an assistant counsel to Thurgood Marshall, the founding head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Over the next five years, he was part of Marshall’s team of extraordinary lawyers arguing the cases that led to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown that “separate but equal” public schools were unconstitutional.

When Marshall was named to the federal bench in 1961, he chose Greenberg to succeed him as head of what had become simply the Legal Defense Fund. Greenberg spent the next 23 years fighting and winning a number of key court decisions, including rulings on school desegregation, employment discrimination and voting rights.

Julius Chambers, who later succeeded Greenberg, and I were lucky enough to be the first two LDF Lehman Fellowship interns – new lawyers who wanted to practice in the South after a year of training with LDF’s extraordinary lawyers. I headed off to Jackson, Mississippi, to set up a “legal factory” to handle the many cases generated by hundreds of civil rights arrests during the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer. Julius opened a civil rights practice in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Years later, Greenberg explained that the courts had to become a crucial instrument in finishing some of the unfinished business of the Civil War and Reconstruction because the original legal protections offered to Black citizens had never been honored, including the critical right to vote, “Blacks couldn’t vote in the South … Southern states engaged in all kinds of stratagems to keep Blacks out. So there was absolutely no political power. It was impossible even to pass an anti-lynching bill. There was talk about armed revolution, but that would be suicidal. And so the only place to turn was the courts.”

And the courts still are – in the South and North – the only means of stopping large-scale voter suppression methods today from Ohio to North Carolina.

The landmark court victories of the Civil Rights era changed our nation forever. Yet we are once again facing a future where millions of America’s children of color still have separate and unequal chances during their early years of greatest brain development and in their school classrooms. As the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights explains, “It took ten years after Brown, but beginning with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the nation committed to desegregation and it worked. Courts and executive agencies consistently supported desegregation plans and from 1968 to 1988, as more schools integrated, academic achievement increased for African American students. But the legal and political tide turned against integration during the 1980s. Courts stopped ordering desegregation plans and began dismantling existing plans – both court-ordered and voluntary. Federal agencies stopped aggressive enforcement and by 1989 schools were beginning to re-segregate, reversing many of the academic gains of the previous 20 years.